Throughout NFL history, the running back has been a celebrated position. Some of the most recognizable players in NFL history, such as Walter Payton, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders are running backs. However, as time as gone on, NFL teams have gotten smarter. The 2007 New England Patriots revolutionized the shotgun heavy game-plan, which is now an NFL staple. Passing the ball is just inherently more important than handing it off. Pass plays gain considerably more yardage per play, along with other advantages. With this, teams have consistently started throwing the ball more and more. The best offenses almost always coincide with the best passing attacks, and the best quarterbacks are generally on the most successful teams.
The Illusion of the NFL Running Back
Running the ball still can have its value. 12 teams had running games with positive EPAs in 2018, a great improvement from even half a decade ago. Teams will rightfully continue to run the ball, but this leads to another modern problem of media evaluation: the running back itself. The majority of success in the ground game falls on the shoulders of scheme and offensive line play. Running backs are essentially replaceable stat collectors, but the media, and some front offices, still treat them as cornerstone pieces. The New York Jets, who are well known for their fantastic front office, signed halfback Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52 million deal. The Rams decided that signing Todd Gurley to a four-year, $60 million deal was a good idea. Instead of investing in the offensive line, these teams broke the bank for their running back instead. The Rams and Jets rank 16th and 29th in rushing DVOA so far this season.
The next victim of this poor organizational strategy will most likely be the Dallas Cowboys. They breaded up Ezekiel Elliott in the off-season with a ridiculous five-year $90 million deal. Fortunately for Dallas, they have already been able to invest in their offensive line. Zeke is having arguably the best season of his career, which just so happens to correlate with his lowest workload of his career. The Cowboys offensive line is still fantastic, and their rushing DVOA ranks third in the entire NFL. However, this season has given a glimpse into what the Cowboys should have done.
Rookie running back Tony Pollard has averaged more yards per attempt and a better PFF grade than Elliott. He is making less than $1 million this season. The Cowboys are basically paying $17 million per year to get slightly better rushing production at best. In comparison, Bears superstar pass rusher Khalil Mack is making $23 million per year. Would you trade an elite run game and $6 million for a slightly worse but-still-elite run game, and one of the best pass rushers in the league?
Carolina Panthers wunderkind running back Christian McCaffrey is having a fantastic season. He is the highest-graded running back this season on PFF. His rushing DYAR is 267, first in the league. He has been a staple in ESPN’s comically bad MVP power rankings for about the entire season. ESPN isn’t known for its intelligent sports analytics, so this is not a new phenomenon. To be fair, his rushing prowess does not encompass his complete package. He is just sixth among qualifiers in rushing grade, but he is second in receiving grade for running backs. He ranked first last season and fifth in 2017. McCaffrey is a fantastic receiver. This is where he has legitimate value. PFF’s Eric Eager wrote this article highlighting how Patriots scatback James White was the most valuable running back last season, due to his receiving skills.
As far as McCaffrey goes, his 165 receiving DYAR gives him 432 total DYAR. This is a very respectable number, but it just does not compare to the best quarterbacks. Dak Prescott leads the league with 1,239 DYAR. Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson have 876 and 966 DYAR respectively. Even one of the most valuable seasons from a running back in NFL history simply does not compare to the best quarterbacks. Despite McCaffrey’s valiant efforts, the Panthers offense ranks just 19th in DVOA. The best running back in football has been unable to lead his team to even an above-average offense.
Bringing Home the Hardware
The last running back to take home MVP honors was Adrian Peterson in 2012. He had a fantastic season, with a 92.3 PFF grade and 455 DYAR. This does not mean he belonged in the MVP conversation. His receiving DYAR was in the negatives, so he added no value in the passing game. Furthermore, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning simply blew him out of the water in DYAR. The Patriots offense ranked first in DVOA and the Broncos ranked second. The Vikings offense ranked at an incredibly underwhelming 15th and was just a tick above average. The chutzpah of putting running backs in the same conversation as quarterbacks needs to end. They are arguably the least valuable position in the sport, at least of the 22 starters. They do not produce very much in the first place, and their production relies mostly on their environment.
In the 2018 NFL draft, the New York Giants had the opportunity to draft Quenton Nelson, a phenomenal offensive guard, and Nick Chubb, one of the few good running backs in the NFL at the moment. Instead, they drafted Saquon Barkley second overall and snagged guard Will Hernandez in the second round. Nelson has a 90.8 PFF grade, second among all guards. Hernandez has a 61 PFF grade, ranking a measly 33rd. The Giants got a slightly better running back and gave up a potential hall of fame offensive lineman.
These types of moves have been made so many times. The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall in 2017. Star safety Jamal Adams was drafted two picks later. Two of the best quarterbacks in the league, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, were drafted after Fournette. This is the same draft class in which effective running backs such as Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, and Tarik Cohen were drafted in the third round or later. The Jaguars wasted a fantastic opportunity to either get a franchise quarterback or a superstar defensive player, in favor of an inefficient, plodding running back.
There are plenty more examples of this in recent memory. The Cowboys made a mistake in choosing Ezekiel Elliott over Jalen Ramsey. The Browns made an awful decision in drafting Trent Richardson over future defensive stars like Luke Kuechly, Stephon Gilmore, Fletcher Cox, and many others. The Saints should have passed on Reggie Bush with their second overall pick in the 2006 draft. Bush had a decent career, but he was not more valuable than guys like D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Donte Whitner, or Haloti Ngata, to name a few. NFL teams need to stop drafting running backs with premium draft selections. They are actively making the wrong choice time and time again.
Running backs are still a key part of the game of football. What they do is incredibly entertaining, and takes a lot of skill. The way running backs move on a football field is special. The problem with their craft is that there are so many athletic running backs these days. There are so many talented ball carriers that will fall to later rounds due to a surplus in talent. It is simply the smarter decision to roll with young, cheap running backs as opposed to the superstar guys who come with a high price tag. They will produce nearly as much, and the remaining resources can be utilized to upgrade at positions that have a lower replacement threshold.