Has The Rise of Deebo & Cordarrelle Further Devalued The Running Back Position?
By Andy Davies
The NFL offseason has been a crazy one, with some blockbuster trades. We have seen big name quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive and defensive linemen secure big moves. However, we have not seen this with the running back position.
This is a position that was once seen as integral to the offense, with the likes of Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith global superstars at their peak. Later on, you had the likes of LaDanian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson being the focus of their offense for more than a decade. But fast forward to today, and it is very rare you will see a running back drafted in the top ten or fifteen selections.
So why is there no market for the position anymore? Let’s look at how the position has devalued:
Free Agency Comparisons
Leonard Fournette has been the biggest headline running back signing, inking a $21 million deal to re-sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he is the only running back to command a contract total worth more than $12 million.
Fournette has had a good NFL career, with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 31 career touchdowns in the regular season. He also developed the nickname ‘Playoff Lenny’ after his excellent performances during Tampa Bay’s run to the Super Bowl in January 2021.
Meanwhile, Christian Kirk – an average receiver across the first five years of his NFL career – signed a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars potentially rising to $84 million. When you compare the statistical output of the two, and what their roles have contributed to their respective teams, Kirk doesn’t come close to making the same impact as Fournette has the past two seasons.
With the wide receiver market as high as it has ever been, this is a big indication as to how the running back position has comparatively devalued in recent years.
Decline & Injury
It was only three years ago when Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot signed a six-year, $90 million deal. This was off the back of a brilliant first three seasons in the league, that included two 1,000-yard seasons, with the other seeing him post 983 yards.
He also had 28 rushing touchdowns in those first three campaigns Since then, he racked up 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2019, 979 yards & 6 touchdowns in 2020, and then 1,002 yards & 10 touchdowns in 2021. These stats may suggest a good stretch, but Elliot’s performances have declined:
As you can see by this table, this shows the deterioration of Zeke’s performances. He is not the only back to be paid and then struggle to perform; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year extension worth a total of $64 million In April 2020. Prior to the contract, he played in all 16 games for two straight seasons, rushing for 1,000 yards in both. In 2019 he had over 1,000 yards rushing and over 1,000 yards receiving.
At the time, the new deal seemed a no brainer. However, McCaffrey has been unable to suit up for 16 games across the two campaigns that have followed (3 in 2020, and 7 in 2021). There were rumours going around that they may be open to the idea of trading away McCaffrey before his recent contract restructure, something that seemed a distant possibility 12 months ago for the most common first overall pick in fantasy drafts.
Todd Gurley is another example. In July 2018, he agreed to a four-year $60 million extension, with $45 million of that guaranteed. He had 1,000 or more rushing yards in three of his first four seasons after being drafted tenth overall in 2015. However, the playoff run to Super Bowl 53 raised questions over his health, with just 30 yards across three postseason games. His performances declined and he was soon shipped to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2020 offseason. He was one and done with The Dirty Birds, and has not had a team since.
Derrick Henry has been fantastic these past few seasons but there will undoubtably be concerns over whether he will fall into the same trap as McCaffrey and Gurley. These big-name players all struggling to stay healthy is a major factor in the lack of a running back market this year.
The Rise Of The 'Swiss Army Knife'
Another factor in the decline of the running back has been a result of the introduction of dual threat receivers, who can both catch and run. McCaffrey set the mark for running backs, but we have seen The San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel be used in a self-proclaimed ‘Wide Back’ role.
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson spent a lot of his time prior to 2021 as a return specialist, but Falcons head coach Arthur Smith found him more touches in the backfield, a role in which he thrived. In a salary cap league with a limited number of roster spots, it helps to pay one player to do two roles…
With more college-style offenses being brought into the NFL, and in what is a copycat league, wide receivers who can also be running backs will continue to become more fashionable – and that is not good for the running back position. Positional definition has been blurring lines for the last decade; tight ends & wide receivers, slot corners and safeties, hybrid linebackers etc – teams are looking for versatility and flexibility. And workhorse running backs with little value in the passing game will continue to pay the price.
Overall, it is a worrying time for running backs, as no matter how productive they may be, they are unlikely to see big second contract payments in the current climate. NFL Draft RB prospects should prepare to wait until day two at the earliest to hear their name called as the position undoubtedly continues through it’s darkest age.
A current Sports Journalism masters student, Andy has been writing NFL articles since January 2020. Originally from Wales, Andy also writes for pro football mania and dolphins talk, as well as appearing on podcasts and videos for euro tripz. find him on twitter @andydaviessport.