The running back position in the NFL, once the crown jewel of the league, has undergone a significant transformation over the past few decades. From being the face of teams and the highest-paid players, running backs have seen their market value and respect diminish considerably. This shift is not just a matter of changing game strategies but is deeply rooted in various factors that have evolved over time.
The Rise of the Passing Game
The rationale against heavy investment in running backs is clear: their short career span, coupled with the NFL’s evolution into a pass-first league, diminishes their significance. While quarterbacks remain the most coveted players, running backs find themselves closer to the less-valued fullbacks. The game’s dynamics have shifted, emphasizing positions that either aid the passing game, protect the quarterback, or counter the passing game.
The Draft and The Short-lived Prime of Running Backs
Highly touted running backs are no longer the surefire top picks in the NFL Draft. Teams are more inclined to draft quarterbacks, pass rushers, or lockdown cornerbacks in the early rounds.
Furthermore, running backs tend to peak earlier in their careers compared to other positions. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement mandates a four-year rookie contract, often encompassing a running back’s prime years. By the time they are eligible for a new contract, many are perceived to be past their prime, leading to reduced offers.
With the knowledge that a running back’s prime years are limited, franchises are often reluctant to commit significant financial resources long-term.
The Interchangeability Factor
Gone are the days when a single bell-cow running back would carry the ball 25-30 times a game. Teams now prefer a committee approach, using multiple backs with specialized skills. This strategy not only keeps players fresh but also capitalizes on specific matchups, making it harder for defenses to prepare.
Teams have started to view running backs as interchangeable pieces. The workload once shouldered by a primary running back is now distributed among multiple players. This dispersion diminishes the perceived value of individual running backs, making it harder for them to command higher salaries.
Versatility Over Specialization
The modern NFL running back is expected to be more versatile. They’re not just ball carriers but also need to be adept at pass-catching, blocking, and sometimes even lining up as wide receivers. Pure rushers, who don’t offer much in the passing game, find it harder to secure a prominent role in today’s offenses.
Investing in the Offensive Line
There’s been a noticeable shift in teams investing more in their offensive lines. A robust offensive line can enhance both the running and passing game, providing dual benefits. The data reflects this trend, with offensive linemen’s pay doubling since 2011.
Defenses have also evolved. With faster and more athletic linebackers and safeties, it’s become increasingly challenging for running backs to break big plays consistently. The emphasis has shifted to neutralizing the passing attack, which inadvertently makes it tougher for the run game to thrive.