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NFL teams not willing to put money where mouth is for running backs

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NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“The bottom line is: Is the guy a football player?” Gettleman said. “This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical. At the end of the day, if he’s a great player, he’s a great player. It doesn’t matter what position he is.”

Dave Gettleman, general manager of the New York Giants and former GM of the Carolina Panthers, finds it “comical” that there is a “myth” that running backs are losing value in the NFL.

Hi, welcome to another article where I implore you to believe that running backs are not as valuable as they once were or as some people will tell you they still are.

Funny to think of the GM of the Giants being someone who is unaware that running backs have lost value. After all, New York is a franchise that had a near-Hall of Famer at the position from 1997-2006, then transitioned to signing Brandon Jacobs to a four-year, $25 million contract in 2009. That’s basically the same contract that Lamar Miller signed with the Houston Texans in 2016, and Miller is the 6th-highest paid back in football. It’s basically the same contract that Saquon Barkley will get as a rookie (plus a fifth-year option) 10 years later and Barkley could be one of the top five backs in terms of salary.

Back to the Giants: When Jacobs disappointed, Ahmad Bradshaw stepped in and played well enough to earn a four-year, $18 million deal. (What’s that? Devaluation is a myth?) Gettleman worked in the Giants front office from 1999-2012, so he was present for all of this. Since Gettleman left for Carolina in 2013, the Giants have rotated through Andre Brown, Peyton Hillis, Jacobs (again), David Wilson, Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen, Paul Perkins, Orleans Darkwa, and Wayne Gallman. Since taking a first round swing on Wilson and missing, they’ve pulled back and deemed the fourth and fifth round as a sweet spot for running backs, not treading into day one or two territory at all.

And this trend is league-wide.

Since 2013, just five running backs have gone in the first round, an average of one per year. Those players are Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon.

In the previous five years, 15 running backs went in the first round. Teams were 1/3rd less likely to draft a running back in the first round over a five-year period than they were in the five-year period directly before it.

“This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical.”

Part of the issue was that of those 15 running backs, only six ever made a Pro Bowl. Of the six who made a Pro Bowl, you had C.J. Spiller, a true one-year wonder, Ryan Mathews, who had just two 1,000-yard seasons, and Jonathan Stewart, who had just one 1,000-yard season and it came almost a decade ago. I don’t know that I would consider any of those three players to be what I would expect from a “first round running back” save maybe for Stewart only because of longevity. And that’s still something I would expect to get on day two.

Among the remaining three is Doug Martin, who is a first round talent that has produced like a round six player littered with red flags. Martin has had two good seasons out of six. Then there’s Chris Johnson, a borderline Hall of Famer who will never get to Canton because of extreme inconsistency and lack of longevity. And perhaps the best of the bunch: Mark Ingram. Who went at the end of the first round and is arguably the guy I’m calling “the best” because he’s the only one who has much value in 2018. Ingram’s made the Pro Bowl in two of the last four years and is very good but are you not surprised that:

Out of 15 first round running backs, Mark Ingram, Chris Johnson, and Doug Martin are the gold standard?

During that same period of time, 2008-2012, the second round yielded LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, and Ray Rice. The third round gave us DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles. Rounds 4-7 produced Lamar Miller, Bilal Powell, Tim Hightower, Dion Lewis, Alfred Morris, James Starks, Peyton Hillis, Justin Forsett, and Jennings. All of whom had significantly better value than their first round counterparts, like Trent Richardson, Felix Jones, or Donald Brown.

Darren McFadden has had a fine career but it’s ultimately a career that you’d come to expect from a “workman-like back” that you pick up in round three, not the fourth overall pick.

So teams are being a lot “pickier” and the results are: Elliott, Fournette, McCaffrey, Gurley, and Gordon. That’s leading a lot to believe that this is a “running back renaissance” but still nobody would bet their life savings that any RB other than Barkley is going in the first round this year. (Unless you have no money. Unless you’re me then, I guess.) Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Ronald Jones, we’ll see, but the expected draft capital to be spent on any good running back prospect other than whoever is deemed “The next Adrian Peterson aka the next guy to have a Hall of Fame career with no Super Bowls” has been on day two.

From 2013-present, day two has produced Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, David Johnson, Derrick Henry, Tevin Coleman, and suddenly-paid Jerick McKinnon. Just outside of day two you’ll find Devonta Freeman. Then Jay Ajayi, Jordan Howard, Latavius Murray, and Mr. 2017 Alex Collins.

But most importantly of all -- because you’re already gearing up to say stuff about how “there are a lot more players to choose from after the first round” and “there are sleepers and busts at every position” and so on and so forth -- here’s what you won’t find: very many running backs who are vital. Anywhere. First round. Third round. Undrafted.

Almost all of them are fungible and the few who aren’t are either dispensable or not proving to have been the best choice for their teams when it comes to winning.

The Cowboys got an MVP candidate in Elliott, but would you not rather have Jalen Ramsey? An elite cornerback - one of the closest correlations between player value and success in today’s league - who will also likely have a much longer career and is extremely likely to spend most of it in Jacksonville? You can’t say the same about any running back.

The Jaguars went to the AFC Championship game with Leonard Fournette. But they played just as well when Fournette was out due to injury (a more common theme with running backs than with any other position) and by taking Fournette it means that they didn’t take a quarterback like Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. Perhaps in the long run those QBs won’t prove to be great, but as of 2018, I personally would much rather have Watson and T.J. Yeldon than Blake Bortles and Fournette.

The Rams won the NFC West while Gurley was having a season that reminded us of what running backs could once do. They were quickly bounced out of the playoffs and now they have one year left before his salary bumps to $9.6 million in 2019, which will put him in the top-three at the position even before his rookie contract is up. If Gurley remains productive and healthy, that’s good for him, but will LA do what the Steelers could not do with Bell and pay him $14-$18 million per year? The window is almost closed and the NFL is not willing to admit that it won’t so easily hand over cash to players at this particular position.

“Comical.”

Position does matter. And the NFL GMs have told you with their actions — not their words — that the running back position is less valuable today than it was five years ago:

Running backs, once arguably the most valuable players in football, then perhaps only falling to number two with the rapid rise of quarterbacks many decades ago, are now being paid less and drafted lower than tight ends. Thanks to guys like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and Rob Gronkowski, tight ends — once little more than a sixth offensive lineman — can give you more on the football field (blocking, receiving, nightmare mismatches) than running backs can, generally speaking.

From 2008-2012, three tight ends went in the first round: Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, and Dustin Keller, all of whom went somewhere from 20-30.

Three tight ends went in the first round last year alone, and five went in the top 45: O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Gerald Everett, and Adam Shaheen. Eric Ebron went 10th overall in 2014 and Tyler Eifert was a first rounder in 2013. The Seahawks of course traded a first round pick for a tight end in 2015.

On the market, 12 tight ends are making at least $7 million per year, compared to only four running backs who do that. Consider this: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Vernon Davis, Dion Sims, Jared Cook, and Jack Doyle all make more per year than Ingram. Doyle would be the 7th-highest paid running back at his current $6.3 million salary.

Running backs are not being treated the same as other positions, and that includes when comparing them to running backs of just five years ago.

Carries are decreasing, committees are increasing, and few guys at the position can be trusted to confuse defenses as to whether or not you’re tipping your hand pre-snap on if it’s a pass call or a run call. Ironically this is also part of the problem that the Seahawks were having with Graham and it’s no different when your running back can’t pass block. So then there’s still a lot of value in “three-down backs,” right?

Not according to the paychecks.

Bell remains the only running back to top an APY of $8.25 million (and that’s on a franchise tag in each of the last two years because the Steelers refuse to commit to a Hall of Fame-level back) and he’s not the only one who can still do-it-all. It’s just that teams see the opportunity to pay 2-3 running backs just as much as what Pittsburgh is paying Bell, and they’d keep all three fresh, reduce risk of being screwed if your top running back gets injured, and confuse defenses more than they would with just a single back.

It’s rare to see a team pay for two of the top 10-15 receivers because financially speaking, that could be $25-$30 million annually. But the New York Jets are paying Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell (I shit you not, two of the best YPC players in the NFL over the last four years) a combined $7.75 million annually. Of course I’d rather have Bell, but what if you could have those two — and still $7 million left to spend?

The New England Patriots are paying James White, Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, and Mike Gillislee a combined $12 million annually. Whenever Bell has gotten hurt, the Steelers have been finished. The Patriots don’t even really seem to care (beyond the natural inclination to feel bad for a guy) when a running back gets hurt — because Bill Belichick is never more than a single play from benching one of them forever anyway. There is nothing precious about running backs to New England and there hasn’t been for years; they are showing you all of their cards, they’re the best organization in football, and they’re saying that they think you’d be fine to sign 3-5 guys in tiers three and four and not to push in on one alone.

Of course, Gettleman does know this. The Giants have to employ running backs too.

They let Darkwa go after three seasons with the team, and Darkwa led New York with 751 yards and an impressive 4.4 yards per carry in 2017. The 26-year-old had 20 carries for 154 yards in the season finale against Washington. He ranked 24th in DYAR, 22nd in DVOA, and 19th in success rate. Playing on the worst team in the NFC, Darkwa clearly played like a starting running back and in a better situation he may even be a desirable week-to-week option.

As of 4/22/2018, he remains a free agent. The Giants didn’t bring him back. The Patriots, of course, brought him in for a visit. Nobody has signed this top-30 running back who is under 27.

Instead, Gettleman brought in his old friend Jon Stewart and is paying him $3.9 million in 2018, ranking him 16th in salary for next season. (Less than $7,000 more than what McCaffrey - Gettleman’s 8th overall pick in 2017 - will make in Carolina.) Surely Gettleman can see that almost no “starting” running backs are making more than 2-3% of the $177,000,000 salary cap for next season. And even then, Gettleman manages to fit in a small category of GMs who still believe that Stewart - or the Bills and Chris Ivory - is worth “millions” in 2018 contrary to all the evidence that it isn’t a great idea.

But is he going to be a GM who still uses a top-5 pick on a running back when the draft hits on Thursday?

I think that it is proven beyond a doubt that running backs are being devalued on the free agent market and subsequently, by their own teams before they ever hit free agency. But what about in the draft? Will Barkley get drafted by Gettleman at number two? Or the Cleveland Browns at four? I think I have a pretty good idea of where Barkley is going to go - or at least where he won’t - and that’s coming up next.