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Sympathy for the NFL running back

Is it even worth it financially to play this position anymore?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps more than any offseason in recent memory, the value of an established NFL running back has never been lower.

You’ve seen the news by now that Dalvin Cook is a free agent after the Minnesota Vikings were unable to find a trade partner to take on the tail-end of his five-year, $63 million contract. The Dallas Cowboys have already moved on from Ezekiel Elliott in the middle of his six-year, $90 million contract extension signed in 2019. Saquon Barkley may or not be hinting at a holdout as he seeks a new deal with the New York Giants. The Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs, much like Barkley, hasn’t signed his franchise tag.

I think this tweet from former agent and CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry sums it up.

Exorbitant RB contracts getting torn up early isn’t surprising, and I suspect fewer of them will be handed out moving forward. But between question marks about ever paying a running back beyond his rookie deal, coupled with the decline of Round 1 running back selections—that didn’t stop Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs getting the early call this year—underscores the harsh economic realities about being an NFL running back in 2023.

You’ve almost certainly read on this site and many others about how it’s a pass-heavy league, that running back is the most fungible skill position, is otherwise heavily reliant on offensive line play, and that the shelf lives of running backs are historically really short. It’s taken awhile but NFL front offices are now largely cognizant of this, and even the analytical push continues for further financial devaluing of the position.

Recent “don’t draft running backs in Round 1” wisdom has even turned into “don’t draft them until Round 3 at the earliest.” Seahawks fans should know this given the endless discussion over the Kenneth Walker III and Zach Charbonnet selections. This takes us into the ol’ positional value argument.

So to summarize:

  • Don’t give running backs second contracts.
  • Don’t pay them Round 1 (or even Round 2) money.

Of course, the lower in the pecking order a player gets drafted, the lower their rookie deal earnings will be. Teams benefit by saving millions at a position of declining significance. Running backs suffer financially both at the start of their career and after their rookie contract is up. Elliott’s contract in particular is Exhibit A for why eight figures per year just isn’t practical anymore.

Which raises a new question: Is this the slow eradication of the NFL running back?

This is not something we’re going to see overnight or even by the end of the decade, but unless there are salary cap/contract restructures that benefit running backs again, or the game itself evolves to the point where positional value is restored, there is minimal financial incentive to play this position.

I should clarify that running the ball isn’t going away and probably never will; why pay a running back anything when you can ask one of your wide receivers to double as an occasional running back like Deebo Samuel? Direct snaps, jet sweeps, toss plays, etc. can all be performed by wide receivers or even gadget quarterbacks. Jet “hot potato” passes and horizontal passing in the form of quick outs and bubble screens that fluster the Seahawks so much are just an extension of the run game but officially function as pass attempts. You could make the case this is actually an argument for keeping an extra wide receiver who has running back abilities. And lest we forget how many dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Allen populate the league and can thrive regardless of who’s alongside them in the backfield.

Who needs a short-yardage running back when you could have tight ends effectively play the same role? In 2022 only 18 fullbacks registered an offensive snap, compared to 39 back in 2013. With offenses more spread out and focused against the pass, fullbacks have a reduced role in the modern game. Andy Reid has already indicated that the Kansas City Chiefs will roster an extra tight end in lieu of a fullback.

Tl;dr: I can see a future where the work of a running back will be reallocated among receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks of varying ranks up and down the depth chart. This is almost certainly going to create a higher demand at those positions and it’ll have a direct impact on high school and college football players, who will naturally gravitate towards positions where their potential earnings are going to be greater.

Over at main SB Nation, James Dator had an interesting take and potential answer to the running back pay situation.

There needs to be a structure in place that can both protect the salary cap of teams when it comes to such a short-lived position in RB, but also ensures the long-term financial health of players who might only see their small, rookie-scale contract before fighting for peanuts in free agency.

The best way to do this would be to have a separate pool of money, which exists outside of the salary cap, and is earmarked for players at positions like running back. This overflow pool would allow for a top-tier RB to earn an extra $10-15M a year, without risking the financial stability of the roster as a whole.

Over time the positional impact of players could be reassessed. Let’s say in five years the league moves back to elite running backs and removes the need for safeties, for instance. Now that additional spending cap could be diverted to address another underpaid position to ensure they remain taken care of.

Nobody wants an NFL to exist where the running back position doesn’t exist. Furthermore, nobody wants to see once-bright stars compete in the NFL for a few years, and then find themselves out of the league, struggling to stretch their rookie contract money. It’s fine that football is changing tactically, but there’s a human element to this that has to be addressed.

I love the running game, I love running backs, and I root for a team that has had two of the best backs of the 21st century on its roster. I’m also not blind to the reality of the economic situation in the league, as well as the tactical and schematic shifts of the on-field product. It just sucks to see it transpire from a fan’s perspective, and at this point it feels like the best long-term solution for running backs who aspire to play in the NFL is “learn a new position before it’s too late.”