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Running downhill: The slow but sure death of the NFL running back

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As parents and coaches start to take notice of trends in the pros, fewer and fewer young players will want to take handoffs anymore.

"where did i go wrong?"
"where did i go wrong?"
Kevin C. Cox

In 1984, there was only one running back selected in the first round. The Buffalo Bills selected Greg Bell out of Notre Dame with the 26th overall pick. Bell would be the only running back in his class to make a Pro Bowl (and back then they had 12 Rounds a Draft starring Chiwetel Ejiofor) and he rushed for 1,100 yards as a rookie. There were also no quarterbacks taken in the first round and that hadn't happened in over a decade.

The first overall pick was Irving Fryar, a wide receiver. A linebacker went third overall and another wide receiver at four. How could the '84 draft be so weird?

Well, all of the good players signed with the USFL or CFL. So while the regular NFL draft looks terrible (not a single player out of 336 names wound up in the Hall of Fame) the supplemental draft included Steve Young, Reggie White, and Hall of Fame tackle Gary Zimmerman. The first round of the supplemental draft included three running backs -- Mike Rozier (who made two Pro Bowls), Kevin Mack (two Pro Bowls), and Buford Jordan -- and that fell in line with what we had come to expect with running backs and NFL drafts:

They were highly sought after, regarded almost as important as a franchise quarterback, and would cost beaucoup bucks. There wasn't necessarily a thought of "well we can replace this guy with a third round pick next year" when it came to backs, and that is sort of what people have come to expect in 2014. Most people believe that most backs are a product of a system, and while that's not necessarily false entirely, it's also not entirely true. We've seen bad running backs (Hello, Trent Richardson) and we've seen bad systems. We've seen special running backs (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch) and incredible systems.

We've also seen a record number of pass attempts and a dramatic decrease in "1000-yard running backs."

What we haven't seen much of is running backs drafted high in the first round and running backs being paid much, relatively, for their services. Top names have recently been discarded as replaceable and ended up signing small deals that would've seemed unbelievable a few years ago. That's crazy when you consider what it used to mean in the NFL to be an elite running back, but for the first time in football history, now might be a terrible time to teach your kids to take handoffs.

And for that reason, we might also see a departure of talent from the position as well over the next 5-10 years and onward. Why would any parent in their right mind want to coach someone to be the next Darren McFadden or Maurice Jones-Drew if they might be able to teach them to be the next Darrelle Revis or Kam Chancellor? In fact, if  you wanted to see an example of that coming up in the draft right now, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is being regarded as a early first round pick, but the former running back may not have even been much of a draft prospect if he stayed on offense. (At 6'4, Barr was never really going to be a running back in the NFL, but his switch to the other side of the ball was also a wise and lucrative decision.) As a running back, Barr would've never been a first round pick.

So few running backs are anymore.

Other examples would include defensive tackle Chris Whaley of Texas; Originally one of the top running back prospects in the state, Whaley bulked up and is going to play DT in the NFL. Safety Jeff Lewis at Wisconsin also switched away from RB. Indiana's Damon Graham went from the backfield to defensive back.

Sean Smith of the Chiefs was a running back as a freshman at Utah, and now he's entering his sixth season in the league as a cornerback.

Most of these players fought their coaches when they were asked to move to the other side of the ball, and why wouldn't they? It's a blow to their ego (most weren't succeeding when they were moved) and it means that they won't have nearly as many opportunities to score touchdowns. But eventually this is going to change.

Eventually their heroes won't be Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. The new heroes are Richard Sherman, Troy Polamalu, and Darrelle Revis. And that's also where the dollar signs are.

At, you'll see only 11 running backs with an APY over $5 million, including Richardson and his rookie contract that's fully-guaranteed because he was a first round pick. Other than Richardson, only three players have received a $20 million+ guarantee. Peterson's total value is almost double what LeSean McCoy got from the Philadelphia Eagles, and that's the second-biggest contract at the position.

There are 25 cornerbacks making at least $5 million APY. Even though only two CBs have a $20 million guarantee, a young player, parent, or agent must ask themselves if they'd rather be in the group where 11 players are getting a >$5 million APY, or where 25 players are. If running backs do get more guaranteed, it's only because their agents know how often they get injured and how unlikely it is that they'll get a big second contract.

A couple of years ago Maurice Jones-Drew was unhappy with his deal with the Jaguars and held out. Eventually he came back to the team and would wait to hit free agency until he got paid. Unfortunately, 2011's leading rusher got injured in 2012 and played poorly in 2013. He signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal to backup Darren McFadden on the Raiders.

McFadden hit free agency too, and signed a one-year, $4 million deal to stay in Oakland. If he plays well, they'll likely try to sign him to a three-year deal and release Jones-Drew without owing him another penny. If Jones-Drew plays better, they'll let McFadden walk and pay Jones-Drew a pittance to stay in 2015. There's no reason for the Raiders, or any team for that matter, to give a big-money deal to any running back.

You hear that: Even the Raiders have wised up!

Knowshon Moreno had almost 1,600 total yards and 10 touchdowns for a team that went to (and got their asses whooped in) the Super Bowl, and signed a one-year, $3 million deal. He's only 26-years-old. He was also a highly-drafted running back and that might be rare to see ever again.

Bell and the 1984 draft are an exception only because of the USFL supplemental draft that snatched up most of the great prospects. In 1983, three backs were taken in the top eight (Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner, Michael Haddix) and Gary Anderson went 20th. In '82, there were seven taken in the first round. In '81, two of the top three picks were running backs.

Since 1980, there have been 25 running backs drafted in the top five selections. The most recent are Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Cedric Benson.

Did any of those names inspire confidence?

There aren't expected to be any running backs drafted in the first round this year. There were no running backs taken in the first round last year either. There were three running backs drafted in the first round in 2012, but Richardson (third overall) has already been traded by his former team, and the other two (Doug Martin, David Wilson) were the last two picks of the first round. There was only one running back taken in the first round in 2011 (Mark Ingram, 28th overall) and we've slowly but surely been heading in this direction for quite some time.

Though there will always been "incredible athlete!" exceptions, typically it was starting to become a couple of high-profile names and then other guys falling in later in the first round. In 2010 it was C.J. Spiller (incredible athlete) at ninth overall, then Ryan Mathews at 12, then Jahvid Best at 30. In 2009, Knowshon Moreno was 12th overall, then Donald Brown and Beanie Wells went 27th and 31st, respectively.

Are you starting to see a pattern? No, not just the pattern where fewer and fewer running backs are higher picks. The pattern where most of these players suck. In the last nine years, only once have we seen the highest-drafted running back also have the most yards in his class -- Adrian Peterson, seventh overall in 2007.

At this point, drafting a running back in the first round is basically seen as a waste of your pick. Teams have collectively decided to move back the value of a good running back to the second and third rounds. We do still see a run at the position later on (last year, we saw five players -- including Christine Michael -- go in the second round) but no teams want to make that first round commitment.

So what are the cons of being a running back right now?

- Higher chance of injury

- More work (and more hits taken) on game day

- Less pay

- Lower draft value

- Likelier to be replaced with a low-round pick

- Fewer touches in a passing league

- Less respect

- You ruined my fantasy team!

Pros of being a running back

- Maybe there's the one-in-500 chance you're Marshawn Lynch or Adrian Peterson

- But you're not.

Where do I sign up*?!

*As far as we know, there might literally be a place to sign-up to be an NFL running back in five years at the league minimum salary because who cares anymore.

Rather than draft a great running back and then hope he can perform behind a mediocre offensive line, teams are increasing their investment in offensive lineman and putting "just about anyone" back there, hoping for the same results. Last year we saw three tackles go in the top four, and then two guards(!) go in the top 10. The Chargers then took tackle D.J. Fluker with the 11th pick, while the Giants, Bears, and Cowboys also picked up offensive lineman soon after.

This year is considered to be one of the most talented drafts of recent memory, with quarterbacks and pass-rushers galore, and still we may say four guards go in the first round: David Yankey, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Joel Bitonio, and Zack Martin. (Some may be tackles at the NFL level, but just the mere prospect that they could be guards is enough to make it unusual based on what we had come to expect.) And that's only after three tackles are going to be drafted.

A handful of running backs may go in the second round, led by Tre Mason of Auburn and Bishop Sankey of Washington, but nobody is expecting them to hear their names on day one. Unless Mel Kiper says, "Here comes (team X) and we know for certain they aren't taking Bishop Sankey!"

Or something else that will make us hate Mel Kiper way more than we actually should.

Last year I wrote about MC Hammer and the evolution of black quarterbacks, and the basic takeaway from that was that once a young generation of football players saw that Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon and Michael Vick could play quarterback at the next level, they stopped switching themselves off of the position to wide receiver or tight end or safety. Plus, high school and college football coaches started realizing that maybe they shouldn't move their best athletes away from the most important position.

When you look at the NFL today, what looks like a more important position: Running back or cornerback? If you look at the Seahawks you'll be both reassured and confused because they are a team that happens to have elite talent at both of those positions, but the vast majority of teams are pushing more and more value to the passing game. That means that you'll want your best athletes to either be at wide receiver, quarterback, pass protection on offense, or secondary and pass-rush on defense.

What was once maybe the second-most important position on the field is now way down the list of priorities. It's just the natural progression of things. And eventually "being the top running back recruit in the country" will also seem like a waste.

This article here might unfortunately be on Bleacher Report, but it turns out another guy just had the same idea that I did. Even though our conclusions might be different (spoiler alert) he does raise some interesting points.

Leonard Fournette is a name that you'll hear a lot of over the next three years. He's the top recruit of the 2014 class and he's had a scholarship offer from LSU since he was a freshman in high school. Fournette is probably going to even be among the favorites to win a Heisman Trophy next year and he's never even played a down yet. So why would you ever move Fournette to a different position?

You almost certainly wouldn't; it's called an "exception."

Fournette has the best shot in the country to be the next Peterson. If all goes to plan, he'll be a top 10 pick and a featured back on an offense that still runs in the ball in 2017. (It's important to note that high school recruiting rankings are often silly in retrospect and that Joe McKnight was once the top recruit in the nation as a running back.) But there are plenty more current running back prospects that will eventually make a position switch, and we are also only at the beginning of this new era.

Right now there are still a ton of players coming out of high school as running backs without really knowing if the position is really dying. But parents will start to notice and little Tyler or little Mark or little Lemonjello won't be playing running back anymore. They'll be quarterbacks or defensive backs or safeties. I mean, most players play two ways in high school anyway, but a lot more will start to tell college coaches that they don't want to be recruited at a position that doesn't offer as lucrative or as safe of a future.

Players don't want to be "running backs" as much as they want to be first round picks. Or stars. Or rich.

Moreno and McFadden are young running backs that just signed one-year deals. Champ Bailey is 35 and just signed a two-year deal. Moreno and McFadden will make an average of $3.5 million next season, Revis basically signed a one-year deal and will make $11.5 million.

Which sounds like a better idea to you?

Sorry George Orwell fans, but it''s not 1984 anymore.