As NFL offenses continue to evolve and become more dynamic, there is more expected out of running backs and slot receivers. Twenty years ago, there wouldn't even have been a discussion as to which position is more important, as running backs would have won by a landslide.
However, in today's NFL, a successful offense needs quality slot receivers and running backs. The case certainly can be made for both positions as extremely important, but only one position can truly be the most important.
Today, we'll take an in-depth look at both positions to determine which position is more important in the NFL.
The Case for Slot Receivers
As the NFL shifts toward more of a pass-first offensive league, slot receivers have seen a major boost in their value. From being more sought after in free agency and the NFL draft, slot receivers could easily be considered one of the most important positions on a roster.
Even more impressive is the deal that Victor Cruz is expected to sign soon, which, according to Sports Illustrated, is reportedly going to be worth around $9 million per year.
Slot receivers aren't just getting paid more in the offseason; they're getting selected higher in the NFL draft too. This year, we saw the St. Louis Rams make a move to draft Tavon Austin:
Not only did they use a top-10 pick on a slot receiver, but they also traded up in order to do so. A running back wasn't even drafted in the first round of this year's draft, but a slot receiver was.
One of the most important plays in this year's Super Bowl came from Jacoby Jones lined up in the slot.
He beat the coverage downfield for a 56-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco. That reception put the Baltimore Ravens up 21-3 with under two minutes left in the first half. It was also the last offensive touchdown the Ravens had in the Super Bowl (Jones opened up the second half with a 103-yard kick-return touchdown).
With each year that passes, it seems that more and more slot receivers are becoming No. 1 targets for their quarterbacks. The Green Bay Packers have Randall Cobb, and the Seattle Seahawks have Percy Harvin, on top of Welker, Amendola and Cruz.
The slot receiver is a position that continues to grow in its importance in the NFL, and it appears as if it won't be slowing down anytime soon.
The Case for Running Backs
Even as the NFL has shifted toward passing more on a gamely basis, running back is still one of the premier positions in football. In fact, according to NFL Network's NFL Top 100, the best player in the league is a running back:
While it's hard to say that running backs are more important than quarterbacks, a truly unstoppable running back like Adrian Peterson makes it a little easier.
The reality is that the really good running backs in today's NFL have the ability to make an impact both on the ground and as a receiver. Former St. Louis Rams star Marshall Faulk was the definition of a dual-threat running back.
As you can see in the chart below, during his first four years with the Rams, Faulk had a minimum of 80 receptions per season.
Faulk wasn't just a running back; he was also capable of lining up as a slot receiver to add an extra boost to the Rams offense. This type of dual-threat running back didn't die with Faulk, either.
Today, there are a handful of talented running backs who can also play slot receiver. From Ray Rice to LeSean McCoy and Reggie Bush, today's NFL doesn't lack dual-threat running backs.
Simply put, a versatile running back has the ability to add just as much to the passing game as a decent slot receiver does. However, a dominant running back also has the ability to carry his team to victory week in and week out.
As valuable as dominant slot receivers are in today's NFL, it's hard to say that they are more important than running backs. While players like Cobb, Welker, Cruz and Amendola are fantastic, they simply don't have the same major impact a top running back can have.
Most knowledgeable fans would take a dominant running back over the best slot receiver any day of the week and twice on Sunday. However, it won't be long before slot receivers become just as important, if not more important, than running backs.