How the NFL's Devaluation of the Running Back Could Impact College Football

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How the NFL's Devaluation of the Running Back Could Impact College Football
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Coming off the best season of his career—in which he finished fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage—26-year-old Knowshon Moreno hit the NFL free-agent market with momentum and in his prime.

He was greeted by resounding silence.

There were no takers on a long-term deal and interest in his services was minimal. Instead of cashing in on a bank-busting contract, Moreno settled for a one-year, $3 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, according to ESPN.com.

Settling for $3 million is something we can only dream of. And while Moreno will take home a small fortune simply by playing the game he loves, this contract served as an eye-opener: One of the most productive offensive players in the league—playing for a team that made the Super Bowl—was unable to secure work beyond a one-year commitment.

The position hasn’t necessarily changed, but its perceived value certainly has. As NFL teams line up to give out huge guarantees to offensive and defensive linemen who are by no means stars, productive backs with miles such as Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ben Tate, Darren McFadden and LeGarrette Blount are no longer prime properties.

In all, these five backs received nine years in NFL contracts valued at a combined $22.5 million. In comparison, former New York Jet offensive lineman Austin Howard—a decent, but not specular player—received a five-year, $30 million contract from the Oakland Raiders, with $11.8 million guaranteed.

Thus the devaluation of the position comes full circle, swiftly and without much warning. And as ball-carriers struggle for work at the professional level, one can’t help but wonder if this will eventually impact college football.

“I don't see this happening yet, but it will eventually,” said Matt Miller, Bleacher Report's NFL Draft Lead Writer, when asked if running backs at the college level will be impacted. “I've spoken to many of the top running backs in the 2014 draft class, and they are all amazed at how devalued their position is.”

Carlos Osorio

Such trends certainly have traceable origins. Spread offenses—and an overall stress on moving the ball through the air—have become common practice at all levels of football. The age of offense is upon us, and such scoreboard destruction typically doesn’t come through repetitive ground-and-pound.

Changes in offensive philosophy also coincide with a shrinking window of quality production. The miles accumulated over time—through Pop Warner, high school and college—seem to be taking a toll on players earlier than ever before. Perhaps it’s the increased size of the players, or the strain at the lower levels. Or, maybe we’re assuming players are running out of gas earlier than ever because that’s what this building perception tells us to think.

It’s the only job in the world where you’re considered past your prime at the ripe age of 27. And that’s where the trickle down into college (and even high school) could start to snowball.

“This is something I'm watching very closely, because it's too early to know if it's a phase or the new rule,” Miller said when talking about the impact of the position at lower levels. “I still see the best teams in the NFL running the ball a ton. That leads me to think that the NFL will still value an elite running back in the right spot, but in a draft class without an Adrian Peterson-level prospect, we aren't seeing teams overvalue or reach for a back.”

Miller sees these players at the end of their recruiting cycle when they’re already entrenched at a particular position. JC Shurburtt, the national recruiting director at 247Sports, sees these athletes at a different point in their development cycle. In many ways, it’s his job to project what their eventual NFL value will be.

Shurburtt has covered recruiting through its various phases. He’s watched position values shift over time and adjusted his evaluations accordingly. And while the perception of the running back appears to be evolving before our eyes, Shurburtt doesn’t believe such changes will be felt at the college ranks just yet.

“I don't think the talent level will change,” Shurburtt said on the position. “Coaches will still put their best players at running back at the high school level to move the football and score points. What I think could change is athletes having a better awareness of position fit moving forward and not being as concerned with the glory associated with carrying the football.”

Case in point is Michigan commit Jabrill Peppers, the No. 1 athlete in the class of 2014 and the No. 3 player overall, according to 247Sports. Peppers, at 6’1” and 205 pounds, runs a 4.4-second 40 and could be a dominant force for the Wolverines at running back.

Don’t just take my word for it. Allow an entire high school defense to show you exactly what Peppers is capable of with the ball in his hands. This came from a scrimmage in 2013.

Instead of carrying the ball 25 times a game, however, Peppers will play at cornerback in Ann Arbor where he projects out as an elite prospect. He’ll likely still get touches—perhaps on special teams or an offensive touch on occasion—but defense will be his area of focus.

In this instance, Peppers’ path is a product of his deep repertoire of talents and physical gifts. Finding that elite, shutdown corner—something many believe he will eventually become—has proven to be incredibly difficult for teams at every level. And while he could play exclusively at running back and dominate at the position, there are other players with similar physical attributes capable of carrying the ball.

“If I were a 5’9,” 190-pound high schooler with good hips and ball skills, I could be a small back in a spread system or a great cornerback with high draft value,” Shurburtt noted. “With these choices, I think I’m going cornerback.”

The choice isn’t always theirs. Coaches will oftentimes decide this path when a recruit arrives on campus for the first time. Most of the elite players in the country do spectacular things at multiple positions in high school. Determining where they’re best suited at the college level is often decided by fit, system and roster necessity.

If passing attacks continue to eat up more of the production pie, perhaps this will drive younger players to other positions. Maybe, in time, one of the most glorified positions in all of sports will lose some of its luster. We’re still a long way out from seeing this dramatic overhaul, though.

Look at Leonard Fournette, the No. 2 overall player on 247Sports in the class of 2014 and a running back many believe is the best prospect the sport has seen since Adrian Peterson.

While such lofty praise may seem excessive and early, the talent and physical makeup is there. Outside of Fournette, the 2014 running back recruiting class is loaded with potential stars.

"In 2014, we had Fournette and then a slew of outstanding backs that ranked between No. 15 and No. 50 overall nationally," Shurburtt said. "Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Elijah Hood and Roc Thomas all could have been the No. 1 running back prospect in the country in a different cycle."

There are still a surprising amount of developed 18-year-olds weighing in well over 200 pounds capable of running a sub-4.5-second 40 once they hit campus. And not all these players will suddenly flock to cornerback or safety over a recent string of unfair contracts. 

The running back situation at the college level, at least for the time being, is in very good hands.

Hopefully, NFL teams will value running backs like they once did. In the meantime, most hopeful recruits and student-athletes think the idea of $3 million for 12 months of work doesn't sound too shabby.

 

*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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