On July 29, 2006, the New Orleans Saints signed their rookie running back, Reggie Bush, to a five-year, $62 million contract. This made Bush the highest-paid rookie running back in NFL history. Bush was the first running back drafted in the 2006 NFL draft and was the No. 2 selection overall.
Fast-forward eight years now and the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL draft was Bishop Sankey at No. 54 overall by the Tennessee Titans. This was the longest it has taken a running back to be drafted in NFL history.
— Robert Raiola, CPA (@SportsTaxMan) May 10, 2014
This is the second year in a row that a running back has not been drafted in the first round, and these are the only two years that it has ever been the case.
The Titans parted ways with Chris Johnson three years after signing him to a four-year, $53.5 million deal. Their newest running back will likely be playing for less than one-tenth of that.
The value of the running back is plummeting, and it is due to the tremendous value that has been placed on the passing game.
Since Peyton Manning is one of the leading passers in the NFL today we will use him as the milestone. In 1998, Manning was the first pick in the NFL draft. In the 16 drafts that followed, a quarterback was selected with the No. 1 overall pick 11 times. Three of the top picks, including this past year, were for defensive ends, also known as the guys who stop the quarterback. The other two picks were used for offensive tackles, also known as the guys who protect the quarterback.
The last time a running back was selected as the first overall pick was in 1995. The 19 years that have passed is the longest stretch a running back has not been the top pick in NFL history.
Moral of the story is that the tides are changing in the NFL. In the 1960s, running backs went first overall seven times, quarterback only three times.
Despite the drought, however, the real value of a running back has not drastically fallen until recent years. I took the top 40 running backs of 2013, 2008 and 2003 to try to find out if running backs have gradually played worse, or if they are just not getting paid.
In 2003, running backs in the NFL averaged 1,015 rushing yards per season. In 2008, that number had declined to 948, and last year, it had dropped to 872. The decline in yards was a result in a decline in carries. Running backs in 2013 carried the ball an average of 15 fewer times in 2008 and 28 fewer times than in 2003. Yards per carry dropped by exactly 0.5 yards between each time period as well.
If you do not want to go by the averages of 40 running backs each year, we can just look at the top rushers. If the running backs from 2013 played in 2003, LeSean McCoy would be the only 2013 rusher in the top 10 in rushing yards. In 2013, the top running backs in rushing touchdowns were Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles with 12 apiece. In 2003, Priest Holmes was the leading touchdown scorer with 27.
During this search, however, a glimmer of hope was found. Just because the contractual value of running backs has gone down as well as their number of touches, it does not mean that the need for them has actually gone away.
In 2013, six of the top 10 running backs were on playoff teams—including Marshawn Lynch, who was a vital part of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks. Two of the other running backs played for contenders who were one win out of the playoffs, and the other two were from teams that were in the playoffs just one season prior.
When every top rusher is on a contending team it shows that a ground-and-pound offense is still a viable option in the league, regardless of how much money the players are making.