Over the past week, two hall of fame running backs, LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Westbrook, were unceremoniously dumped from their respective teams. The news barely registered a shrug from most sports fans. In fact, the biggest story of the week created by these moves was Sportscenter getting duped on live TV by a minion of Howard Stern. The moves were entirely expected.
For one, running backs seem to have an extremely short shelf life. Once they hit the age of thirty, their career paths are more predictable than an episode of "Wonder Pets."
Though running backs have basically stayed the same size throughout the years (Jim Brown played at around 230 lbs in the 60's), most other positions on the field have increased exponentially in size and speed. This fact doesn't bode well for the longevity of a running back's career.
Most running backs take a lot more punishment than they give out these days, resulting in a decline of skills. Losing just a half step in speed or quickness can often make the difference between a big game and a tackle for a loss. Consequently, it also makes the difference between having a job and waiting on a call from your agent.
A look at this past season's top 15 rushers in the NFL can give us a glimpse as to the future of the running back position. Although nine of the top 15 runners were first round picks, only four of those running backs, (Thomas Jones, Adrian Peterson, Cedric Benson, and Ricky Williams) were drafted in the top 10.
Interestingly enough, only one of these four backs, Adrian Peterson, actually played last season with the team that originally drafted him. To put that in perspective, there were more undrafted free agent running backs (Ryan Grant and Fred Jackson) in the top 15 of rushing in the NFL than there were top 10 draftees playing for their original team.
Most teams seem content to pick up a back at the bottom of the first round (Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, Rashaad Mendenhall, etc.) where the rookie salaries and signing bonuses bottom out, or the 2nd and 3rd rounds.
Unless a back thought to be truly special (such as Peterson), and teams know they can get six or seven years of pro-bowl caliber production, NFL GMs are no longer willing to spend so much money on such a quickly depreciating asset. We'll see "Cop Out" win multiple Academy Awards before we see another NFL team pull anything close to a deal resembling the Hershel Walker trade or the Ricky Williams draft any time soon.