Recent Trends Show Exactly Why NFL Teams Should Never Overpay Running Backs

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 20, 2020

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley II carries against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Rams announced Todd Gurley II's release Thursday, and the move is an indictment of the entire running back position. 

A contractual deadline spurred his release because $10.5 million of Gurley's 2020 salary-cap number would have become fully guaranteed Friday. The Rams organization made a massive mistake by paying Gurley so early in his career, and the team rectified the situation by moving on from its former feature back. 

As a whole, the "running backs don't matter" crowd is reveling in the news so far this offseason. 

Gurley is the focal point right now despite quickly signing with the Atlanta Falcons on a one-year deal, according to ESPN's Jordan Schultz, because the tapestry of highly paid running backs isn't looking good.

The Arizona Cardinals dumped David Johnson onto the Houston Texans in the ridiculous DeAndre Hopkins trade. The Atlanta Falcons released Devonta Freeman after making him the league's highest-paid running back prior to the 2017 campaign. Last year, the New York Jets made Le'Veon Bell the league's second-highest-paid running back behind Gurley, only to see Bell post or tie career lows in average yards per attempt (3.2) and rushing touchdowns (three). 

The argument against investing heavily in a running back is simple: The position's relatively short shelf life in relation to its actual value in a pass-first league lowers its importance. 

A hierarchy exists among positions. Quarterbacks trump all. Fullbacks are stuck at the bottom (let's not count specialists since they're required on all teams). Running backs are much closer to their near-extinct backfield brethren than the superstars who hand them the ball. 

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Generally speaking, four positions—quarterback, left tackle, edge-rusher and cornerbackcreate the most demand. The perception of these positions has shifted slightly as the game has evolved. Right tackles, a third defensive back to cover the slot and defensive tackles—who consistently collapse the pocket—have grown exponentially in value.

But the premise remains the same: Those positions either help the passing game, protect the passer or help shut down the passing game. 

What's the common denominator? The NFL is a passing league. 

Even the Baltimore Ravens—who set the all-time record for team rushing yards and had a quarterback who destroyed the position's record for rushing yards—ran the ball only 56 percent of the time, and Lamar Jackson accounted for nearly 30 percent of those carries. No other team eclipsed 50 percent. 

Running backs aren't completely devalued, but those previously mentioned are warning signs.

Gurley continues to deal with knee issues. Johnson didn't produce to his previous levels after signing his mega-extension. Freeman dealt with multiple maladies. Ball-carriers take a beating—which has long-term ramifications. 

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

A franchise should expect it got the best of a running back early in his career. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, including Frank Gore—who has shown longevity at age 36—and Ezekiel Elliott, who finished top-four in rushing yardage after the Cowboys made him the highest-paid running back.

But indications are teams no longer need workhorses to operate successful offenses.

The Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns have serious decisions to make in the coming years regarding Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb, respectively.

The Tennessee Titans are already working their way through this conundrum after Derrick Henry led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards and carried the team to an AFC Championship Game appearance in 2019. They slapped the franchise tag on their herculean runner. 

"Zeke number is the floor," Henry said of his asking price during a January interview on The Rich Eisen Show

Elliott surpassed Gurley as the top-paid ball-carrier when he signed a six-year, $90 million deal in September. Henry won't come anywhere close to that number under the franchise tagwhich is set at $10.3 million for the 2020 campaign, per The MMQB's Albert Breer

The running back market, as a whole, is soft.

Melvin Gordon III, who is the top unrestricted free agent, hasn't received "anything remotely close" to last year's extension offer from the Los Angeles Chargers, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith). Garafolo added the offer was around $10 million annually. 

Eventually, both Henry and Gordon will get paid, but the days of Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders dominating the league and dictating offensive football preferences are long gone. 

Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

Teams often cite a balanced offense as the best reason for investing in the running back position. Even that viewpoint has evolved. Today's game isn't a 50-50 split between running and throwing the ball. A balanced offense means getting the ball into the hands of playmakers. Those can be outside receivers, slot receivers, tight ends, running backs or even a fullback. 

The San Francisco 49ers are the perfect example. They have a dominant rushing attack that relies on a running back rotation while taking advantage of mismatches with George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk is the league's highest-paid fullback, while the 49ers plan to extend Kittle this offseason, according to Garafolo, and will likely make him the NFL's highest-paid tight end. 

San Francisco's top three rushersRaheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman—carried a combined $6.2 million salary-cap hit last season. Juszczyk had a $5.9 million salary-cap hit by himself. 

Joe Woods served as the 49ers defensive backs coach last season. He'll now call the defensive plays for the Browns under new head coach Kevin Stefanski. Woods saw Kyle Shanahan's offense every day. He practiced against the best-devised ground game in the league.

Yet, he places an emphasis on stopping the pass, not the run, first. When asked about the key positions within his scheme, Woods said, "Rushers and cover guys," per cleveland.com's Scott Patsko

When most players and coaches start the game, they're taught that stopping the run is a defender's first priority, and that continues through the ranks. To this day, there's an old-school mentality that the running game must be established for the play-action passing game to work. 

"We have an ever-growing body of evidence that teams don't need to run oftenor run wellto set up play action," Football Outsiders' Ben Baldwin wrote. "Play action works for teams that run frequently, infrequently, well, or poorly. For the vast majority of teams, it just works."

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The fact that a play-action passing game remains effective even when an offense can't effectively run the ball stems, ironically, from the old-school mentality. A defender's keys are initially based on stopping the run. As such, he'll almost always take a read step during play action, thus creating an offensive advantage—no matter how well the unit previously ran the ball. 

But some coaches, like Woods and Bill Belichick, are now taking a back-to-front approach to defensive game-planning. 

The Kansas City Chiefs allowed the fourth-most yards per carry (4.9) yet won the Super Bowl. Five of the league's playoff teams—including the 49ers, whom the Chiefs faced in Super Bowl LIV—finished in the bottom 10 in that category. 

Elite running backs must reassess their value and where their leverage exists, and it's not in the ground game. McCaffrey's approach to his contract will lay the groundwork for running backs who want to be viewed as offensive weapons. 

"Two sources say his camp will focus more on his versatility, particularly his abilities in the passing game," The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue and Joseph Person reported. 

In 2019, McCaffrey became only the third running back in NFL history to post a 1,000-1,000 campaign as a rusher and receiver, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig. Barkley has a chance to be a big part of the Giants' passing attack in order to elevate his value once his rookie contract expires. 

Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

But backs like Chubb, Cook and Fournette won't have the same market. All of them are capable targets out of the backfield. However, their skill sets as receivers aren't on par with players like McCaffrey, Barkley and Alvin Kamara. 

Even the more versatile options have to deal with the pounding they receive as lead backs. Barkley, for example, missed three games last season with a high-ankle sprain. 

A significant investment in the position is far too risky even if the player is an outstanding talent. Organizations shouldn't use a valuable early draft asset to select a running back. They can avoid compounding the mistake by signing those same individuals to long-term extensions. 

The smart approach is to value running backs as the replaceable parts they are in most offenses. Teams can then allocate significant portions of the salary cap toward premium positions best suited for today's game. 

Gurley can't be blamed for accepting the four-year, $60 million contract or for his subsequent knee problems. But he'll be pointed to every time a franchise considers the idea of paying a running back premium dollars.

                                     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

            

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