deep dive
Why the Big-Money Back Is a Vanishing Breed
deep dive

Why the Big-Money Back Is a Vanishing Breed

The position of Sayers, Smith and Sanders is now one of the least valuable in pro football. What led to the dramatic decline in the worth of running backs? Decreasing big-play potency, ever-evolving offenses and just plain cheaper alternatives

Injuries derailed the once-promising career of Darren McFadden, who just signed a paltry one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Raiders. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Injuries derailed the once-promising career of Darren McFadden, who just signed a paltry one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Raiders. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

It’s been jarring to see the depressed value of running backs in this year’s free-agent market. Take a look at the 10 biggest contracts handed out so far:

Player Team Contract Annual Average
Ben Tate Browns Two years, $7 million $3.5M
Donald Brown Chargers Three years, $10.5 million $3.5M
Toby Gerhart Jaguars Three years, $10.5 million $3.5M
Knowshon Moreno Dolphins One year, $3 million $3M
Rashad Jennings Giants Four years, $10 million $2.5M
Maurice Jones-Drew Raiders Three years, $7.5 million $2.5M
LeGarrette Blount Steelers Two years, $3.85 million $1.92M
Darren McFadden Raiders One year, $1.75 million $1.75M
James Starks Packers Two years, $3.17 million $1.59M
Peyton Hillis Giants Two years, $1.8 million $0.9M

 

The average annual salary from that group: $2.47 million. For perspective, the average annual salary from this year’s 10 biggest wide receiver free agent deals is $4.8 million.

Every fan has heard the new but rapidly aging adage: You can get a running back on the cheap in later rounds of the draft or even in rookie free agency. Leading exhibits: Alfred Morris (Washington sixth round), Arian Foster (undrafted) and Chris Ivory (undrafted). Given the way this year’s free agency has gone, some might say this adage now applies to the veteran running back market, as well.

But not so fast.

Of the NFL’s top 20 rushers last season, 13 were taken in the first or second round. Only four—Morris, Ivory, Fred Jackson and Zac Stacy—were acquired in the fifth round or later. The other three were third-rounders.

The harsh truth about this year’s free-agent running backs: None of them are particularly good. It might be the most spectacularly average collection of players you’ll ever see. The best of the bunch, Ben Tate, is a No. 2 back who runs with good downhill leverage and better “wiggle” than a typical 220-pounder. But he is not the type of game-breaker defenses fear. The second best in this group, Knowshon Moreno, is a classic jack of all trades, master of none. You can run your system with Moreno, but you can’t build any part of your system around him.

Perhaps having a resoundingly average collection of free-agent backs sheds the most revealing light on the position’s true value. According to the NFL open market, an average running back is worth just over $2 million a year. That makes running back one of the least valuable positions in pro football.

Expect decline at top of market, too

But what if the position’s value is just top heavy? Let’s go back to last season’s top 20 rushers. Based on cap numbers, their average cost in 2014 is $4.81 million. That entails a wide range of price tags, with Adrian Peterson topping out at $14.4 million and Zac Stacy and Alfred Morris bringing in the rear at around $600,000.

Some of these guys are bona fide superstars, and their contracts reflect that. Take away Marshawn Lynch ($7M) and the Seahawks offense no longer flies. Same goes for LeSean McCoy ($9.7M) and the Eagles. The Vikings pretty much cease to exist without Peterson, while the Bears and Chiefs are hugely dependent on Matt Forte ($7.9M) and Jamaal Charles ($5.23M), respectively, not just on the ground but also in the passing game.

Doug Martin and Alfred Morris are the only formidable young backs in the league right now—an indication that the running back market is indeed dipping.

These teams justifiably feel that their running backs merit significant salaries. And a big-name running back who doesn’t merit one is not kept around. (See soon-to-be ex-Titan Chris Johnson, who is due $8 million in 2014 and hasn’t been worth anything close to that since signing the contract. Johnson was poised to be released. Expect his new deal to pay somewhere around $4 million, with minimal long-term guarantees.)

The question is whether the running back market will soon decline for those at the top. We won’t know until a young star comes up for his second contract. Or, in other words, until Alfred Morris comes up for his second contract in 2016. Besides Doug Martin, Morris is the only formidable young back in the league right now—an indication that the running back market is indeed dipping.

Morris will be an interesting case study because he’s a traditional downhill grinder, not a multidimensional hybrid weapon like McCoy, Charles or Forte. Offenses are increasingly fitted more for versatile backs. Will Morris, a productive, one-dimensional back (who, in the crudest terms, could maybe be characterized as a “poor man’s Adrian Peterson”), garner big money?

The problem is that a runner like Morris is, theoretically, more valuable in his early-20s than mid-20s. The inherent wear and tear of the job is obviously to blame. If teams truly believe they can draft a back like this in the later rounds, then Morris—the poster child for this case—could be shortchanged. Cruel irony.

Lack of big plays hurts RBs

It would make sense for the running back position to depreciate. Let’s rise to 30,000 feet and look at football in its simplest terms. The object is to score points. That’s done by moving the ball downfield. Which often requires big plays. A running back who can consistently create his own big plays—like Peterson, McCoy or Charles—has value. Chris Johnson used to create his own big plays. In 2009 he led the league with an astounding 22 runs of 20 yards or more. But last season Johnson had just five such runs. And now his value has dropped.

It used to be that value came from a running back’s ability to gain a few extra yards after contact. This still holds water, but not nearly as much. A good back averages about two yards after contact. Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the league average was 1.61 and the leader was Bobby Rainey at 2.36 (his numbers were inflated by a few long runs; the second place finisher, Rashad Jennings, averaged an impressive 2.29 yards after contact).

Unable to drum up interest on the trade market, the Titans likely will release Chris Johnson, who is due to make $8 million in 2014. Johnson's yards per carry average dipped to 3.9 in 2013. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) Unable to drum up interest on the trade market, the Titans were expected to release Chris Johnson, who is due to make $8 million in 2014. Johnson's yards per carry average dipped to 3.9 in 2013. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Contrast this with receivers’ average yards after catch. Last year the NFL average was 5.88—more than 3 ½ times running backs’ average yards after contact. The Eagles led the league at 7.0.

In total, wide receivers posted 1,141 plays over 20 yards, compared to just 397 by running backs. It’s not hard to understand why. Receivers operate more in space, with fewer defenders to beat. This advantage used to be offset by the fact that it was more difficult to get receivers the ball. It still is. But with quarterback completion percentages gradually rising in spread offenses, the gap in difficulty is diminishing.

Because of the big-play threat, a star receiver can drastically impact a game by drawing double coverage or creating mismatches simply by lining up in a certain place (think of defenses quivering at the site of Calvin Johnson in the slot). This has a reverberating benefit for offenses, as the quarterback sees more defined coverage looks, other receivers draw one-on-one matchups and running backs face lighter seven-man boxes.

The running game counter to this is that a dominant running back can also impact games in similar fashion by forcing defenses to drop an eighth man in the box. Yes, but….

It used to be that great running backs were guys who could move the rock against eight-man fronts, particularly on first down. Now defenses, thanks to the increased versatility of linebackers and especially safeties, have become so sophisticated with hybrid and amoeba eight-man fronts that it’s just easier for offenses to throw against them, regardless of the down and distance. In fact, this is true even against amorphous seven-man fronts.

It’s very difficult to organize and execute run-blocking assignments when front defenders are moving around before and after the snap. It’s not like in pass-blocking, where offensive linemen react to defenders. There, the amorphous defensive fronts serve largely as a means of disguise. But in run-blocking, where offensive linemen have to be on the attack in seeking out, reaching and overpowering defenders, amorphous defensive fronts present moving targets that can compromise a play’s angles and structure.

One might then argue that, in a passing league, the criteria behind a running back’s value should merely adjust to include a greater emphasis on receiving and especially pass protection. That’s true, but only to a certain extent.

A running back almost always will be inherently less potent than an actual wide receiver when it comes to pass-catching. That’s how the running back became a running back instead of a wide receiver.

Pass-blocking helps, but not very much

Knowshon Moreno's pass-blocking skills kept him from losing his job in 2013, but did not keep him on the team after the season ended. (John Leyba/Getty Images) Knowshon Moreno's pass-blocking skills kept him from losing his job in 2013, but did not keep him on the team after the season ended. (John Leyba/Getty Images)

In pass protection, a running back aligns deep in the backfield, so his blocking assignments are inherently less demanding and valuable than those of an offensive lineman, who is up on the line and has a pugilistic engagement from the snap. Virtually all offensive protection designs aim to get their running back matched on the least-threatening pass-rusher.

The nature of pass-blocking is different from the rest of football. A pass-blocker is the only player who is tethered to a strictly reactionary duty. He cannot create anything; he can only prevent something. Really, an offense does not need a superstar pass-blocker, it just can’t have a bad one. Think about it: On a given play, in the broadest terms, a dominant pass-blocking effort produces the same outcome as an average pass-blocking effort: a clean quarterback. It’s a bad pass-blocking effort that dirties the quarterback or his pocket.

Teams that invest in stud pass-blockers are really just buying bigger insurance policies. A stud pass-blocker won’t win you a game, but he’s less likely to lose you one.

Granted, there’s a pinch (or two) of oversimplification here. Pass-blockers do not operate in vacuums. They’re faced with unique, unwieldy challenges every play. It makes sense that some offenses prefer the more expensive “insurance policy” because defenses are always trying to wreak havoc.

But let’s not lose sight from 30,000 feet. Compared to all the other elements on the field, pass-blocking is the least involved with football’s evolution. No running back will ever get a bigger contract because he’s a good pass-blocker. He might get a smaller contract because he’s a bad one, though. (Or, in the case of the aging Michael Bush, no contract at all so far.)

The market reflects this. Knowshon Moreno is an excellent pass-blocker—that’s why he unexpectedly kept second-round rookie Montee Ball on the bench this past season and sent Ronnie Hillman to the inactive list. Donald Brown, Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings are also fine pass-blockers.

Still, all of these guys signed for relatively small money because what they share beyond sound pass-blocking is a modest running ability that allows them to simply get the yards that are blocked. Most backs can do that. But not a lot of backs can consistently create their own yards. Which is why not a lot of them make big bucks.

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