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

By
Andy Benoit
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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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26 comments
JPSmall
JPSmall

First of all, the best free agent back that was available this year was MJD. I think the 2014 season will bear that out.  


Second, the point of football is not to score points, but to score more points than your opponent. That is why RBs and a good defense were so valuable in the past. Controlling the clock with a back that can pick up first downs and stopping your opponent from doing the same meant that you didn't need to score much. 


Third, big plays are not necessary to be successful. You could argue that they are more entertaining, but that's not the same thing. Sadly, searching out big play players is the blueprint teams pursue. 


I think Seattle proved that you could have a bruising running game and great defense and DEMOLISH even the most prolific offense ever in the only game that counts. That should be bluepritnt, but it requires old-school thinking in an ADD world. 

Centennial
Centennial

I've been saying the same thing for years. Since Emmit Smith and Daryl Moose Johnston left the league, running backs have become more and more  interchangeable and disposable and increasingly irrelevant. Honestly, why tie up millions of dollars of cap in a position that even an average guy in reasonable shape could probably play reasonably well; let alone the thousands of athletically gifted kids across the country who would love to play in the league.  

jimc6137
jimc6137

Passing has become more profitable and diminished the lower risk/lower reward value of handing off to a running back that existed in the past.  I think this is mostly because an offensive lineman now has to be giving the defender the Heimlich to get a holding call when pass blocking.  Its now perfectly accepted for a tackle to wrap his arm completely around the neck of an incoming defensive lineman and its really caused defenses to have to respond by bringing more defenders in to generate an acceptable pass rush and that opens up holes in the secondary, not near the line of scrimmage.  Keeping quarterbacks from getting knocked out with regularity is an obvious NFL priority and that means the rules have adapted to make it more difficult to hit them and hence easier to complete a pass.


The risk/reward balance is a zero sum game - improving the reward/risk ratio for passing implicitly devalues running the ball.

drock36
drock36

The main reason: There many are examples of free agent running backs that out perform their higher drafted teammates-  Fred Jackson, Arian Foster.  It has also turned into a running back by committee, so  most GM's, unless they truly believe a RB a difference maker, won't pay.  

Mike26
Mike26

Considering the current landscape of RB's, I'd say it's mostly racism that is bringing down the pay level and stability of the RB position.

Bongo
Bongo

This is an interesting article, and it's a question I've been asking myself the last few weeks as we keep reading  more and more proclamations about the replace-ability of RBs.  Part of this, also, is that nowadays the average career of a RB is pretty damn short.  To my memory, this began with Terrell Davis.  He had four good or great years and then injuries ended his effectiveness.   Shaun Alexander was unstoppable for awhile and then suddenly he was done. 

Is it that the punishment is really that much more brutal than it used to be?  I know when I was a kid linemen on both sides of the ball were generally less than 300 lbs.  Now there are many D linemen who play in the middle at 350 lbs.


I agree with Picklejuice, too.  The FB is a dead or dying position, and that old idea of setting up in the I formation and sending the big guy into the hole to clear it for the RB seems to be gone.  We now have a single back or empty backfields most of the time. 


One thing, though, is I disagree about pass blocking by RBs.  It's easy to dismiss it as "you only notice it when it doesn't happen", but a RB in the backfield picking up the LB or CB streaking through the line is vitally important on many plays.  So what's the difference between "good" and "average" then?  I would argue that if the average guys are considered an asset in that regard, then really they should be considered good, or maybe "effective" is a better word.  

And of course no team wants a middling RB who can't pass block.  But if we're talking about amorphous defensive schemes, then it seems to me that a RB who is effective at pass blocking is even more important than ever.


One last point.  Big play potential for a RB, compared to a WR, is much MUCH more dependent, IMO, on the O-line and WRs picking up their assignments effectively.  No RB can create if it's him against the whole defense.  (Well, Barry Sanders did it for years in Detroit, but Barry was godly, and the greatest RB of all time, IMO).  


So maybe, as Jazzaloha says, part of the issue is that kids don't want to play RB anymore, so the better athletes are shifting to other positions.  When I played in HS, the best athletes were always the star RBs, plain and simple.  Maybe it's not that way anymore.

picklejuice
picklejuice

The decline of the RB is due to the almost elimination of the FB. You used to have the big bruiser run it up the gut Full back and the speedy finesse Running Back for hitting the edges. Now in a pass happy NFL, a running back has to be able to be a blocker for the QB. So, the fast small running backs are now the #3 slot receiver who occasionally runs reverses.

FranklinMint
FranklinMint

"Of the NFL’s top 20 rushers last season, 13 were taken in the first or second round. Only four...were acquired in the fifth round or later. The other three were third-rounders."


But then, the RB with the best yds/carry in the league (min 50 attempts) was a tie between two players drafted in the 6th rd as well (Andre Ellington and James Starks). That furthers the idea that you can get playmakers at RB in the later part of the draft.

The5wineFlu
The5wineFlu

Ben Tate's contract is actually smaller. $1mil is based on the number of games played.

Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

"But not a lot of backs can consistently create their own yards. "


And the big question is, why? Why don't we see more backs that can create yards after being hit? What's a little puzzling is the disappearance of RBs who could play the entire game. I remember hearing that the great RB actually became more effective as the game wore on, which is partly why I thought we didn't see a lot of platoon-style approach in the past. (Marshawn Lynch and AP seem to be this type of old school RB.) Is that punishment that much more severe, or are the RBs not as tough as they were in the past? 


My sense is that the shift to the passing game has lead to the better players shifting away from the RB position. The other thing is that a good running game depends on the coaches and team committing to the run. They have to build the offense around the run, and give the back carries, even when the RB isn't gaining a lot of yards. Seattle's strong running game isn't solely because of Lynch--but also Carroll's commitment to this style of play. (Something similar would apply to the Niners.) 

Michael22
Michael22

"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." 

These are two contradictory statements. If A < B, then certainty B > A, but somehow the author claims it only goes one way. If a player gets less for being a bad pass blocker, then he would get more from being a good pass blocker. Bad < Good, thus Good > Bad.

IBleedBlackandSilver
IBleedBlackandSilver

@Mike26 I normally agree with you Mike, but not necessarily on this one.  Can you substantiate this claim? 

bhayes420
bhayes420

@Mike26  That's nuts.  It's not racism.  These guys can't play!  When you can draft a guy in the 6th round and have him start for your team at a minimum salary, then you do it and cut the guy making 5 million a year.  Racism has no role in it at all.  

bhayes420
bhayes420

@Bongo  With today's offenses being run by quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Jake Locker and others with lots of mobility, the blocking HB is not as vital as it once was.  And that trend is going to continue with the coming of Manziel and others of his ilk.  

bhayes420
bhayes420

@picklejuice  I don't agree.  I think the decline of the whole of the running game is due to the tightening of the rules on the defense making it easier to play receiver and throw the ball.  Now you can't even look cross-eyed at a receiver without getting a pass interference or holding call.  It just opened the game up and evolved it from 3 yards and a cloud of dust.  If the rules are reigned back in, the running game will return.  Until then, it will remain pass happy.  

Bongo
Bongo

@Jazzaloha : I agree.  Every team used to have a star RB, and that guy took the majority of the snaps on running plays.  Now we have "3rd down backs" and specialists who are expected to line up all over the field.  A team that wants to run the ball has to commit to it.


I think also what we see in the decline of the "old school" running game, are more poorly managed late game situations.  If a team is wishy-washy about the run game, how can they rely on it to run down the clock in a close game?  Sure, a short pass is "the same thing as a hand-off", except there are far more dropped passes than bungled exchanges between QB & RB.

TravisClark1
TravisClark1

@Michael22  They are not contradictory at all. Say someone would hypothetically get 1 million per year on average. If hes a good pass-blocker he wont get a pass raise, but if he sucks at it, he'll get a lesser contract.

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@Michael22  Nope, you're wrong because there's Good>Average>Bad.  Good won't get a better contract than average based on his run blocking alone but bad will get a worse contract because his run blocking is below average. 

AnthonyAveyard
AnthonyAveyard

I think you missed his earlier pt. about there being very little dif between good and great pass blockers Rbs

( conversely there's a wide gap between good and not-so- good ones ...namely your qb gets leveled unnecessarily )

Mike26
Mike26

@IBleedBlackandSilver @Mike26  Not at all.  Just wanted to see how many people would spit fire on their computer based on the stupidity of my original statement.  Just trying to have little fun here in the offseason...

J Taylor
J Taylor

@AnthonyAveyard Did you miss the point about "let's look at this from 30,000 feet" and "oversimplify" for the sake of argument?


You get stuck on semantics when the point of the article was to avoid them.


dei1c3
dei1c3

@AnthonyAveyard  Yeah, to put this in quasi-mathematical terms, if $X is the value of the player's skillset omitting pass blocking then the following contracts are possible (according to the author):


Average pass blocker: $X

Great pass blocker: $X (i.e. his value does not go up for being a great pass blocker)

Poor pass blocker: less than $X (i.e. his value does go down for being a bad pass blocker).

bigmorg
bigmorg

@dei1c3 This is not a logical issue, it is one of economics.  There is a need for average pass blocking, and that gets rewarded, however great pass blocking is unnecessary (or at least valued far less) therefore a graph depicting pass blocking to salary would not show a straight line, but instead something like y=x^(1/4) (google it).

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