Now in the thick of the post-draft phase of free agency, and still over a month away from training camp, the NFL commentariat are desperate for content. And, as several teams explore post-June 1 opportunities to free up cap space and/or consider their prospects beyond the 2023 season, lots of decisions are being made about individual player value.
It just so turns out that many of those decisions, at least in terms of “well known” players, are being made around running backs. Earlier in the year, Zeke Elliott was released by the Cowboys. Dalvin Cook was released by the Vikings. Three runnings backs have been franchised tagged, including Saquon Barkley (Giants), Tony Pollard (Cowboys), and Josh Jacobs (Raiders). Each of the tagged players will make approximately $10M this season, assuming they aren’t otherwise extended by their team or they don’t hold out.
Productive running backs see top QBs getting paid over $40M per year, and top WRs getting paid over $20M per year, and are - perhaps understandably - a bit envious and ego wounded.
The disrespect is crazy— Jerick Mckinnon (@JetMckinnon1) April 7, 2023
But, at this point, they really shouldn’t be surprised. Over the course of the past decade, the relative investment at the RB position by NFL teams has shown the most dramatic decline of any position in the league:
In the case of running backs, top earners have seen the equivalent of a 43% reduction - relative to the cap - since 2014. That seems to track pretty closely with the overall sense that good running backs are easily replaceable in the draft, that has come to dominate “conventional wisdom” over the past few years.
This is largely driven by a couple of factors. Many fans might be surprised to realize that the average number of rushing and passing yards per game hasn’t changed dramatically in the past twenty years or so.
In 2000, teams averaged 113 rushing yards per game. In 2022, that number actually increased, to 122 rushing yards per game. Similarly, in 2000, NFL teams averaged 207 passing yards per game, with that number bumping about 5% to 219 yards per game in 2022.
Rushing attempts per game from 2000 to 2022 were essentially unchanged, from 27.6 in 2000, to 27.3 in 2022. So despite a generalized sense that the passing game has been ascendent in that period, there’s really no evidence to suggest that teams are rushing less.
In fact, the average yards per rushing attempt has actually increased a bit in that timeframe, from 4.1 yards per attempt in 2000, to 4.5 yards per attempt in 2022. So what has changed?
One of the most notable rushing changes over the past twenty years has been the dramatic decline in “workhorse backs,” or a single running back per team carrying the vast majority of the rushing load. For these purposes, I’ve tracked that decline by looking at the number of running backs per year hitting the 1,000 yard mark threshold (or the 1,063 yard mark threshold in the 17-game era).
The steady decline from 23 thousand-yard rushers in 2000 to less than half as many this past season is stark. What’s clear, of course, from these numbers is that teams aren’t running any less than they have been in the recent past, but they’re spreading the load around much more generously (and it’s possible rushing efficiency may have improved a bit as a result).
It’s highly likely that cap investment is being spread more broadly across the position as well, with 2 or 3 backs being paid from the same conceptual pot of money as 1 or 2 were paid a decade or two ago.
It’s also undeniable that the conceptual pot of money that teams are dedicating to the running back position overall is declining. From 2013 to 2022, the average percent of salary cap that NFL teams were investing in the running back position overall dropped by 31%, from 5.5% to 3.8%, with the most precipitous decline happening in the 2015 timeframe.
Curiously, that was also when one of the most dramatic, recent decreases in thousand yard rushers occurred.
And these investment trends have largely been vindicated when you look at the almost complete absence of high priced running backs on the best NFL teams of the last decade.
But these broader trends in the way the game has been played, and the relative importance teams have decided to invest in the position overall, haven’t stopped some activist writers from trying to stir the pot of discontent.
The NFL's current compensation system screws running backs. They should band together and fight back, starting with a renewed effort to create their own bargaining unit. https://t.co/WrAaMytIz4— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 16, 2023
Notorious shit-stirrer, Mike Florio, couldn’t stay away from the topic, and although he basically diagnoses and solves his perceived beef in the first half of his article on the topic,
While the fundamental problem relates to supply and demand (frankly, the best athletes should just play other positions in high school and college)...
He’s ultimately unable to contain himself, and has to offer up a - surely - well-intentioned solution to the “problem” of teams deciding how to best allocate their fixed resources:
The easiest way to solve the problem would be for the running backs to have their own bargaining unit, and their own bargaining power. Maybe their own salary cap.
I’ve explained previously why position specific salary caps are a terrible idea, and why proposals to advance them are unlikely to go anywhere, and why - ironically - they would probably be a very effective approach to fracturing the players’ union.
As long as the late rounds of the draft are yearly, and reliably, churning out “good enough” running backs, and teams are swapping them in and out like the abundant commodity that they are, their relative value will remain low (like it increasingly has for inside linebackers as well).
In the meantime, Florio’s prescription harkens back to the sort of polemic that was surely written in defense of the “buggy whip manufacturers” of yore: “Give them a special carve out, lest they be lost altogether!” How about we just let this play out in a way that allows professional football franchises to allocate their resources as they see fit, within the context of an arrangement that shares revenues with the players as a whole? But Florio was not alone.
Establishing his own path as something of a social justice gadfly, Jim Trotter, the former NFL Network reporter who burnished his credentials by asking Commissioner Roger Goodell about the lack of Black individuals working behind the scenes at the PR operation - only to find himself out of a job when his contract wasn’t renewed a few weeks later - was quickly hired by The Athletic to continue his crusade to wound the Golden Goose that keeps his peers and somewhere around 100 impoverished running backs employed.
The NFL is the only major professional sports league where salaries are tied to position groups, which often means you will be underpaid despite overproducing. Right, @iAM_JoshJacobs? https://t.co/taqCFSlWpf— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) June 16, 2023
Trotter’s piece starts with an adamant rejection of reality:
I’ve never subscribed to the theory that they’re less important today than they were a decade ago or a generation ago.
And goes downhill from there:
All of this would be less of an issue for me if not for the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that threw running backs under the bus. The background:
In the lead-up to negotiations, the NFL made it clear to the players association that it wanted a rookie wage scale as part of any agreement.
So far so, good. The big bad owners wanted a rookie wage scale to protect themselves from overspending on crappy lottery tickets, like Sam Bradford. So, surely, the players must have rebuffed this unilateral flexing of power, right? Right? Not exactly. In Trotter’s universe,
the owners ultimately won out because, among other things, veteran players were unwilling to miss games and paychecks to protect the incoming class.
In fact, what actually happened was that the NFLPA proposed the rookie wage scale in order to re-direct those dollars to veterans:
The union’s plan would have a scale or cap for how much rookies would be paid, and the 32 teams would use the money saved from those contracts on established players. As much as $200 million could wind up in veterans’ pockets.
That the rookie wage scale hurts running backs uniquely is asserted, but poorly defended, in Trotter’s piece, and while I don’t think there’s any question that some outstanding players earn less under the rookie scale than they would as free agents, I don’t think there’s much evidence at all to suggest that RBs would benefit from the abolition of the system.
In fact, we’ve already seen what getting rid of the rookie wage scale would do: It would drive inordinate amounts of money to young, freshly drafted quarterbacks as teams poured not just massive draft capital, but salary cap in the future hopes and dreams for their franchises.
Young running backs would still be an abundant commodity and would likely, still be relative losers in a rookie free agency scenario, given the way they are utilized in the contemporary game.
The era of the singular, great running back - a John Riggins, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, or Emmitt Smith - is over, and has been over for a long time at this point, replaced by an explosion of running backs by committee, and a rare throwback, like Derrick Henry.
Nevertheless, for many commentators and observers, old habits die hard, and there has grown - in their minds - a conflation between the fact that individual running backs are less highly valued than they used to be and some sort of moral unfairness of it all.
Over the course of time, as the game changes, the relative importance of positions changes, and it will surely change again at some point in the future. Letting franchises, rather than sportswriters (and disgruntled, individual players), dictate the allocation of team resources, is the best way to ensure that the game can effectively evolve and adapt in a way that keeps the entire enterprise afloat and vibrant longer. That, ultimately, is what is best for the league, the players (even the running backs), and the men and women who make their living chattering about it.
Oh, and Happy Father’s Day!
Do you think the relative value of running backs will ever increase significantly again?
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Would you like to see a special salary carve out for running backs?
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