Running backs are some of the most well-known players on NFL teams. They fill up highlight reels and sell thousands of jerseys every year, yet the value NFL teams place on their backfields diminishes every year as well. Last fall, teams assigned accurate value to running backs as they are easily replaceable and fail to meaningfully impact their team’s performance.
Those who watched the NFL playoffs this year saw running backs such as Derrick Henry, Raheem Mostert and Damien Williams steal the show and seemingly carry their teams to victory. The Tennessee Titans upset both the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens because of impactful games by Henry. In both games, Henry carried the ball over 30 times and rushed for over 180 yards. Henry secured the 2019 NFL rushing title, cementing his place as the best running back in the league. When it came time for contract negotiations in April, however, he signed a measly $10.2 million franchise tender after being unable to work out a long-term contract. Meanwhile, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was able to sign a four-year, $118 million contract just a month earlier. Tannehill failed to throw for more than 100 yards in either of the Titans’ playoff victories.
Running backs have proven easily replaceable relative to other positions. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Le’Veon Bell and former Los Angeles Charger Melvin Gordon’s holdouts signified the downfall of running backs. Both Bell and Gordon established themselves as some of the top players at their positions. Seeking long term deals, Bell and Gordon sat out on seasons in which they could have made millions of dollars. In their absence, neither team missed a beat, with former third-round pick James Conner replacing Bell and undrafted free agent Austin Ekeler subbing in for Gordon.
Conner and Ekeler’s performances significantly diminished their predecessors’ value, as both Bell and Gordon were forced to sign contracts worth significantly less money than the contracts teams had previously offered them. Bell and Gordon are not anomalies; good running backs are not difficult to find in comparison to other positions. This epiphany has become such a popular sentiment in the league that the New York Jets fired their general manager shortly after he forked over a $52.5 million deal to Bell.
Great running backs also fail to produce overall team success. Last season, just three of the teams with top-10 rushing leaders made the playoffs. Many of the best running backs of all time, such as Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson, failed to ever reach the Super Bowl and consistently missed the playoffs. During their respective MVP seasons, each of these players reached the playoffs, yet none of their teams won a game. The last time the highest rushing leader won a Super Bowl was Terrell Davis in 1998. The 2020 Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs were in the bottom half of the league in their rushing attack, with the 22nd-best rushing offense overall.
Not only do good running backs fail to produce successful seasons, but they also do not create good offenses. Henry’s Titans, who had the best rushing offense in the league last season, put up an average collective offense, ranking 15th in yards per game. The Carolina Panthers just made Christian McCaffrey, a 2019 first-team all-pro running back and third-highest rusher overall, the highest-paid running back in NFL history. The Panthers’ offense ranked just 19th in yards per game last season. If having an all-pro running back was as valuable as McCaffrey’s recent contract would suggest, one would expect the Panthers to be a bit better offensively. However, the Panthers would not be better off without McCaffrey. They would have more capital to allocate without McCaffrey, however, if the $64 million they gave him was moved to positions that are more difficult to replace. Giving McCaffrey, or any running back, a large contract is betting their talent is so valuable that it justifies centralizing so much salary cap space with their contract.
Recent evidence suggests teams have significantly overestimated just how much one of those running backs can do for them. The Jets are a perfect example of how investing too much of a salary cap into a running back ruins the entire team’s performance. Behind their $53 million dollar man, Bell, the Jets finished as the worst offense in the NFL.
The NFL is still far from the floor on running back value as long as teams like the Panthers and the Jets continue to hand out ill-advised deals to their beloved halfbacks. The floor is approaching, however. More teams should deny their running backs the massive contracts they seek. Monitoring whether those running backs choose to hold out or compromise on smaller deals will be interesting.
Austin Barish is a rising sophomore in the College. Running the Post appears online every month.