The Running Back position has been steadily de-valued over the last several decades. We have seen running back “committees” return to prominence, and the 300+ carry back has been on the decline over recent years. Last year, two backs topped 300 carries; in 2003, there were thirteen who had at least that many carries.
We’ve seen a similar decline in value attached to running backs in the draft, though the decline has been less sharp recently and really began over a decade ago. Here’s a look at how many backs were taken in the first four rounds in four different five-year periods.
Recently, though, this decline in value has received attention, by comparing them to kickers or punters. Over The Cap wrote about the devaluation of the Running Back position using only numbers since the start of the 2013 season.
“Moving forward we are going to be looking at a position that at best may end up no higher than $5 million and year and could be capped closer to $4 million. When you think of all the great running backs who have played in the NFL and the one time importance that had to the team it’s pretty shocking to see the devaluation to a throw away position in the NFL. But we are almost there and it sure seems to be just a matter of months before the market for Kickers, Punters, and Running Backs will be within just a few dollars of each other.”
A few days earlier, nfl.com’s Chris Wesseling asked “Why are running backs paid like kickers, punters?”
The six signed running backs from Around The League‘s original Top 101 free agents list will average $2.89 million annually under their new contracts. The NFL’s six highest-paid punters will average $2.91 million in base salary for the 2014 season, per Spotrac.com.
While I do think the position of running back has declined in importance–and I could cite many other things that show this–I am not sure that this year’s free agent crop and comparisons to kickers and punters fairly show this. These are apples and oranges comparisons.
I could just as easily say that the top free agent quarterbacks have averaged less in annual value on contracts this offseason than the top tight ends are paid. Does that mean quarterbacks are valued and paid like tight ends? No, it means the top free agent quarterbacks don’t include any clear starters and have lots of question marks, short term fixes, and backups.
The running back class may have a big name in Maurice Jones-Drew, but that’s all it is. Jones-Drew was a star at age 26. He has suffered a season-ending injury at age 27, and averaged 3.4 yards per carry at age 28. He is not in demand, nor would he have been in demand in the past. The most similar backs that follow that pattern, guys like Jamal Anderson, Terrell Davis, Joe Morris, and Larry Johnson, were largely done by age 29. In the “Not for Long” League, no one is signing Jones-Drew based on what he did 3-5 years ago.
Ben Tate was probably the most attractive target, but you would not classify him as a top 20 guy at his position at this point, and he will be 26. Here’s a list of other guys to have between 50 and 200 rush attempts for three straight years from ages 23 to 25, like Tate. There are a few names, most notably Michael Turner and Charlie Garner, plus a high pick like Thomas Jones, who found success after age 26. There are also plenty of guys who never could grab an opportunity.
So what we have is a running back free agent class full of question marks and platoon or second string guys. That a group that includes guys that would be considered between the 25th and 50th best at their position are being paid like the top kickers is not surprising.
If we look at franchise values, running back is 8th (out of 11) in terms of the franchise price. Kickers and punters are, by a large margin, last. In fact, if we compare the 2007 franchise values to the 2014 franchise values, we see that the gap between running backs and kickers/punters has only grown, when comparing the top at each position. The franchise number for running backs was $3.6 million more than for kickers in 2007; this year the difference was $6 million. (In comparison, the gap between quarterbacks and running backs has only gone from $6.7 million to $7.4 million).
Running backs may continue to decline in stature, and we may have yet another year where the draft value drops for the position. I’m just not sure that a free agent class filled with plenty of questions tells us that Sebastian Janikowski is now as important as a running back.