The state of the NFL running back in today’s game is still largely the same as it has been for some time; the state of his position in the market, however, is another matter, and this latest offseason is just another sign of the devaluation of the running back.
The Pittsburgh Steelers certainly benefited from this, being fortunate to acquire the services of LeGarrette Blount to be the backup to Le’Veon Bell for comparatively modest compensation, given his statistical success and late-season burst.
According to a recent article, the average yearly salary of the top six free agent running backs signed to new contracts this season come to just $2.89 million, which is less than the average salary of the top six highest-paid punters in the league.
Ray Rice and Arian Foster were two of the more recent running backs to receive significant contracts, and it’s a wonder if we’re likely to continue to see such rewards—relative to standard league-wide inflation—in the future.
Even in the draft, running back stocks continue to plummet, with 2014 expected to be the second consecutive year to see a lockout of the position in the first round. The Steelers found Bell, for example, in the middle of the second round.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis have their theories on why this is.
In the same article previously mentioned, both were quoted talking about how the college landscape has changed for the worse for running backs, which makes it more difficult to predict bust potential.
Continued failures, such as the Cleveland Browns trading away Trent Richardson just a year after drafting him with the third overall pick, only further serve to facilitate teams shying away from the position earlier in the draft.
For Bettis, this is related to the paltry number of college institutions running pro-style offenses. Yet perhaps the premiere school running the pro-style offense has had very recent mixed success.
Mark Ingram hasn’t come near to reaching his potential, and Richardson seems to be on no better a trajectory. Eddie Lacy, on the other hand, is certainly off to a good start after being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
If stability can’t even be found among the most pro-ready programs, there seems little hope for consistent reliability elsewhere around the college football landscape.
Likewise, Colbert commented on the changing landscape of college football, which has also reduced the importance of the running back with the emphasis of the quarterback as a dual threat.
Perhaps we might see the beginnings of a shifting of philosophy at the position. Perhaps the true three-down back may not necessarily become extinct, but we are already seeing it decline rapidly in prominence. Backs of different types and skill sets are asked to fulfill specific roles within an offense, with no clear number one player.
Of course, the position is of a different nature. Unlike the quarterback position, the adage doesn’t hold true that if you think you have two, then you probably have none. It’s become increasingly more important to have two or more running backs, as evidence by the Steelers’ targeting of Blount this offseason.