The Great Debate: Running Back Usage And The Devaluation Of The Position

by Logan Levy

Do running backs matter?

The debate of the worth of a running back in the modern age of the NFL is one that is filled with ambiguity. The schematics and “value” of a running back to an offense may be too circumstantial to specifically quantify one way or the other. 

One thing that is clear though is that the NFL has taken a drastic shift in their approach to acquiring and keeping running backs. While they still play a valuable role in most offenses, their usage is changing. 

The majority of NFL offenses today use a stable of backs to match the workhorse productions of a Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and other legends at the position. While the frequency that each team runs the ball differs, what doesn't change is the specific skills that teams look for in the running back position. In the committee approach, each back may bring a specific skill set to the table. It's similar to Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” approach with the Oakland Athletics.  NFL teams are trying to recreate upper echelon running backs in the aggregate. Unlike the older days of the NFL where teams would have one workhorse running back, that can do it all, that is no longer a necessity. 

Below is a chart detailing how each team utilized their running backs in the 2018 season.

Only 13 Running Backs led their backfields in rushing yards, receiving yards and receptions.

Isaiah Crowell was an outlier, as he led his team in attempts, rushing yards, and receptions but was edged out by Elijah McGuire in total receiving yards. 

This chart helps exemplify that unless a team has a top tier running back they are outsourcing some of the other responsibilities to other players such as pass-protection and receiving out of the backfield. As fullbacks were included in this, the 49ers relied upon Kyle Juszcyzk in the passing game.

Two other interesting teams to dissect are the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens because their rookie Quarterback's made headlines on the ground. Josh Allen led the Bills in rushing yards despite having significantly fewer attempts than starting RB LeSean McCoy. Lamar Jackson led Baltimore in rushing attempts but was edged out by Gus Edwards in total rushing yards. While a majority of Allen’s runs were not by design, Jackson was a little bit of a different story. Baltimore employed power reads, zone reads, QB power, QB draws, and other quarterback designed runs to get him in space. The Ravens were essentially contracting out some of their running back responsibilities to Jackson. The above statement is not meant to insinuate in any way that Jackson is a glorified running back, but rather that Baltimore was jumpstarting their running game using the athletic, shifty quarterback from Louisville.

With teams slowing their usage rates down on running backs compared to the old school workhorse mentality, the value of running backs in the draft is going down significantly. In the 1999 NFL Draft, New Orleans traded eight picks to the Redskins in exchange for the fifth overall spot in order to select running back Ricky Williams. While that trade seemed drastic at the time, it would be even more of a shock if a similar deal occurred again. In fact, the rate of running backs being drafted on day one has significantly decreased since 2000.

From 2000 through 2005, 18 running backs went off the board in the 1st round. In other words, 13.5% of 1st round picks during that span were spent on running backs. Flash forward to the last six drafts and only 8 running backs, or 5.6% of 1st round picks were spent on the position. As you might imagine, Day 2 and 3 of the draft have seen a rise in running backs selections. With teams taking running backs later in the draft, it has had a major effect on contracts as well.

According to Spotrac, 349 running backs have contracts to an NFL team in some capacity. The oldest running backs with contracts are ironically both in Buffalo – LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory. Of those 349 contracts, only 143 (41%) are considered “veteran” contracts. Digging deeper into those “veteran contracts,” merely six of those contracts are four years or more while 16 of them are exactly three years. To put these numbers in perspective, there are 652 wide receivers under contract in the NFL, per Spotrac. Of those deals, 334 (51.2%) of them are “veteran” contracts and 24 of them are four-or-five-year deals.

The NFL is clearly shifting towards the direction of cheap, young talent at running back while paying a premium for quarterbacks and wide receivers. To take it one step further, teams are beginning to outsource their running back responsibilities to multiple players as opposed to one.

The New England Patriots have always been a model of success and innovation since the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, and they have adopted this philosophy. In the 2018 season, Sony Michel had approximately 43.7% of their rushing attempts while Rex Burkhead and James White combined for close to 41%. Michel was clearly the ‘lead’ back, but he only had seven receptions compared to White’s 87 and Burkhead’s 14. White also led in snaps with 600 while Michel had 320 and Burkhead had 151.

Despite drafting Michel in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Super Bowl champions have used the running back by committee approach over the course of the last few seasons. Will the rest of the league attempt to copy their approach?