I recently sat down with David Salerno of NFL Network to discuss the changing dynamic that is the NFL Running Back of today. In PART 1 we discussed how the NFL Draft had changed for the position and how changes to the game have affected utilization of what was once the most important player in football.
Here are 3 & 4 of a 7 question interview.
What do these changes mean for the future of the position?
Whether a subtle or “in your face” shift in emphasis to the passing game, feature running backs are going to need to be as talented in all aspects of football as ever; run, pass, block, smarts. So many demands are placed upon the athletic platform of a professional RB, that to remain on the field for the majority of an NFL game is next to impossible. The physical and mental stress can quickly wear down even the very best. I think rare will be the player that garners 25-30 carries in a game and stays on the field for the majority of the plays.
Much of the production of the position has been dispersed in pro football. Specialists are being created by these demands; power runners, speed to the edge, 3rd down threats, and returners. This is similar to what Major League Baseball has seen with the changes to utilizing pitchers. You can’t WIN in baseball without great pitching, but rare is the starter that goes beyond 6 innings in the modern game. The same physical/mental demands in MLB have produced starters, middle relievers, and closers. All have a different makeup and skill set to ultimately produce for the club at the #1 position.
Perhaps this may provide even more opportunity for running backs down the roster, with the need for 3 or 4 having a wide range of abilities and athletic makeup. What the shift appears to have all but done is kill the position of fullback. Very few teams utilize the traditional definition, more and more turning to Tight Ends to fill that very role and responsibility.
I don’t see this next point as a revelation, but more just a fact. Running Back is a young man’s game. When I sat down to do this interview, there were only 9 RB’s over the age of 30 with active contracts in the NFL. Of that number, only two were making on average over $3.5M a season; Frank Gore (IND) and Darren Sproles (PHI). The only position with less was Offensive Center at 7. By contrast there were 20 WR’s contracted over the age of 30, 11 making over $3.5M. Perhaps even more shocking were the 19 TE’s entering their fourth decade, 10 breaking the $3.5M mark.
One final note to consider is the new Concussion Protocol instituted by the NFL to protect the players. Running Backs subjected to the kind of repeated punishment of 20 to 30 years ago most likely won’t last through an entire season. The need to “spread things out”, both from a personnel perspective and game plan viewpoint is necessary to keep your best talent on the field over the course of a 16 game season.
How would you assess the value of the running back position for the typical NFL team?
With a shift in offensive philosophy to a pass first, run second attack, clubs are pressured with (and really always have been) securing a franchise quarterback. Trouble is they’re hard to find, and most clubs don’t have the patient to develop the incoming talent at the position. Money and high draft picks are being exorbitantly spent on acquiring and keeping talent at QB. The emphasis then is on surrounding this player with as many receiving weapons as possible. Supply and demand has forced General Managers to “rob Peter to pay Paul” and the running back position has paid that price.
Again, as of this interview only 12 RB’s were averaging over $4M per season, and only 5 of that number had contracts extending 5+ years. By contrast 23 QB’s were averaging over $5M, 17 with deals paying them at or over $10M (that counts Brady’s restructure down to $9M). Similarly WR’s saw 35 of their players over $4M per season, 20 at the TE position. Protecting the “blindside” pays 22 Left OT’s on average $4M per season. And it doesn’t hurt to be on the right side either – 14 at $4M plus. Only OC trails RB’s with 11 active players making $4M or more.
This overall shift in financial resources and accounting philosophy is a result of 20+ years learning to deal with the Salary CAP, lessons taught by overpaying for a position that just doesn’t last as long as others. Extensions to the CBA have frequently pulled teams out of CAP purgatory and GM’s have vowed not to make the same mistake twice. Young executives have learned by watching their mentors at times overpay for a feature back. Coaches don’t or won’t ask their RB’s to consistently “tote the rock” 30+, and overall rushing attempts are down per player.
The old arguments made by agents to pay their RB clients top tier money for their production in comparison to the rest of the roster just don’t resonate anymore.
More questions to follow – Thanks for reading!