This past offseason provided some drama that we have not seen in a while. Sure, every offseason some players feel like they should be paid more, however, rarely does the stock of an entire position fall so far that players like Dalvin Cook (arguably, top ten at his position) struggle to get the money that they feel they deserve. Running backs are struggling with the devaluation of their position.
Running Backs are Replaceable
Running back has been posited as the least valuable position on the football field. This may not resonate well with most people, however, it is not because the position does not matter, but because the position is easily replaced. A top running back does not do as much for a team’s Super Bowl chances in comparison to having a top cornerback. Since 2010, only one Super Bowl champion has paid a running back more than $10 million. The 2010 Super Bowl champion Saints paid Reggie Bush almost $12 million. Since then, Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Anderson are the only two running backs rostered by a champion who has been paid over $5 million in a Super Bowl-winning year. Expensive running back contracts harm Super Bowl chances.
The Patriots have proved that a pass-catching running back like James White and a big-bodied, goal-line threat such as LeGarrette Blount are enough out of the backfield to hold up for a team in the playoffs. Cynics will claim that the only ingredient for a good enough run game is a great offensive line. While this might seem like an oversimplification of things, the reality is if the holes are there, a professional running back should be able to run through them, whether they are Derrick Henry or Ty Chandler. A good run scheme can make most NFL running backs look deserving of a huge contract. So why pay a back tens of millions of dollars when you can get similar production out of one on a one-million-dollar contract? From a front office’s perspective, giving Dalvin Cook a $10 million deal makes no sense when they can get average production from a player on a $2 million deal. When it is broken down into sheer numbers, running backs are expendable, plain and simple.
Running Backs Deserve More
If the NFL was not rooted in numbers and metrics running backs would be one of the higher-paid positions. Running backs are one of the most marketable positions due to their high production and excitement value. From a marketing perspective, running backs sit just behind quarterbacks and wide receivers as the most entertaining position on the field. Backs rip off big runs, score touchdowns and touch the ball a lot. While having Saquon Barkley on your team may not increase your Super Bowl chances a ton in comparison to a league-average back, Barkley will sell tickets and jerseys, and get people to turn their TVs on at home. The value they bring to the marketing side is way more than what an offensive tackle does and yet offensive tackles get paid much more. Sure, a team that wins a Super Bowl is extremely marketable and will get fan engagement regardless of who their running back is, however, in a given year, only a handful of teams can compete for a Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the rest of the league has to find ways to increase fan engagement and an exciting running back could be the way to go. Think of Josh Jacobs on the Raiders or Jonathan Taylor with the Colts. Outside of the economics of the position, running backs are valuable and deserve more pay for what they bring to the table.
Injuries, as we have seen in the first two weeks of the 2023 season, are a huge issue in football. Every team, every player, and every position deals with them. Some people question why football players make millions of dollars, well it is because the football market is huge and these players have extremely short careers in football. An average NFL career is only 3.3 years. This means they have 3 years to make as much money as possible, getting compensated for the wear and tear they put their body through, before moving on to life after football. For running backs, this is even more important since it is the most dangerous position on the field. Running backs experience more injuries than any other position which can shorten their careers and make them less likely to capitalize on their prime with a big contract after their rookie contract. JK Dobbins and Nick Chubb have already suffered season-ending injuries, while top backs like Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, and Saquon Barkley have had to miss games due to injuries. Running backs are putting their bodies on the line more than any position on the field and their compensation does not match up. So when backs like Dalvin Cook and Jonathan Taylor hold out or threaten to leave for a big contract, we should be supporting their prerogative to do so.
The Vikings have opted to go without a star running back this season, cutting Dalvin Cook this offseason and rolling with Alexander Mattison. This move has not paid dividends early on. While that is mostly because of a horrid offensive line, one wonders if paying Cook would have been the smarter option. In a move likely rooted in hindsight, the Vikings traded for the Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers. In week one, Akers ran the ball 22 times for 29 yards, a model of inefficiency. However, new scenery with a familiar face in Kevin O’Connell could be what Akers needs to spark the Vikings’ league-worst run offense. Look for Mattison to stay the starter while Akers gets comfortable with an offense until it becomes a 60-40 split in carries favoring Mattison.
Running backs have gotten the short end of the stick as of late. The average salary of kickers is higher than running backs. Kickers play a big factor especially in close games, however, running backs play a much bigger role and deserve higher pay for the impact they have on the game. The real question is what’s next for running backs? Will running backs experience a resurgence in their value? Or will their piece of the pie keep shrinking? Time will tell, but the latter feels more likely. Watch for the premiere running back archetype shift from Derrick Henry, a big bruising back, to Christian McCaffrey, a shifty back who is heavily involved in the passing game. McCaffrey is the highest paid back in the game and his dual-threat versatility makes his value skyrocket. Running backs must evolve and become bigger threats in the passing game if they want to be paid. The demand for the position is changing and running backs have to keep up if they want to keep getting paid.