Devaluation of Running Backs and the Conjunction of Skills

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Tl;dr, Because I Value Your Time

  • The best young non-QB players a generation ago wanted to be running backs and trained their bodies toward that skillset
  • Flooded RB market led to a smaller gap between studs and every day backs, meaning a 1st round talent (and pay) could be replaced by 4th round talent at the first hint of decline
  • Rookie pay scale now lock players into 4-5 year deals that paid them below their production level
  • Oversupply of RB talent made giving a RB a second contract foolish
  • A warning to GMs: The best young non-QB players today… all want to be receivers
  • Check back in a generation to see how that goes

Let’s Get Into It

It’s no secret that running backs in today’s NFL are facing a difficult situation. Due to the structure of automatic rookie contracts, it’s increasingly rare for a back to get a second contract. After 4 years, they’ve either not shown enough for an extension, or they’ve shown a lot and are labeled as having too much wear.

As of July 17, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs can no longer sign a longterm deal, leaving them to either play on the franchise tag, or negotiate a higher one year deal. The latter may be the only way the Giants and Raiders get their star backs to camp.

But what’s causing this shift where teams decide a 22 year old with no NFL experience is good enough to replace a 27 year old veteran with multiple 1,000 yard seasons?

Opinions and speculation are rampant, but there doesn’t seem to be enough consensus to help guys like Jacobs and Circle Button Saquon, and their teams, in determining their monetary value.

The opinions given, however, appear to be mere symptoms of a broader generational issue: The best young athletes want the ball.

An Apt Metaphor, Skip if You Dare

If you’re a child of the 70s or 80s, you collected sports trading cards. Why? Because you saw the value of the cards your dads had and use as bicycle spokes. My dad swears he had a Nolan Ryan rookie card at one time, now worth several thousand in bad condition and tens of thousands in good condition.

So we collected, and hoarded, and kept them mint with plastic card sheets with 9 card slots and holes to put it in your 3-ring book covered with cool sports graphics and decals. The player we collected at any time had their special spot in the book, and filling a full page of that player was exhilarating, even more so if it was the same card in all 9 spots. The best cards got their own outside the book, increasingly hard plastic sleeve.

The problem is everyone else did the same thing and we didn’t understand economics. And parents didn’t care cause it was harmless fun. The companies kept making them, plus the accessories, because we kept buying them.

If you still have your cards, go look up some of their values. It’s a powerful lesson in the economics of supply and demand, which I hope you’ve learned by now. The only real chance you had is if you got an “error” card that stopped printing to get fixed, thereby reducing the supply. My brother once had the famous Billy Ripken F*CK FACE card, still worth a few hundred dollars today.

The point is, it’s difficult to see a market being flooded until we realize everyone is doing the same things as us, all hoping that no one else thought of it. And that’s what coaches and parents did with running backs in the 80s and 90s and early aughts.

The result is an oversupply of running back talent that has overrun the league. The difference between Saquon and some generic replacement has a value, and that value is not currently worth a longterm commitment.

Kids Pick a Position

Young athletes pick their spots early. Sometimes it’s a coach or a parent putting them in the best position to be successful. But more often than not, kids learn the running game before the passing game, and for good reason. At young ages, it’s far simpler to teach the basics of pushing the defense back and running over them than the mechanics and timing of passing and route running. For this and other reasons, a broken running play is far more forgiving than a broken passing play.

So, under pressure to deliver wins, the most talented athletes are put where they’ll get the ball… running back. And that young athlete is unlikely to complain about being too featured in the offense.

The result is an oversupply of running back talent that has overrun the league. The difference between Saquon and some generic replacement has a value, and that value is not currently worth a longterm commitment.

Prepare for the Shift

As all things do, this will change. Young stars and their parents and coaches aren’t oblivious to what’s happening in the NFL, and they want their kids in the best possible spot.

On3’s NIL valuation of college football players is stuffed with QBs. But there are 3 WRs in the top 15 before we finally see Michigan RB Blake Corum at 16. When you go deeper and dive into high school football, after once again sifting through all the QBs, you’ll find 11 WRs before you see the first RB.

*Note: On3 valuations are fluid, so the numbers I just gave could change at any time*

In other words, your kid who would’ve been a Snoop League running back 10-15 years ago now wants to be quarterback or wide receiver, building up the skills of the league’s best paid athletes of today.

The Conjunction of Skills

But that’s today.

And everyone else is doing it, too.

If my blog is still active 15 years from now, let’s check back and see what offensive positions have the most value. To put it in perspective, think of how defensive positions have changed. The defensive front 7 used to be some combination of defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, and inside or middle linebacker. Today, we can barely tell the difference between OLB and DE. Now we just call them all Edge rushers to differentiate from interior D-line (DTs) and off-ball linebackers (ILB/MLB or non-rushing OLB). It won’t be long before we see DE Nick Bosa and OLB Micah Parsons get their second contracts. Don’t be surprised if those contracts are very similar.

Which brings me to this Hot Take: In another generation, RB and WR will be equally interchangeable, and eventually equally compensated. A college player will be drafted into the league in the 1st round with the position designation “ATH” or “Athlete,” normally used for high school players until their college team gives them a position.

It should be no surprise that the highest paid running back today, Christian McCaffrey, is so good at receiver that many thought he was a better route runner than the actual receivers at his NFL Combine.

Get ready for the Conjunction of Skills.

Short-Term Fix Ideas

As much as it annoys me, the NFL loves short-term fixes. It’ll be hard to get owners onboard with paying more, but there are bound to be some who would rather throw their money around than have to piss off their fanbases by making a business decision at the RB position. There’s no real solution out there right now, but that doesn’t mean the league and owners won’t do something small to show that they’re doing something. Not all of this is possible mid-CBA, but I like thought experiments.

Uncapped QB

This is often thrown around as a solution to the massive contracts QBs are now getting and will continue to get. But it also opens up the checkbook a bit for other positions. Teams today have to decide if a RB1 is as valuable longterm as their WR2 or even WR3. But with more wiggle room, they can perhaps afford to pay all of them. Of course, all hell will break loose when some air raid team throws 8 figures at a WR4.

Combine RBs and WRs Under Franchise Tag

Yeah, it’ll piss off a lot of receivers. But since 2015, the RB franchise tag number has actually gone down.

If the league sees the Conjunction of Skills the way I do, then why wait? Combine them now and split the difference for the future. Start moving towards the league that’s most likely on the way and head off the inevitable shift back. Receivers may take the hit now, but it would protect them if and when the game shifts back to the run.

Adjustable Rookie Contract Lengths

I think this option has the most potential because it can use several mechanisms. However, each mechanism has flaws.

  • Rookie contract length for draft picks could be directly tied to position longevity.There would have to be some adjustments so punters don’t get 10 year deals. But it would have the bonus of QBs having longer rookie contracts and giving RBs a chance to get a second deal before a team can claim they have too much wear. Downfall: RBs getting 1-2 year rookie deals may still not get second contracts and will have made less from their rookie deal, plus they’ll be devalued in the draft.
  • Players choose rookie contract length. This puts the power in the player’s hands and teams will have to consider all possibilities when drafting. There are lots of potential unforeseen consequences. But the tradeoff for owners and players is interesting. It would move the needle in the direction of players having more control, which players will appreciate, but it will put the responsibility of a poor business decision on the player, freeing the owner from fanbase judgment. Downfall: A LOT of things could go wrong, and it slowly creaks open the door back towards the rookie holdout messes we had before the rookie scale was introduced.

Wish I could say the answers are in there, but ultimately, the only real equalizer is time.

As always, may all your teams win or your running backs hold-in.

3 thoughts on “Devaluation of Running Backs and the Conjunction of Skills”

    1. Fair or not, I just don’t see a market for Taylor. Teams could’ve traded for Saquon or Jacobs or Ekeler, or signed Cook or Kareem Hunt. But none of those things have happened. I don’t see how Taylor would be any different.

      He was a 2nd round pick, so there’s no 5th year option. He’ll likely play this year then have to go out and find someone the way Cook and Hunt are now. If I was Taylor, I’d be watching to see what the Colts demand in trade comp (I know they’re saying they won’t trade him, but I think that’s posturing). If they’re out there asking for a 1st round pick, I’d go back to the table and say oh, you think I’m worth a 1st round pick? Then pay me like one.

      Cook may still end up in Miami, possibly even New England, but I think he’ll land with the Jets. I’d bet anything Rodgers is up in Joe Douglas’s DMs every day about it.

      1. It’s fascinating to me how the RB market works in the league these days.

        You make a great point on that. But where is he gonna get with that? He’s stuck.

        I have this feeling the Jets are set up to be the latest ‘dream team’ that doesn’t quite work out that way.

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