The ship has long sailed on running backs having value in the NFL. The devaluation of ground gainers has been going on for well over a decade. Those players who man the position are going to lose their value as their career proceeds.
It may be Year 3, 4 or 5, but teams almost always turn their backs on their best ground gainers. It has happened with the Vikings, who released Dalvin Cook because of his status as a veteran running back who has gained more than 1,135 yards over the last 4 seasons. It should make Cook one of the most popular free agents in the NFL, but that is not the case.
There are a slew of running backs who don’t have contracts right now. They include Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette, and there are other running backs who are nearing the end of their deals. Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, and Josh Jacobs have been franchise tagged, and that means they have until July 17 to sign a new deal or they will become free agents next year.
Becoming a free agent is not a good position for a running back to attain. While quarterbacks, receivers, offensive tackles, edge rushers and defensive tackles can command incredible amounts of money when they hit free agency, running backs have been diminished.
The most productive running back in football may be Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers. He had a stellar 2022 season with 915 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while catching 107 passes for 722 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Ekeler is one of the most versatile performers in the NFL, and he played a key role in the Chargers making the playoffs last season. The 28-year-old should have been rewarded with a huge contract extension, but instead, the Chargers gave him some incentives for the final season of his four-year deal that will allow him to earn an extra $1.75 million in 2023.
Ekeler has a cap hit of $9.1 million this season, and he can earn an extra $1 million for reaching 1,125 rushing yards, $600K for scoring at least 10 touchdowns and $150K for making the Pro Bowl.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley tried to put a positive spin on the situation. “The current state with Austin is that he’s one of the top backs in the league over the last two seasons. He’s been a captain for us,” Staley said. “We really have the utmost respect for him and the situation.”
The incentive is a pittance compared to the value he brings to the team, but Ekeler understands to keep his true feelings to himself. His reaction to the incentives indicates he understands how the game has turned its back on running backs.
“The Chargers did give me something in the middle, some type of incentive,” Ekeler said. “I am appreciative of that because they didn’t have to do that.”
He might well have said, “thank you, sir, may I have another,” as he waited for the paddle to deliver another blow.
So, the pendulum has swung away from running backs and to the other positions mentioned. The belief here is that there will be a turnaround at some point or another.
It won’t come this year or next. But sooner or later, a sharp general manager and capologist will conclude that having veteran running backs will represent greater value than receivers. Instead of loading up the contracts of superstar receivers, teams will realize that having a pair or perhaps even three productive running backs may be the way to go.
Those running backs will cost less, they can share the load and they will allow teams to win more games.
It will come down to the cash being spent and more wins and fewer losses. Players like Cook, Elliott and Barkley are not likely to bear any fruit. But the pendulum will swing the other way and running backs will eventually get the money they deserve.