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The Future of the Running Back

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

As we saw on Monday, Josh sJacobs and Saquon Barkley did not get the contracts they hoped for before Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline. This continues a trend where NFL teams do not want to pay the running backs that they drafted. I wanted to take a deep dive into how we got here and how the future looks for the running-back position in the NFL.

Saquon Barkley saluting the crowd
via Adam Hunger / AP

In 2005, running backs were the second-highest-paid position in the NFL. This was right after Shaun Alexander's MVP win. After this, the Seahawks were convinced to give him a whopping eight-year contract worth $62 million. After getting this contract, he got injured and never got back to the play that made him the 2005 NFL MVP. This is not what made RBs less valuable, but it definitely gave NFL teams a bleak look at what could happen if you pay an RB a long-term contract with massive money attached to it.

Shaun Alexander in game
via Steve Deslich/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Timeline of Shaun Alexander:

2005: 1,800 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, 2005 NFL MVP, Super Bowl Appearance

March 5th, 2006: Alexander signs an 8-year deal worth $62 million.

2006: Injured Week 3, 896 rushing yards, and 7 touchdowns

2007: 716 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns

April 23rd, 2008: Alexander is released by the Seahawks.

Adrian Peterson was the absolute best running back in the NFL in his prime. In September 2011, Peterson signed a seven-year contract with $100 million attached to it. Peterson ended up tearing his ACL in December 2011. This could have ended up the same way Alexander's play declined. Peterson had other plans though, as he came back from the torn ACL and won the 2012 NFL MVP. Peterson had 2,097 rushing yards, nine shy of beating Eric Dickerson's record, and he also had 12 touchdowns. The Vikings thought they were set with Peterson at running back, especially after that performance. After his MVP season, Peterson had two good seasons and then suspension and injury-riddled seasons. Another example of a running back having a very short shelf life. Peterson had two seasons of under 100 rushing yards after his MVP season (injury and suspension).

Adrian Peterson with reporters
USA Today Sports

Timeline of Adrian Peterson:

2007-2011: Averaged 1,350 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. 4 All-Pro Selections, Offensive Rookie of the Year, 4 Pro Bowl Selections, MVP and Offensive Player of the Year runner-up

September 2011: Peterson signs a 7-year contract worth $100 million.

December 2011: Peterson tears his ACL

2012: 2,097 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, 9 yards shy of breaking the single-season rushing yards record. 2012 NFL MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, All-Pro, and Pro Bowl selection.

2013: 1,266 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, 2nd-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection

2014: 75 rushing yards, suspended.

2015: 1,485 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection

2016: 72 rushing yards, injured

Le'Veon Bell is the running-back who stood on what he was worth as he held out the entire 2018 season. The Steelers also stood their ground and didn't pay him, as they had James Conner, who had 973 yards and 12 touchdowns, replacing Bell. That showed the Steelers that Bell was replaceable. After Bell held out, he never had a season with over 800 rushing yards. And this will be and has been the theme for a lot of teams in the last couple of years, where they have a franchise RB and replace them with a new one they drafted and are team-controlled with a small cap hit for 2 to 3 years.

Le'Veon Bell running the ball
via Bob Levey / Getty Images

It seems you need to be a hybrid back to get a massive contract as an RB. Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey are the two highest-paid running backs when you look at the full money, and they are both backs who can do damage as a runner and a receiver. Kamara hasn't been bad, but he is not as good as he once was, and McCaffrey was injured for two years straight before 2022. So even the top backs are at risk, as RBs have the highest injury risk and one of the lowest values. Running backs only make $1.8 million on average, which is only more than long snappers, fullbacks, and punters. In just 18 years, they went from 2nd in contract value to 8th. Guys like Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are also examples of running backs who got worse or injured after they got paid.

So what do I think will happen to the running back? I think the method of drafting, playing, franchise tag once, and then repeating the process every five to six years is the way teams will go. This will devalue the running back more than what we see now, and I believe that up-and-coming players will steer away from wanting to be a running back, and then there will either be a limited pool of potential running backs or the position wouldn't matter much at all. Derrick Henry said, "Just take the RB position out of the game then." I believe that could happen in the future if the NFL and the teams go down this path. My take on all this? Pay these guys what they are worth if they are being reasonable with their demands.

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