@ZackMooreNFL: Revisiting the Running Back Position and Positional Value


I was COMPLETELY wrong on a few levels with this article that I wrote back in August regarding how teams should invest in the running back position. I looked at it the wrong way looking at a few cases like David Wilson, Doug Martin, Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews. No one doubts that these guys are great athletes and football players, but injuries have really hampered their careers over the years.

I also looked at what I perceived as overspending from the Vikings on Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Matt Asiata in 2013 as they spent the most in the NFL on the running back position at $17.5 million. I compared them to a Patriots team that spent $14.4 million less and got more production out of Steven Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Verren. So, while I took the Vikings 5-10-1 and Patriots 12-4 records as the example that proved my hypothesis, I was using the wrong hypothesis.

The new answer to the running back position, especially with the 2011 CBA, is through drafting them. As Bill Barnwell from Grantland explained, signing a free agent RB to a multi-year deal in his late-twenties has proven to typically be a horrible investment. Check the table below:

2011CARCARDeAngelo Williams5 years, $43 million
2011NYGNYGAhmad Bradshaw4 years, $18 million
2011SDNODarren Sproles4 years, $14 million
2011INDNEJoseph Addai3 years, $14 million
2011GBCLEBrandon Jackson2 years, $4.5 million
2011MIACLERicky Williams2 years, $2.6 million
2011CINCINBrian Leonard2 years, $2 million
2012OAKCHIMichael Bush4 years, $14 million
2012SEASEAMarshawn Lynch4 years, $30 million
2012SDCARMike Tolbert4 years, $10 million
2012ATLATLJason Snelling3 years, $4 million
2012NECINBenJarvus Green-Ellis3 years, $9 million
2013STLATLSteven Jackson3 years, $12 million
2013MIADETReggie Bush4 years, $16 million
2013NYJTENShonn Greene3 years, $10 million
2013NESDDanny Woodhead2 years, $3.5 million
2013CINCINCedric Peerman2 years, $2.2 million
2013HOUJACJustin Forsett2 years, $2 million
2013CARNYJMike Goodson3 years, $6.9 million
2014TENNYJChris Johnson2 years, $8 million
2014HOUCLEBen Tate2 years, $6.2 million
2014OAKNYGRashad Jennings4 years, $10 million
2014JACOAKMaurice Jones-Drew3 years, $7.5 million
2014INDSDDonald Brown3 years, $10.5 million
2014GBGBJames Starks2 years, $3.2 million
2014NEPITLeGarrette Blount2 years, $3.9 million
2014SFBUFAnthony Dixon3 years, $3.5 million
2014MINJACToby Gerhart3 years, $10.5 million
2014NYGNYGPeyton Hillis2 years, $1.8 million

Barnwell asks the question: “How many of those deals would these teams sign again if they had the chance?” The only one that everyone would sign again would be Marshawn Lynch’s extension with Seattle and the Justin Forsett deal even though he didn’t hit until he got to Baltimore. Look at that list though, guys who are no longer in the NFL, but their contract was supposed to run through at least this season: Joseph Addai, Jason Snelling, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Goodson, Michael Bush.

Then you’ve got Ben Tate who was cut by not just the Browns, but the Vikings this season, the same year he signed the original deal. Maurice Jones-Drew and Toby Gerhart were incredibly ineffective. Even LeGarrette Blount was released by Pittsburgh before he went back to New England and performed well. Chris Johnson is a part-time player being paid $4 million a year, more than the entire Bengals and Broncos backfield who both produced very well this season.

You can’t give up on running backs just because they’re a very risky position though, as I kind of alluded to doing in my August article. With the advent of the passing game, it might actually make having a great running back MORE important, it certainly makes having a great running game more important as more quarterbacks than ever are throwing for big numbers. With the increased emphasis on throwing flags for defensive players getting handsy in the passing game, passing numbers exploded this season.

In 2014, there were 11 quarterbacks with over 4000 passing yards and nine with over 30 touchdown passes. In 2002, only four quarterbacks had over 4000 yards and zero had over 30 passing TDs. Admittedly, that was the first year I looked at and the only year in the 2000s where a quarterback didn’t have a 30 touchdown season, but the average 30 touchdown seasons per season since 2000 is 3.14 quarterbacks per year. In 2003, 2005, and 2006, there was just one quarterback with a 30 touchdown season in each year: Favre, Palmer and Peyton Manning respectively.

Even Jay Cutler, a player who got benched for the mighty Jimmy Clausen threw for 3812 yards and 28 touchdowns this year. As these passing rules become the norm, there will be an increased need for a great running game to separate from the competition.

From 2010 to 2014, teams with a 1000 yard rusher have a .550 winning percentage and teams without a 1000 yard rusher have a .457 winning percentage. This year, six of the top eight rushers in the NFL made the playoffs and the other two, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy went 19-13 this season.

Now a counter point to many of the top rushers being on many of the top teams is that since they’re ahead in games much of the times, they run the ball more often, but I don’t think that that’s a fair assessment. Just this season, Alfred Morris and Matt Forte combined to go 9-23 and both rushed for over 1000, while in years past, Morris, Jamaal Charles, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Peyton Hillis, and Cedric Benson have all been on teams that were 5-11 or worse. Sometimes teams that are bad run the ball because that’s all they can do well, which can certainly be said for Charles’ 2012 Chiefs, MJD’s days in Jacksonville, and Steven Jackson’s career in St. Louis.

For the six-playoff teams that didn’t have a top rusher, there are other plenty of other factors at play that can explain their lack of a top rusher, but their success.

The Lions had Joique Bell run for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns, with Golden Tate acting as a bit of a supplement to the running game with his ability to turn short, high percentage passes into bigger gains with his 691 yards after catch, the most in the NFL for a receiver with only Matt Forte and Le’Veon Bell in front of him. They also boasted a defense that was second in the NFL in yards surrendered and third in points. All of that with Matt Stafford having almost 4300 yards passing.

Seeing as Joe Lombardi came over from New Orleans and implemented the same offense, it’s no surprise that the Lions were able to go 11-5 without a 1000-yard rusher because the Saints have been winning without one for years. During the Saints Super Bowl winning 2009 season, their leading rusher was Pierre Thomas with 793. Combined with Mike Bell, Reggie Bush and Lynell Hamilton, they had 1962 rushing yards, which is a very good total for a team, it’d place them in the top 10 this season. On top of the rushing yards from the running backs, Bush and Thomas had 86 catches for 637 receiving yards. Altogether, these four backs had 23 total touchdowns. In fact, the Saints haven’t had a 1000-yard rusher since Duece McAllister in 2006.

A side note, the Lions only spent $11.9 million (8.9% of the cap) on their offensive line this season, which could be a huge explanation for their lack of a running game and Matt Stafford being sacked 45 times, the fourth most in the NFL. It was pretty ironic for me to see them play the Cowboys who drafted the player the Lions should have drafted six picks before with Zack Martin.

For a Lions team that has all the pieces to be great, they really didn’t need a right end with the tenth pick (as I said here). Now, I think Eric Ebron is a fantastic athlete and could be a great tight end, but Martin would have been a stalwart on that offensive line. Not to mention the insanity of drafting a tight end when they just signed Brandon Pettigrew to a four-year, $16 million deal with half of it guaranteed. In the end though, that’s why the Lions are the Lions and not the Patriots.

Arizona is a bit more of an anomaly, but helped along by having the NFL’s best coaching job this season by Bruce Arians. They had a very bad season rushing with only 1308 total rushing yards, which was 31st in the NFL, only beating out the Raiders. They also, shockingly, had a defense that was 24th in yards given up, but gave up the fifth least points.

Of course, Denver was helped by another stellar year by Peyton Manning, with 4727 yards and 39 touchdowns, but they really seemed to gained control of their season when they committed to the running game in November. To win in the playoffs they seemed to know that they’d have to balance out a little more than they may have been in the past with their leading rusher in the September loss against the Seahawks being Montee Ball with 38 yards. In fact, in their losses to Seattle, New England, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, their leading rusher had 38, 18, 29 and 83 yards respectively. No matter how good Manning is, they knew they’d have to be ready to run in the playoffs and with a team of their caliber, outside of trying to get the bye week in the first round, the regular season is a bit of practice for the postseason.

The Broncos also have had maybe the most valuable running back by committee (RBBC) in the NFL with C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Juwan Thompson combining for 1727 yards and only costing the team $2.7 million or 2% of their salary cap. (A point that we’ll revisit later.) The Broncos also have the second best receiver in terms of YAC as Demaryius Thomas had 647 of them. His ability to turn those short outside screens into big plays is a huge benefit for an offense. Wes Welker, while he didn’t blow anyone away this season, also acts as a bit of a running game catching 49 of 64 targets at 9.5 yards per reception.

Indianapolis is another team without a 1000-yard rusher that had a great season, again, having an elite quarterback helps you do that with Andrew Luck throwing for 4761 and 40 touchdowns. They did get 1612 on the ground with Trent Richardson leading the way, plodding to 519 on a 3.3 average. I do think that Ahmad Bradshaw’s injury is one of the biggest of the season that no one’s really discussed much considering the Colts are a top contender. Before Bradshaw got hurt, the Colts were averaging 33.2 points per game and after, just 24.6.

When you don’t have a great running game, you need to think of other ways to do the same kind of thing, which is why they did a great job with how they used Boom Herron against Cincinnati, especially considering how well Bradshaw played against them earlier in the year. The Colts also had a surprisingly decent defense that managed to give up the 11th most yards and 19th most points. Of course, playing the Jaguars and Titans twice does wonders for your record, along with the Redskins and the Giants when they were in the middle of their mid-season disaster. Right there, you’ve got 6 wins. The Colts are one year away from being great and a lot of that falls on their lack of a running game and getting a few more pass rushers, which they’ll get immediately when Robert Mathis is healthy next season.

The Panthers made the playoffs without a top rusher because they played in a bad division and they got hot at the right time. They were 3-8-1 going into December and reeled of four straight wins behind a running game and a defense that came alive. During the four game winning streak, Jonathan Stewart ran for 401 yards on 79 carries (5.08 ypc) with one touchdown to finish the year with 809 yards on the ground. Cam Newton averaged 66 per game on the ground in his three December games and the team averaged 188 rushing yards per game in the month, while they only averaged 107 in their first 12 games. They did have 2036 rushing yards on the season, which was 7th in the NFL this year.

Simultaneously, the defense became the team they were in 2013 when they started their fourth and fifth round rookies together in the defensive backfield, safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere, in Week 14. During those four games, the defense gave up only 43 points, with the Seahawks being the only team to outdo them giving up a mere 33.

The sixth and final playoff team without a 1000-yard rusher is the New England Patriots. No one is surprised they’re in despite a lack of a top running back, but The Patriot Way is about finding guys to fill roles and making do with what you have. The creative coaching of the Belichick regime is why they make the playoffs every year no matter who they have…well, as long as they have Tom Brady. This year, they had 1727 rushing yards, mainly between Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Jonas Gray, and LeGarrette Blount, but even Julian Edelman got involved with 94 rushing yards.

Of course, having Tom Brady allows you to skip having a top rusher and still win. As you can see from the quarterbacks on this list of playoff teams that you can make the playoffs without a top rusher, if you have a top passer, not that surprising. To add to that, you can make the playoffs without a top rusher if you have a great RBBC with great backs to fill different roles in the offense.

This year, there are 11 teams that I think did a very good job putting together a balanced and deep RBBC. These include the Saints, Lions, Patriots, Chargers, Eagles, Rams, Redskins, Chiefs, Bengals, Seahawks and Bills. I know some of these teams have well-rounded lead backs, but they’ve got players behind them that are more than capable of filling in, as many of them displayed this season.

Two teams who haven’t done a good job in creating a deep RBBC are the two that have the most well rounded backs in the NFL, the Bears and the Steelers, something that hurt the Steelers in the playoffs when Bell went down. Forte had 1038 on 266 carries and 102 catches for 808 and 10 total touchdowns, while Bell carried the ball 290 times for 1361 and caught 83 balls for 854 yards with 11 total touchdowns.

While they’re both fantastic backs who anyone would want on their team, their teams are constructed in a way that leaves the teams in a really bad spot if either of them goes down. While the Kansas City Chiefs have a more than capable backup in Knile Davis who has stepped in and performed very well when Jamaal Charles has been hurt in the past as well as a young pass catching threat in De’Anthony Thomas, both of these teams seem to have no one who can replace Forte or Bell at all. Of course, getting rid of an unhappy LeGarrette Blount in the middle of the season didn’t help the Steelers.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks did a fantastic job constructing their backfield. They did this by betting on two players, both of whom have proved to be capable backups, ready to accept Marshawn Lynch’s role when he, presumably, moves on at the end of his contract.

In 2012, they drafted Robert Turbin with their fourth round pick and in 2013, they drafted Christine Michael with their second rounder. In three seasons, Turbin has basically gotten one full season of work with 928 yards rushing on 231 carries and 43 catches for 427 yards and two receiving touchdowns. To the outside observer, he looks like he could become a well-rounded starting running back when Lynch leaves, while we’ve all heard about the tremendous potential of Christine Michael, we just haven’t seen much of it on the field yet outside of a few exciting plays.

By drafting two running backs in the last two years, leading up to the end of Lynch’s contract, they’ve really set themselves up for the future and mitigated the risk that one of them could be a dud or have a career altering injury, which is what every team should try to do in constructing a backfield.

In my opinion, I think the Cincinnati Bengals have the best running back situation in the NFL, they also have gotten the most bang for their buck with two top players while only spending $3.7 million or 2.8% of their salary cap on Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. They’re the perfect example of how to build your backfield through the draft, the only risk being that every team isn’t going to hit on two running back draft picks in a row like the Bengals did.

In a normal year, Hill would be the Rookie of the Year with 1124 rushing yards on 222 attempts (5.1 ypc), 9 touchdowns and 215 receiving yards on 27 catches as the lead back for a playoff team. Bernard missed three games, but finished the year with 680 rushing on 168 carries (4.0 ypc) as well as 43 catches for 349 yards and 7 total touchdowns.

Under the new CBA, the draft has proven to be the way to build a backfield as 26 of the running backs that I estimate would start if they were healthy were drafted by their current team or acquired as undrafted free agents. Only the Jets and Seahawks traded for their starting running backs and four were picked up through free agency: Justin Forsett (Ravens), Rashad Jennings (Giants), Ahmad Bradshaw (Colts), and Steven Jackson (Falcons). The second contracts for running backs has too often become paying players for what they’ve done, rather than what they’re going to do in the future. Steven Jackson is the only of those three backs who was a superstar before signing his deal, which is why he got $12 million over three years to rush for around 3.5 yards per carry.

The Broncos have also constructed a great backfield through the draft and undrafted players. They didn’t even make a play for Knowshon Moreno after his great 2013 season of 1038 rushing on 241 (4.3 ypc) with 60 catches for 548 and 13 total touchdowns, even though he ended up signing for one-year, $3 million with Miami, which was a pretty team friendly contract for a 27-year old running back coming off a career year with over 1500 yards from scrimmage. They ended up doing well for themselves though with the attack of Anderson, Hillman, Ball and Thompson.

Like the Seahawks, the Broncos drafted in a way that prepared them when Moreno walked by drafting Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the 2012 draft and Montee Ball in the second round of the 2013 draft. They picked Anderson up as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and Thompson as one in 2014. By constructing their roster this way, the running back position only costs them $2.7 million or 2% of their cap which allows them to lock up the receivers and offensive line they need to make this offense keep on rolling with Peyton Manning.

So to wrap this up, the way to construct a team’s running back position is through the draft, not through free agency as the new CBA makes it difficult to pay running backs in their late twenties what they’re actually going to be worth for you, rather than what they’ve done previously.

For teams that draft a great running back, it might be better to sign them to an extension before their contract is up like the Eagles did after LeSean McCoy’s All-Pro 2011 season, his third in the league. This allows McCoy to cash in and the Eagles to have him locked up through his 29-year old season.

Similarly, the Chiefs signed Jamaal Charles to a five-year deal during his December of his third-year with the team, 2010, then to a two-year extension in 2014 that keeps him with the team through his 31-year old season. Considering that Jamaal Charles can move into a role as more of a pass catcher, it’s not far-fetched to think that he could be productive through that season.

If your team doesn’t have a great lead running back though, your team needs two things: a) then you need a great offensive coaching staff that can get creative with how they use their running backs, b) a front office and coaching staff that have a great eye for low-cost talent and c) a front office and staff that work with each other to put the right pieces in place.

A great example of this in action of the years has been the Saints and Patriots, but, like I said before, the Broncos have done a great job of that this season. A last point to be made is that the turnover at the running back position is quick. Four of the 15 running backs who ran for 1000 yards in 2011 are out of the NFL, Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, Beanie Wells and Willis McGahee.

Another four were healthy this season, but are on their last leg in Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, and Chris Johnson as they combined for 1858 between them with MJD only having 96 yards on 2.2 per carry and S. Jax averaging 3.7 per carry. Ray Rice was suspended, but beginning to near the end of his career anyway with only 660 yards last year on 3.1 yards per carry.

Reggie Bush and Ryan Mathews missed most of the season due to injury. The only of these 15 that played well this season are LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore who seems like the ageless man. Meanwhile, the top 12 passers in terms of yardage in 2011 were all still starting in the NFL this season and 14 of the top 15 are still in the NFL. Of the top 15 passers in 2011 (which included Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez), 10 of these passers were in the top 15 this year.

If I had to bet on the runners to still be running for 1000 yards in a season in 2017, I’d bet on these four Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Jeremy Hill and Lamar Miller. Even if your team has one of those four guys, but especially if they don’t, then it’s time to go out and draft yourself a running back!


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