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Betting on the Future of the Running Back Position

Two running backs were drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, a potential sign that the way we have devalued the position could be coming to an end

The NFL Draft was last week, and it is an event that has always interested me. Fans of all 32 teams enter the draft with the same hope: to improve their roster for the next season. Different teams have different goals going into every draft. For instance, a team like the Houston Texans is looking to rebuild their team around a young quarterback and edge rusher. While a team like the Kansas City Chiefs is looking to add depth to their championship roster.

An interesting oddity this year though, was the return of the running back position to the first round. After a year of no running backs being taken in the first round, we saw two taken this year: Bijan Robinson from Texas going to the Atlanta Falcons and Jahmyr Gibbs of Alabama to the Detroit Lions. Interestingly, both backs were selected in the top 12 which is the first time that has happened since 2017 when Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery went 4 and 8. And while many have slammed both the Falcons and Lions for these picks a deeper development may be at play: the running back position is being reinvented and with it the value of college running backs.

The Decline of a Position

For many years now, many football fans have proclaimed that the running back position is dead. It is an argument that is legitimate but requires a little nuance and history. In the past, think from the 1970s through to around 2015, a championship team was considered to be built around a strong running game. And the conventional wisdom behind that was that to have a strong running game you needed an elite running back that could take the punishment of having the ball handed to him 30 times or more per game.

In those days it was typical for a running back to get over 300 carries per game. This past season only 3 players eclipsed that number: Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, and Nick Chubb. This is an improvement from previous years. In 2016 only one player eclipsed that mark: the Cowboys’ Ezekial Elliot. If we go back to 2005, 10 players exceeded this threshold. What does all this mean? It means that teams became frightened of relying so much on one player that gets hit every time they touch the ball. The solution has been the platoon system, where different types of running backs could be used in different situations.

When I was a kid in New York I remember the Giants trying something to this effect when they drafted Heisman winner Ron Dayne from Wisconsin. The Giants already had a great running back in Tiki Barber and the pairing would be dubbed “Thunder and Lightning” to indicate the power and speed tandem that the two would have. We have seen that idea become the norm in the NFL in recent years. We saw the platoon system executed extremely well by the Kansas City Chiefs this past year for instance. Using a three-back system of Isaiah Pacheco, Clyde Edwards Helaire, and Jerrick McKinnon that gave the team elements of power rushing, speed on the outside, and pass-catching abilities.

The benefit of this system has been that the offense can have a variety of looks for its rushing attack. A team that had a running back that went north and south without much shiftiness could now pair that player with a complementary back that could be leveraged on the outside with toss plays and screen passes. This created a mix-and-match approach that has proved to be very effective in keeping defenses guessing. But a side effect has been that it has completely devalued the running back position. More and more now we see running backs go through long negotiation processes with their teams (something that Ezekial Elliot went through and one that the Giants’ Saquon Barkley is going through now) and they are often replaced quicker than any other position. And while many have accepted this as a new reality, perhaps it is simply the running backs' turn to reinvent the perception of the position as many other positions have done this past decade.

Reimagining Positions

Football in its current state is constantly evolving. The notions of how it should be played or the marriage to the idea of a “pro-style” have been proven erroneous. In the past, we defined multiple positions by certain attributes. Quarterbacks had to be tall with a big arm and operated from the pocket exclusively. Today, we have seen scrambling ability become a prerequisite. Statuesque prospects like Josh Rosen and Jacob Eason have failed due to not having these skills, but are players that would have been cherished had they entered the league 20 years ago.

Beyond the quarterback position, we have seen other positions become more valuable and different than what was accepted in the past. A prime example of this is the term “edge rusher”. These players are not traditional defensive ends or traditional linebackers. They offer the athleticism to go after the quarterback but also the versatility to offer pass coverage. As a result, they have gone higher in the draft than previous defensive linemen have, and they are leaner and more versatile, and as a result have become the new standard for perimeter linemen.

The wide receiver position has also experienced a similar change. In the past, many teams sought out tall possession receivers that could take a vertical pattern and score touchdowns, the classic examples of this prototype are Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. But as time has passed, route runners have become more valuable as the short and intermediate passing game has become more common. A traditional possession receiver is now considered a wasted investment if he does not possess some level of route-running versatility. This has led to the drafting of receivers that have speed and agility that can be used in several ways, leading to the reinvention of the wide receiver position.

So if all of these positions can change and create value for different play style types, then why have we not accepted this change with the running back position? The course correction has been to devalue the feature back and instead cobble together multiple decent backs in the hopes of replacing one elite do-it-all player. By drafting Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs in the first half of the first round, the Falcons and Lions are making a bet on the potential for these players to shift the conversation about what we expect from a running back.

A Move Towards Elite Versatility

It is accepted and understood that the NFL is now a passing league. Teams have prioritized scoring points, and they are doing this through the air. This has extended to some running backs, such as Austin Eckler and Christian McCaffery, that have dominated through the air and on the ground. In Robinson and Gibbs, we have two prospects that could fit this mold. Gibbs in particular showed these skills at Alabama by catching 44 passes on top of rushing the ball 151 times.

These new types of backs have proven to be effective in between the tackles on running plays, in the slot as a receiving option, and in the screen game to counteract an aggressive defense. This seems to be the new mold of the running back. Not a player that is limited by running plays or merely a specialist that catches screen passes and is labeled a “third down back”. And as a new mold is established then we will see more players that fit this mold drafted higher in the draft.

We saw this with running quarterbacks years ago. Many front offices were afraid to “waste” a high first-round pick on this type of player until it became the norm. We have seen mobile quarterbacks, even ones that are undersized, selected at the top of the draft (which we saw this year when the Carolina Panthers selected Bryce Young with the number one overall pick). The Falcons and Lions are hoping that they are ahead of the curve, and are banking on driving a bit of a renaissance of the running back position. For the record, I think they may be onto something and that we as a collective football-watching public have overcorrected a bit when it comes to this position. If both Robinson and Gibbs are successful, I would look to see the way that scouts and GMs approach the running back position change, and the types of players that enter the league at that position will change as well.

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