Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the running back position is being devalued in the NFL. It’s a common cliché that is a direct result of another NFL cliché: it’s a passing league now. Both of these are true statements. In a world where only four running backs are making an average of $7 million or more a year, and where the 2015 league-leading rusher only averaged 20 carries per game, it’s become quite clear that the running back is becoming a thing of the past. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this trend was in the 2015 offseason, when the Dallas Cowboys refused to offer the reigning rushing champion and NFL Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray north of $6 million a year to keep him. Instead, Dallas believed they could simply plug in any running back behind their dominant offensive line and still find success. If that’s not proof of a devalued position, I don’t know what is.
But what if I told you that we are currently living in a golden age of running backs? Wouldn’t believe me, would you? Take the blue pill by hitting the back button and leaving this page. Take the red pill by scrolling down (the rabbit hole) and reading more.
The fact is that we currently have some elite talents carrying the ball in the NFL. The only problem is that the current trend on offense is guided towards passing as much as possible due to a recent influx of top-tier quarterback talent, meaning that there is an increasingly smaller portion of pie to spread around to the running backs, unless they specialize in catching the ball out of the backfield, such as Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead, and Lance Dunbar. By now you’re probably wondering who these elite running backs are. I’ll break it down for you in a very simply way.
The Usual Suspects
By now, you know all of these names: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, and Frank Gore. Arian Foster gets an honorable mention here too, because while the soon-to-be 30 year-old is having trouble with durability, he still has top-tier talent. Charles was on his way to yet another fantastic season in 2015 before tearing his ACL early on. Forte and Gore, both of whom are starting to break down like Foster, still showed they have plenty of gas left in the tank, as Forte racked up 898 yards in just 13 games and Gore finished 9th in the league in rushing with 967 yards. McCoy battled against an average-at-best offensive line and nagging injuries to get 895 yards in just 12 games.
Then, of course, there’s Adrian Peterson. The league rushing champion did so with 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns. Peterson, who missed all but one game in 2014 while on the commissioner’s exempt list, rebounded in a huge way to reassert himself as the best running back in the NFL by far.
These players may be getting up there in age, as all of them except for McCoy will be 30 by the end of 2016, but they haven’t lost their shine at all. When healthy, these players are all more than capable of ranking in the top ten in the league in rushing yards.
The Young Guns
This is the group of running backs that have certainly flashed the potential to become the next round of usual suspects, but they’re too young to make any determinant claims. This group features the likes of Doug Martin, Le’Veon Bell, Latavius Murray, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Jeremy Langford, Carlos Hyde, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and even recent draft picks Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry. That’s a lot of names.
Martin had himself a fantastic rookie year, a sophomore season cut short by injuries, a disappointing third year, and then a rebound year in 2015 that saw him place second behind Peterson in total rushing yards. Hopefully he’ll have more seasons like this one, but it’s too early to tell how consistent he’ll be going forward. Bell is dangerously close to making the jump into the usual suspects category after two dominant seasons to start his career, but a torn MCL in 2015 has limited the sample size on this Steeler.
Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde are all riding the divide between budding star and full-blown star. Lacy has led the Packers’ ground game for the past two years but still splits carries with James Starks. Can he prove himself as a primary workhorse back going forward? Likewise, Hill’s carries count is still chained to Giovani Bernard, but Hill has undoubtedly cemented himself as the starter in Cincinnati and could very soon make Bernard obsolete altogether. In 2015, Hill scored as many touchdowns as Peterson (11) with 104 less carries. I’m not saying Hill is better than Peterson, but he’s definitely showcasing some immense talent. And Hyde finally stepped out from Frank Gore’s shadow and took over the 49ers’ ground game. The only downside? His ascent to the top of the depth chart coincided with a full-blown meltdown of the organization. That, along with injuries that kept him limited to only playing in 7 games, led to Hyde posting only 470 yards, but he looked good in the few times he did play. It’s entirely possible that the adaptation to Chip Kelly’s scheme will fail just as much as it did for Murray in 2015, and we might see further coach-inflicted stunted growth of Hyde, but the potential is undoubtedly there.
Latavius Murray and Jeremy Langford are two players who simply aren’t getting enough attention. Murray, after a breakout 2014 campaign, became the full-time starter and delivered some stellar results. The Raider accumulated 1,066 yards, good enough for 6th in the league in rushing yards, and cemented himself as the top runner for an offense that also features QB Derek Carr, electric receiver Amari Cooper, and a resurgent Michael Crabtree. That offensive core has the potential to be as effective as the Peyton Manning-Edgerrin James-Reggie Wayne-Pierre Garcon core that made the Colts so great for so many seasons. Langford, on the other hand, did what so many others failed to do: showed enough of a mix of potential and production to convince the Bears they could move on from Forte. Langford only got an average of 9 carries per game, but he managed to rack up 537 yards and 6 touchdowns, doing most of his damage when he started for 5 consecutive games while Forte was injured. It remains to be seen if Langford’s small sample size will translate to full-time starter status in the same way it did for Latavius Murray, but this is one young gun who’s got a very bright future in Chicago.
Gurley and Gordon are two players who accomplished amazing things in college. An amazing two and a half years at Georgia was cut short when Gurley tore his ACL, but that didn’t stop the Rams (then still in St. Louis) from picking him 10th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. The gamble paid off, as Gurley started 12 games and racked up 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, leaving him third in the league in rushing yards. Meanwhile, Gordon did crazy things in college, including averaging 124 yards per game his junior season and averaging 185 yards per game his senior season, while also scoring 41 touchdowns in those final two seasons alone. His rookie year coincided with a San Diego Chargers team that looked awful in every aspect of the game, and as a result, Gordon’s stats looked mediocre before injuring his knee late in the season. He still finished in the top 30 of rushers and with a revamped offensive line in San Diego, Gordon should be on the cusp of reclaiming the glory of his college days in the same way Gurley did.
Then there’s two who have yet to take their first NFL snaps: Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry. Elliott is the unquestioned starter in Dallas, even with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris on the team, and gets to run behind what many consider to be the best offensive line in the NFL. Elliott’s ceiling is high enough for him to become the next Adrian Peterson, and he looks to be in a situation that can maximize his blue chip talent. With Henry, the question is how long his shelf life is. The Heisman-winning National Champion has no shortage on skill, but concerns about a heavy workload in college are hard to shake. Still, Henry represents a hard-nosed, downhill runner with a style very similar to that of recently-retired Marshawn Lynch and if Henry truly doesn’t miss a beat, then this is just one more top tier running back in the making.
The Forgotten Ones
These are the players whose contributions on the football field are just as important as those of the usual suspects or the young guns, but their general lack of name recognition leads to people forgetting how great they are. This grouping consists of Chris Ivory, Devonta Freeman, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Johnson, and Darren McFadden.
Ivory just signed a big contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, which was well-deserved after a 1,070 yard, 7 touchdown performance in 2015 for the New York Jets. He finished fifth in the league in rushing yards, doing better than half the people listed above. Freeman had a similar season, breaking out for 1,056 yards and tying the league-high for touchdowns with 11, finishing seventh in the league among running backs. Ranking right behind him was Jonathan Stewart, the man who features as part one of the three-headed monster known as the Carolina Panthers ground game. No team ran the ball more often than Carolina did in 2015, and Stewart led that attack despite being usurped by QB Cam Newton in the battle for media attention.
Chris Johnson, who is more often remembered for his days as CJ2K and more recently for flaming out, had a big comeback year for the Cardinals. He started big with 814 yards and 3 touchdowns but missed the last few games with injury. Still, Johnson reminded everyone that he is very much still a running back capable of taking over games. Darren McFadden similarly is known for being a player whose best days were behind him. Yet, in 2015 McFadden actually outperformed Ivory with the fourth most rushing yards in the NFL (1,089) despite starting less games than the former Jet. McFadden’s carries in 2016 will almost certainly decrease sharply behind Elliott, but that doesn’t change the fact that McFadden has top ten abilities still.
Marshawn Lynch is retired now, and while rumors of his return certainly won’t be squashed anytime soon, it’s time to accept a post-Beast-Mode NFL. Regardless, Lynch and his bruising style of play contributed greatly to the development of this current golden age of running backs and even though he won’t be bowling over defenders and awkwardly avoiding interviewers, he’s worth mentioning.
It’s very clear that there are plenty of running backs – old, new, and somewhere in between – whose talent levels range from All-Pro worthy to future Hall of Famer status. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an era in the NFL where there were this many great running backs all at once. It’s safe to say that we’re in a golden age of running backs right now. The awkward part is that nobody quite seems to care. As the cliché goes, it’s a passing league now, and no amount of running talent can change the fact that every offensive coordinator wants to throw the ball 40 times a game. I mean, when Adrian Peterson averages 20 carries per game and that’s statistically the highest amount of carries in the 2015 season, it’s clear that player talent has no impact anymore.
The running back position has been effectively devalued.
Just don’t forget that the 2016 season has an amazing crop of talent at such a devalued position.