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How much value is the running back position in today’s NFL?

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The Afternoon Drive considers how much the RB position has been marginalized in the pass-heavy offenses of today’s NFL.

NFL: Denver Broncos-OTA Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As the Denver Broncos’ most famous running back prepares for his Pro Football Hall of Fame golden jacket presentation next month, it’s timely that Eric Goodman and Les Shapiro considered on The Afternoon Drive how much the running back position has been devalued in NFL offenses today.

“The position is so devalued, the game has changed so much, that the position once seen as the most important, is now seen as one of the least important,” Goodman said, noting that the days of “Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris, Adrian Peterson” are long gone (we’ll forgive Goodman this once for forgetting to add Davis’ name in that list). “Those days are over.”

It’s an interesting question, particularly given the fact that the Broncos were supposedly going to return to a more run-heavy offense two years ago when Gary Kubiak signed on as head coach (despite joining a team that boasted one of the most prolific passers as its quarterback with Peyton Manning).

But for a variety of reasons - including a poor offensive line, quarterbacks with passing strengths, running back weaknesses, and a total lack of creativity in scheme implementation - a more run-oriented offense never materialized as expected under Kubiak.

So why is it that the running back position is the third lowest paid position on an NFL team these days - just above punter and kicker?

The most obvious is the emphasis on the quarterback plus the punishing hits running backs take play after play.

“The RB position has been incredibly downgraded because more teams rely on the QB to move the ball,” Shapiro noted. “First and second downs are no longer strictly running plays. They pass on every down now.”

A quick Internet search (and certainly NOT a scientific poll) makes this question of the running back’s value an intriguing one. If not just looking at average salary compared to other positions, the sports writers’ perspectives provide an interesting take.

According to a Fox Sports writer earlier this spring, the running back’s value to a team in 2017 ranked 10th among the 17 positions, with the fullback at 15.

NFL.com in 2015 ranked the running back position as seventh out of 25 (splitting out right and left sides for O-line and No. 1 and 2 for wide receivers). But also that year, Pete Prisco noted that the glamour running back isn’t coming back to the NFL because they just get too beat up to be worth a big salary or a high pick in the draft.

“Don't get any ideas that the backs are on their way back to prominence again,” Prisco writes. “That's your daddy's football. ...Players like Earl Campbell, Billy Sims and George Rogers went first in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rogers was picked ahead of Lawrence Taylor, who went on to be a Hall of Fame linebacker. Think about that for a second: a running back ahead of an elite edge rusher. Never happens now.”

Going back four years, a 2013 Bleacher Report article considering whether running back or slot receiver was more important - which was also the year that Peterson was NFL Network’s No. 1 player of its Top 100 - landed on the running back but noted that it wouldn’t be long before it was slot receiver. Those days may have come.

But even with all this “devaluing,” every week teams talk about the need to balance the passing game with a solid running game in order to wear down the opposing defense and give their own defense more rest. It was a balance the Broncos’ offense never found last season and one the defense got punished by every game.

So I’m not so sure if the position in an overall offensive scheme has been devalued as much as the idea of a superstar RB to carry an offense has less appeal.

What do you think, Broncos Country?

Poll

How do you rank the RB position among other positions for importance on the team?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Still extremely important to an offense even if a pass-heavy scheme
    (131 votes)
  • 59%
    Teams need a good running game, but it definitely ranks below the passing game and good defensive positions.
    (243 votes)
  • 5%
    Until we go back to smashmouth football with tough guys, today’s running backs are weaksauce.
    (21 votes)
  • 3%
    Shasta, Whorfin, jmac-31, French Fred, Saguaro Bronco (choose your poison!)
    (14 votes)
409 votes total Vote Now