Cosell’s Take: Running back value in today’s NFL

Greg Cosell
Shutdown Corner

Much has been written about the decreasing importance and ultimate devaluation of the running back position in the NFL. This has now become an annual rite of spring leading up to the NFL draft. The argument seems to be presented in a number of different ways, all with a single overriding theme: You can find good running backs anywhere in the draft, so it makes no sense to select one in the first round, especially in the top 10 or 15. All you have to do is go back one year. There were many who believed Trent Richardson, as strong a prospect as he was, was simply not worth the third pick in the draft. Those who said so were not denigrating Richardson; they were speaking to the perceived and diminished value of running backs in the NFL.

Of course, there are many layers and underlying principles to this contention. For many, it stems from what it is now an undisputed truth in the NFL: it’s all about the quarterback. Without a top level player at the game’s most important position, everything else, when all is said and done, becomes marginally relevant. Those advocates always point out many of the better backs in the league, and where they were drafted, the most recent example being Alfred Morris of the Redskins. He was taken in the 6th round last year, the 173rd player selected. All he did was rush for 1613 yards, second only to Adrian Peterson. And by the way, that was 663 yards more than Richardson. Jamal Charles was a third-round pick in 2008; he has rushed for more than 1,450 yards twice, this past year gaining 1,509 yards after an ACL injury. He has never averaged less than 5.3 yards per rush in his 5 years in the NFL.

The true poster child for this argument is Arian Foster. He was not even drafted out of Tennessee after the 2008 college season. Houston signed him as a free agent in 2009. No back has carried the ball more times for more yards over the last three seasons, and he is, without question, one of the true feature backs in the NFL, the foundation of the Texans offense. The list goes on and on. Frank Gore was a third round pick, Ray Rice and Matt Forte were both chosen in the second round. For those true believers, the discussion is over. You can get quality, and even special, NFL backs anywhere in the draft. Why waste a first-round selection on a position that’s one, not that important in the overall NFL model, and two, can be ably filled later in the draft, or perhaps even in free agency?

Foster is the most interesting because he conveys a larger point in seemingly paradoxical ways. He proves you do not need to utilize a high pick on a running back to find one that can be a feature back in the NFL. At the same time, he also drives home the point that no matter how productive your back is as the foundation of your offense, he’s not the critical player in a true championship contention offense. I think most would agree that the Texans offense fell short last season because Matt Schaub did not perform at a high enough level down the stretch.

This raises far more questions than simply where running backs should be drafted, and what their ultimate value is in the NFL. The Texans, in fact, present a fascinating paradigm. They are an offense clearly built on the running game. Their passing game is most efficient, and explosive through the seamless integration of run and pass concepts. That’s their modus operandi. It’s difficult to argue with their overall production the last number of years, when Schaub has been healthy. Yet, their passing game, when unable to effectively deploy run/pass action, has not been as proficient. What conclusion can be drawn? Is it fair to say that no matter how well you run the ball, and how beautifully designed and executed your running game may be, that ultimately it is not the barometer by which to measure offensive success, especially against better defenses in the playoffs?

It is easy to say you can’t compete for Super Bowls without a high-level quarterback. That’s a platitudinous abstraction that, in the real world of trying to build offense and win games, has little meaning for coaches, especially those that do not have one of the better seven or eight quarterbacks in the game. Equally abstract, and in many ways just as hollow, is the notion that you can plug in anyone at the running back position and be fine. Simply because there have been numerous examples of later round picks and free agents having success does not mean that you pass on highly rated and potentially outstanding backs in the draft. Couldn’t you then theoretically say this about any position, other than quarterback? Believe it or not, it was even said by many about the quarterback position after Tom Brady won Super Bowls as a sixth round pick, the 199th player chosen in the 2000 draft.

It leads to intriguing suppositions. Have we reached the point in the NFL where the running game and all involved with it is complementary, and not directly essential to winning offense? Is Peterson, who in my view had the best offensive season of any player in the history of the NFL and is now part of the "best-ever running back" conversation, simply a glorified role player? As we extrapolate to this year, what about Eddie Lacy, the only true foundation/feature back in the 2013 draft? I have spoken to some who believe he’s a better runner than Richardson. What is Lacy’s value in today’s NFL?

Let’s put this discussion in a more practical context. Teams put together draft boards. They normally have an overall board, regardless of position, and then another one in which they evaluate and rank players based on specific positions. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say you’re the St. Louis Rams, with the 22nd pick in the first round. Your running back depth chart has two second year players, Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. Richardson had some nice moments as a late round rookie in 2012, but he’s 190 pounds. Pead was a second-round pick a year ago, but was always seen as more of a second back, an explosive complement to a feature back. A year ago, you had Steven Jackson; he’s gone, so now you do not have a quality starting running back on the roster. You have Lacy rated as the 21st best player on your board. Do you not take him because you can always draft a running back later, as the argument goes, in the third or even the fifth round? And by the way, the back you then select later will not be good as Lacy, or you would have had him rated significantly higher.

This is where the abstraction of value in a broader NFL philosophical ideal has little meaning. Jeff Fisher and the Rams know that Sam Bradford becoming a better and more reliable quarterback is the most critical and decisive element in the offense advancing to the necessary playoff level. But right now, as they enter the 2013 season, looking to compete in the NFC West with San Francisco and Seattle, the Rams' offense demands a consistent and sustaining running game. That’s the reality. We are not in academia; we are in the real world.

Do people really want to argue that Frank Gore was not important to the 49ers offensive success the last 2 seasons, even with Colin Kaepernick adding a far more explosive dimension to the passing game this past season? How about Marshawn Lynch in Seattle? He rushed for more than 1,500 yards this past season. We know that Russell Wilson raised the Seahawks offense to a higher level, but could the offense have achieved the same with a lesser back? Let’s not forget that Lynch was a first-round pick, the 12th player chosen in the 2007 draft by the Bills, before being traded to the Seahawks during the 2010 season.

None of this is to suggest that it’s not a quarterback-driven league, but we need to be careful how far we then move the pendulum the other way. No one would argue that running backs are more important than quarterbacks. All you have to do is look at 3rd down. We all know that 3rd down is the most important down in football for one reason: it’s the possession down, so those plays inherently take on greater significance. Make no mistake, third-and-long is the quarterback’s down. He has to make tough throws, often in tight windows, against the best of what defensive coordinators have to offer. If you do not have a quarterback that can do that, your percentage chance of contending for anything meaningful lessens significantly. We all understand this. That’s not the same as postulating that running backs are interchangeable, and thus somehow not relevant to consistent offensive success in the NFL.

There will always be those who believe it doesn’t matter, that without a high level quarterback, you have almost no chance to compete for a Super Bowl. That’s fine for those sitting at home who don’t have to build teams, game plan on a weekly basis and try to win games on Sunday. For those whose livelihoods depend on it, they know the intrinsic value of both a quality running game and a good back. Neither is unimportant or inconsequential in the NFL.

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