NFL Draft Highlights Running Backs’ Shrinking Role in Offenses

The running back was once viewed as the cornerstone of an NFL offense, with teams using their workhorse to dominate the run game while setting up the passing game. Backs such as Ki-Jana Carter, Bo Jackson, Billy Sims and the late O.J. Simpson were first overall draft picks, showing just how much teams valued the position.

That run-first mindset of years past hasn’t stood the test of time, though. The first round of the 2024 NFL Draft came and went on Thursday night without one running back being taken off the board—the second time in three years no back has been taken in the first round. It only happened twice in the previous 40 years, which is indicative of the state of the once-popular position.

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Thirty-two running backs were selected in the first round in the 1990s, and another 32 in the 2000s. But just 15 were picked in the first round in the 2010s, and there have only been five first-rounders at the position in the first five drafts of the 2020s.

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson and Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs were the exceptions in 2023. Robinson, who was drafted eighth overall last year, is listed as a running back but is known as a versatile all-around player who blocks well and can also shine in the passing game as a slot receiver.

“The running back is another receiver now,” former Baltimore Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis said.

Lewis says he started noticing the shift toward the end of his career in 2009, where backs started to receive fewer touches as offensive schemes called for increasing the number of passing attempts. Fast-forward to today where only three running backs (49ers' Christian McCaffery, Titans' Derrick Henry, Buccaneers' Rachaad White) had more than 270 carries last season.

In 2023, the average NFL team’s lead running back carried the ball 14.4 times per game. In 2003, that number was 17.6.

The strong adoption of the spread offense over the last decade—from youth 7v7 camps to college football installations—has contributed to the diminished role of NFL running backs, resulting in their decline in value on the market. Farewell to the ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ mantra teams once embodied before adopting a more skill-intensive approach.

“The game has become much more about speed than it used to be,” NFL agent Brad Blank said. “When you want to emphasize speed, you want to do it in space.”

The NFL competition committee has tweaked rules over the years that favor quarterback play as the league aims to create more scoring and a product that drives excitement for fans. In 2020, league teams scored its most points ever in a single season (12,692).

“They’re totally in favor of it,” Blank said. “Look how popular the league is, with the [massive] television contracts, and the passing game has made it what it is. So, nobody but the running backs would complain about this. Well, maybe their agents too.”

Analytics have also shown that running backs tend to decline in production after a handful of NFL seasons, which has led to the extinction of the workhorse running back who once carried the ball 20-30 times a game. Most teams have instead focused on delivering their running attack by committee with two or three tailbacks—without paying any of them top dollar.

This has made the running back more disposable as teams commit larger investments to other offensive positions, most notably quarterback and wide receiver. Even some of the best rushers have struggled to get a righteous pay raise. It took Saquon Barkley finally leaving New York and signing with the rival Philadelphia Eagles to get his new $37 million contact.

And as a result, teams have been using their first-round pick on other positions, thinking they can find talent at the position in later rounds at a better value. That is the case unless, of course, there’s an undeniable talent available such as Barkley or Robinson who can fit the versatile mold for which GMs are looking.

“Teams don’t care where a player gets drafted,” Roc Nation Sports co-head John Thornton said in an interview. “Agents and players do.”

The NFL salary cap has reached an all-time high of $255.4 million this year (jumping up 13% from last season). This added wiggle room is a godsend for general managers looking to re-sign veteran players, but only a few teams have utilized the extra cash on running backs. Some believe that the stagnation in running back salary has more to do with other positions that are seeing escalation in compensation at a rate that matches with the salary cap’s growth.

It's a zero-sum game, and running backs are feeling the brunt on and off the field.

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