Another year of football, another year of the NFL running in circles when it comes to running backs. Despite ample reason not to, we see several teams invest heavily in a running back. And almost every time they come to regret that decision. This can hold a franchise back much in the way missing on a first-round quarterback, or any player, can.
Backs Have NFL Running in Circles
No Absence of Evidence
Locking in a player at a position with such a short shelf-life should be enough cause for pause. In a league where the average career length is just 3.3 years, running backs bring up the rear of the position groups at just 2.57 years.
This isn’t just a faceless projection of numbers, either. We have concrete evidence from just this past season of why teams should spread the wealth elsewhere.
Of the top seven backs by salary (the cutoff is making $10 million or more), only Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara made it through the season unscathed. Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey, David Johnson (woof), and Joe Mixon missed large chunks of the season.
To be fair, three of the top-10 rushers from last season are on this list in Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Ezekiel Elliott who, though he finished fifth in rushing this season, came into camp out of shape and looked a step slow.
Johnson’s contract is the oldest but, just like most of the others, it aged poorly fast. Singed in 2018, Johnson went on to have the second-best season of his career with 1,386 total yards from scrimmage. His rushing average did drop to sub-4.0 per carry.
It would only get worse for Johnson from that point on as he missed time each of the last two seasons and three of his last four. His average rose this season but it didn’t do much good as he missed Weeks 10-12.
More of the Same
McCaffrey (and Mixon in Cincinnati before the arrival of Joe Burrow) is the best thing going in Carolina and the smallish back was rewarded for it. But, after back-to-back seasons with 300-plus touches, he ended up on the shelf.
McCaffrey missed all but three games with various injuries. It was a banner moment for the detractors who said he was too small to last.
Elliott has long been a focal point of the Dallas offense but was once the focal point. But the necessary ascension of Dak Prescott found Zeke on the backburner often this past season.
He also came into camp out of shape and saw second-year man Tony Pollard show some juice in his stead. It’s not too far out there to picture the Cowboys cutting bait after the 2022 season.
Cook was leading the league in rushing for several weeks but missed time causing him to finish second to Henry. The dual-threat back is arguably Minnesota’s best player but he’s missed time in all four of his seasons in the NFL.
Still, he’s seen his carry totals rise each year and surpassed the dreaded “300-carry” mark.
This should a warning to teams rostering the next batch of extension candidates. The likes of Josh Jacobs in Las Vegas, or Kenyan Drake who was transition tagged by Arizona but will be looking for a new deal this offseason.
We haven’t even touched on Saquon Barkley, who’s gone from playing a full slate as a rookie to missing 14 games two years later.
What are these teams to do? Jacobs is the second-best player for the Raiders and has missed time in both of his seasons in the NFL. Drake has been a part-time player since college and proved why so he’ll likely move on. Plus Arizona has Chase Edmonds to at least share the load.
But the Raiders are in a tough spot seeing as how there could be changes at the quarterback position.
It matters what kind of changes come. A rookie passer means a rookie contract at the game’s most expensive position. Any high-priced running back better be on a team with one of those otherwise it gets tricky filling out a roster with quality.
It’s also why Mixon isn’t talked about more in this piece. Carolina, Minnesota, and Tennessee all have quarterbacks making some decent coin. How long can they make it all work?
Easing the Burden
It’s not just Mixon that is out of focus for us, it’s also Henry and Kamara. Henry has been disproving critics all along just given his size and running style. But he’s led the league in rushing each of the last two seasons, increased his rushing production for the third straight season.
He also joined elite company by going over 2,000 yards on the ground. The only knock is he doesn’t catch a lot of passes limiting him; a scary thought.
Kamara’s usage is why the Saints aren’t drawing ire here. He has never carried the ball even 200 times; keeping him well away from the 300-carry mark. But he has 100-plus targets in all but one season, 2019 when he missed two games and still had 97 looks come his way.
Even here we see our pattern popping up. Kamara has never been used like a true “feature” back and he still was forced to miss time from getting banged up.
NFL Running in Circles with Backs
Larry Johnson was a big topic well before his tweets made the rounds. Over a two-year span during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the Chiefs gave Johnson 752 carries. In one of those years, he had a whopping 416 carries.
Just like with David Johnson, Larry would sign an extension with the Chiefs before the 2007 season only to miss half of that campaign. He never started more than 12 games or appeared in more than 14 (which happened just once) again after that and was out of the league following the 2011 season.
Todd Gurley came out of college with bum knees but he and Leonard Fournette might be the poster children for not drafting a back high let alone giving him a monster deal.
Gurley will be on his third team next season. Fournette will be playing in the Super Bowl for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but he split that job this season, preserving him some.
We have this conversation all the time. You don’t pay running backs. So, sorry to Aaron Jones. You’ve had back-to-back incredible seasons. He still shouldn’t crack the $10 million-per-season threshold.
We know what straw stirs that and every drink across the NFL and it isn’t the running back. Not anymore. Teams would be better served reloading yearly at the position and cutting bait. Because, so far, the risks have far outweighed the rewards.