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Why NFL running backs will be left in the cold during free agency

Vincent Frank
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen the NFL free-agent market at running back lag behind other positions. There are multiple reasons for this. It has not been subtle. Teams value running backs at a lesser clip than pretty much every other non-special teams position.

The why: A perfect case study here would be the San Francisco 49ers. They relied on three former undrafted free-agent running backs last season, boasting the second-best rushing attack in the NFL en route to a Super Bowl appearance. It’s about scheme. It’s been about scheme for some time now.

As more teams go the route of the recent 49ers and the New England Patriots of the past two decades, running backs are going to be left out in the cold. Don’t expect that to change once NFL free agency opens next week.

Here are some of the factors behind this.

2020 NFL Draft: While there is not a top-10 back in this year’s class, a number of players at this position will both contribute immediately and could be seen as value picks later in the annual event.

  • J.K. Dobbins: This 5-foot-9, 209-pound running back is coming off a record-breaking career at Ohio State that saw him put up north of 5,100 total yards and 43 touchdowns. He’s seen as a true game-breaker with a draft ceiling in the late first round.
  • D’Andre Swift: Yet another player who performed at a high level for a top-notch program, Swift is one of the reasons Georgia found itself in title contention over the past few seasons. He’s seen as a more physical back with a ceiling at the top of the second round.
  • Jonathan Taylor: One of those few backs who started for three full seasons in college, Taylor finished his Wisconsin career with 6,581 total yards. Taylor did himself major favors during the NFL Scouting Combine, running a 4.39 40-yard dash.

That’s just three of the top running backs in a class that’s absolutely loaded with talent until the mid-rounds. Teams will find value here.

There are other factors involved in this devaluation of running backs, too.

Running back-needy teams: Those in need of help in the backfield will seemingly look more at the draft as a way to find an upgrade. Let’s focus on those squads who finished in the bottom three in rushing last season.

  • Miami Dolphins: The Fins are in a great position in that they have five picks in the first two rounds of April’s draft. There’s absolutely no reason for this team to spend top dollar on a running back after finishing 32nd in that category last season.
  • New York Jets: There’s absolutely no reason to believe New York will once again hit the open market after signing the bust that is Le’Veon Bell last season. Lesson learned. This squad will look to the draft.
  • Atlanta Falcons: Dan Quinn and Co. will likely release Devonta Freeman at some point soon. He was, at one time, the highest-paid back in the NFL. With needs to fill elsewhere, the combination of Brian Hill and Ito Smith as well as a draft pick make more sense.

It’s about the salary cap: Sure teams have a lot of money to spend this offseason. With that said, the cash will be allocated at different positions. Those with the most cap room don’t necessarily need to pay top dollar at running back.

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($84.99 million): Former second-round pick Ronald Jones broke out by surpassing 1,000 total yards at an average of 5.1 yards per touch as a sophomore last season.
  • Miami Dolphins ($83.22 million): As I noted above, Miami has no reason to spend top dollar on a back. It has the draft picks to get a player of the future at this position without exhausting cap room. That’s magnified given the holes the Fins must address.
  • Indianapolis Colts ($86.14 million): Here’s another squad with a lot of money to spend that will ignore the running back position. Marlon Mack, who just turned 24, gained nearly 1,200 yards at a clip of 4.5 yards per touch last season.

The list goes on from there. The New York Giants have the fourth-most cap room, but boast former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley. Sitting pretty with $77.4 million to spend, the Buffalo Bills are extremely high on 2019 draft pick Devin Singletary.

The rest of those teams with a ton of room to spend also have internal answers at running back or could hit the draft to find an upgrade.

  • Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard
  • Cleveland Browns: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt
  • Washington Redskins: Derrius Guice, Adrian Peterson
  • Las Vegas Raiders: Josh Jacobs
  • Los Angeles Raiders: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson

Value: If we were to look at the leading rushers from a season ago, one common theme comes to mind. Said players were not drafted too high and boasted smallish salaries.

  • Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: A former second-round pick, Henry led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards. He came in at a mere $1.72 million cap hit.
  • Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: One of a couple outliers, Elliott was a top-five pick of the Cowboys back in 2016. He also signed a record-breaking deal ahead of the 2019 season and will count $10.9 million against the cap this year.
  • Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns: Also a second-round pick back in 2018, Chubb put up nearly 1,500 rushing yards as a sophomore while counting a mere $1.68 million against the cap.
  • Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers: Much like Elliott, this Pro Bowler is an outlier. He was a top-10 pick of the Panthers. Though, his value is as much as a wide receiver as a running back. That’s a story for another time.
  • Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks: These Hawks are a prime example of finding value while also reaching at running back. They selected Rashaad Penny in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He has not panned out. Instead, this former seventh-round pick ranked fifth among NFL backs in rushing yards with 1,230 while counting a mere $661,000 against the cap.

The common theme here is obvious. All five of these backs were selected by their original teams. Think about that for a second. No player that signed a free-agent deal with his current team finished in the top-10 in rushing.

The Bottom line

Sure, teams would love to add a Derrick Henry or Melvin Gordon to their skill-positions. Heck, former San Francisco 49ers draft pick Carlos Hyde is an underrated free agent.

That’s all fine and dandy. But much like we have seen over the past several offseasons, running backs are going to be met with a bare market.

Whether it’s Henry, Gordon, or another high-impact player such as Kenyan Drake, the market is not going to be friendly to players at this position. In turn, teams in need of a back will find some overwhelming value. That’s for sure.