The Evolving Value of the Running Back Position in the NFL Draft


Aug 22, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce (30) runs with the ball in the second quarter of the game against the Carolina Panthers at M

The NFL is a quarterback driven league and that is not going to change anytime soon, but the assumption that the running back position is losing its importance is a mistaken assumption.  Ask the Giants.  The way the position is used and how much a single player is relied upon is evolving, but it is still crucial.  It takes an incredible quarterback and overall passing game to not need to run the ball at all and becomes extremely difficult late in the year and in the playoffs.  The threat of a running game is always going to be a huge advantage for those that have it as well as having a player who can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield.  Right now, the NFL has run into a scarcity issue at the running back position and a few teams are getting pinched right now trying to find backs they can count on and it might have an impact in the NFL and raise the value of running backs as a group.

Between mileage, injuries, and specialties, teams are using and going through a ton of running backs in a hurry, so they always need to keep adding more.  Rather than the NFL really needing 32 good running backs, they really need somewhere around 70 to 80 backs at any given time.  Right now, there are not that many in the league and of the ones there are, several teams have taken to hording them.  The 49ers, Texans, Ravens, Raiders and Seahawks are teams that have a ton of depth and are always prepared in case of an emergency.  Four of those five teams were in the playoffs last year and two were in the Super Bowl.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are teams that have one great back with nothing proven behind them like the Browns, Vikings, Chiefs, and Buccaneers.  The surprise is the number of teams that have basically nothing at the position right now.  The Giants and Steelers were hopeful they had the issue figured out but David Wilson has fumbling issues and Le’Veon Bell went down with an injury.  The Broncos are hoping they can find one of their backs, Montee Ball in particular, who can be a reliable option to run the ball in between Peyton Manning passes.  The Dolphins have some young backs but none has shown to be anything great so far and the Colts have some guys who can get yards but are not great players.  The Cardinals are not set with anything reliable right now and the Chargers are another Ryan Mathews injury from having nothing.

The college ranks appear to have a large group of talented senior backs but not many with overwhelming talent.  Nevertheless, some might have their value inflated and get selected earlier than some think purely due to addressing need.  There is a sense that there is always another running back out there that someone can get and even off of the street.  Normally, that is true, but the Giants are a team that has been scouring those players to find a guy and eventually settled on Brandon Jacobs to come back, which makes no fan, coach or front office feel comfortable.  The Giants had been one of the best at this process and been good at keeping a group of talented backs on their roster that could come in and make plays.  In many ways, they had actually pioneered the most effective way to do it where they had three backs they could use at one given time while not being financially over-committed to any of them.  When they had Tiki Barber, they found players like Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw on day three of the draft.  When they had Bradshaw and Andre Brown, they grabbed Wilson in round two.  This trend of adding running backs and always looking to find another talented but cheap option helped them win both of their Super Bowls.  They are a team that understands the importance of depth at the position and losing Bradshaw to free agency and having Brown suffer an injury suddenly left them with Wilson and little else.  His fumbling issues could have not come at a worse time.

The way the NFL is employing running backs is really putting a strain on the position overall and they need every back they can find. As a result, teams are scouring all of the divisions and finding backs in every corner of the country.  If a player is only a running threat, they better be great because they are not backups too much anymore.  Much like a backup right tackle, their ability to fit onto a 53 man roster is extremely difficult.  So while the value of a single running back might be going down, there is this other force of teams needing worthwhile bodies that is increasing their value.  The question is where these two forces are going to end up pushing the running back position and how it will take shape in the 2014 NFL Draft and beyond.  The bottom line is that there are a number of teams that need running backs and potentially more than one for a few teams and they are going to have to find guys that can play.  Meanwhile, there are teams that are always going to look to keep bringing in depth to make sure they are never in a situation like those teams and continue to hope they find the next back that comes from nowhere and becomes a superstar.  The continuing evolution of the value of the running back position is going to be an interesting one to see where it ends up going.