Bruner’s Beat: Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley, and the Running Back Position in 2023

- Bruner's Beat

by Evan Bruner

Football is an ever-evolving sport. Since its inception in the 19th century, the game has undergone countless transformations that took it from a soccer spin-off to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. For any sport that’s been around for over a century, paradigm shifts are inevitable. The more a game is played, the better its players become, and the better scouts, coaches, and fans can understand it. This eventually leads to innovations that are adopted across the sport until those innovations become outdated and are supplanted by more modern ones. 

Evolution in sports is nothing new. In fact, it‘s essential for their survival. However, just because change is seemingly unavoidable doesn’t mean fans and players are always accepting of it. It may take years, even decades, for some ideas to gain league-wide credence. 

It’s hard to say exactly when the league’s stance toward running backs changed. There are so many factors involved that it’s hard to pin it on one or two key events. It started as a small movement in the analytics community and gradually became a topic in mainstream sports media. Now, it appears to have reached NFL front-offices.

As a result, the position that was once viewed as the most valuable in the entire sport is now seeing its best players unable to reach long-term extensions. This offseason, star backs such as Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Jonathan Taylor all pushed for long-term deals to no avail. As of now, Barkley is playing under a one-year deal, Jacobs is holding out from training camp, and Taylor has requested a trade.

The salary cap continues to go up, and the average earnings of every other position group continue to rise with it. Yet, teams have become increasingly reluctant to dish out big money for their running backs. The question has quickly shifted from a “what?” to a “why?” It’s apparent that fewer and fewer front offices are willing to give running backs the money they want, but the root causes are harder to detect. It wouldn’t be possible to address every cause in a single article. Instead, we’ll condense it into a few key points.

First, the complete and utter devaluation of NFL running backs is far from universally accepted. If all 32 teams subscribed to the logic that high-level running back play simply wasn’t worth the investment, there wouldn’t be two running backs selected in the top 12 picks like there were in this year’s draft. Teams clearly still view high-level running back play as valuable. This may at first seem confusing, especially because many of the running backs that are now struggling to secure multi-year extensions were early-round picks.

But what initially seems like cognitive dissonance can be better explained by the running back’s life span. Running back is unique in that its players generally peak within their first few seasons. Thus, running backs are at their best when they’re also at their cheapest, making a running back on a rookie deal one of the best values in the sport. 

The issue is that this is such a bargain that teams have little incentive to try anything else. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement or CBA, a player may not enter unrestricted free agency until his sixth or seventh season.

Since most running backs have shown signs of decline by this point, and the few that haven’t will be expected to do so before the end of their next contract, teams are hesitant to pay up. Most teams instead opt to draft a new running back and repeat this cycle every few years. 

The fact that running backs are unable to sustain long playing careers is an unfortunate reality of today’s game, and their declining market value in free agency is just a product of the free-market functioning as it’s intended. But even though the root cause appears to be plausible, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any solutions. One remedy is for modifications to be made in the next CBA in 2030. While this is several years away, it would be the most direct measure the league could take.

Functionally speaking, the CBA is mostly the same for each position, but given the running back’s earlier decline, it hurts them much more. The difference between a starting quarterback hitting free agency at age 27 compared to 25 is inconsequential. But for a running back, a two-year age difference is massive. Since playing under the franchise tag is more damaging to a running back, there’s a case for the position to be made exempt from it. Other positions may protest and even advocate for a complete abolition of the franchise tag, but it’s hard to argue that it’s unfairly exploitative of running backs.

Another suggestion is adjusting running backs’ rookie contracts to be more representative of their projected contributions. As mentioned before, running backs are at their best early on. Therefore, they shouldn’t be compensated in the same way as other positions. Giving rookie running backs higher base salaries would better compensate them, and their increased price tag would also make extensions look less expensive by comparison.

Finally, running backs must adapt. The best way to combat a constantly evolving league is to evolve with it. With the league being more pass-centric, it’s become increasingly important to have running backs that contribute to the passing game as both receivers and blockers. Not only does pass-catching ability add value, but it can also extend a running back’s shelf life.

Since wide receivers age more gracefully than running backs, the more a running back‘s game resembles a wideout, the more likely he is to continue producing into his late 20s and early 30s. It’s certainly easier said than done, but the NFL has long endorsed this “survival of the fittest” mentality. Embracing the need for internal change rather than fighting it is instrumental to the survival of the position. 



The current state of running backs in the NFL isn’t a black-and-white issue. But even with its complexity, it’s easy to see where both sides are coming from. From a front-office standpoint, players are to be paid according to their value, and if a position is believed to be less valuable than before, then their compensation should reflect that. Conversely, running backs are now seeing unprecedented levels of difficulty securing long-term deals. In an offseason where three All-Pros haven’t even come close to having their demands met, it’s fair to question if things are going too far. 

The running back position faces great uncertainty going forward. We’re well past the glory days of Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. Even more recent greats, such as Adrian Peterson feel like distant memories. The future of the position now rests on the shoulders of the next generation. The Bijan Robinsons and Jahmyr Gibbs of the world look to redefine what it means to be a running back. While it’s certain to be an uphill battle, it’s now or never for one of the game’s most famous and storied positions.

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