The internet has a lot of opinions on running backs in the game of professional football. Consensus on the world wide web seems to be that running backs “don’t matter.” Obviously running the ball well is ideal and having players that can do that is the optimum scenario, but when people say that the position holds less value, what they mean is that the production is far easier to replace than in just about every other spot.
Pass rushers are difficult to find. Secondary players can be tough. Quarterbacks are seemingly impossible to nail down. Running backs, though? You can generally find success in a variety of ways (look at the Super Bowl teams as a recent example). The Dallas Cowboys obviously chose to find their running back through a top resource in the 2016 NFL Draft’s fourth overall pick and doubled down on that investment with a six-year, $90M deal for Ezekiel Elliott last offseason.
Other notable running backs that have gotten paid recently might be on their way out with their current teams
A year ago Le’Veon Bell struck a deal with the New York Jets after missing the entire 2018 season. Bell did what he did in an effort to improve the financial situation for running backs as a whole, and while there is much debate about whether or not he succeeded, it was at the very least a fascinating experiment.
The Jets ultimately paid Bell what he felt was sufficient and became one of the latest teams to give a running back a sizable deal. We’ve seen the Atlanta Falcons pay Devonta Freeman, the Arizona Cardinals pay David Johnson, and the Los Angeles Rams pay Todd Gurley (in addition to Zeke obviously). Johnson and Gurley could be playing for different teams in 2020.
ESPN recently did offseason predictions for all 32 teams and both the ones for Arizona and Los Angeles involve their teams moving on from their “star” running backs, or at least trying to.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals will part ways with running back David Johnson, who was once considered the future face of the franchise.
He’s scheduled to earn $10.2 million in 2020, with the entire amount guaranteed on the third day of the league year. But Johnson’s production continued to dwindle in 2019. He ran for just 345 yards, caught 36 passes for 370 yards and was benched throughout the season in favor of Kenyan Drake. While it’s not a guarantee that the Cardinals will bring back Drake, Johnson probably will be a casualty of his production and contract going in opposite directions. — Josh Weinfuss
Los Angeles Rams: In a pinch to find space under the salary cap, the Rams will attempt to trade running back Todd Gurley.
Whether L.A. can pull it off remains another question, given Gurley’s massive contract that includes $45 million in guarantees and runs through the 2023 season, as well as the uncertainty that continues to surround the long-term health of his surgically repaired left knee. This past season, Gurley played a diminished role in the offense, rushing for 857 yards, his fewest since the 2016 season (885). — Lindsey Thiry
Johnson and Gurley were both prolific runners at one point or another over the last half decade but their days atop the NFL rushing list seem to be behind them. What’s more, in the case of Todd Gurley, he is dealing with a seemingly never-ending injury that is going to plague him over the rest of his career. Trading that away (on top of his financial situation) is not going to be easy.
It’s fair to say that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and has experienced the highest highs of the group that consists of him, Bell, Gurley, and Johnson. Zeke has had the most sustained success and is the lone runner of this group that eclipsed 1,000 yards last season, that isn’t the qualifier for an elite runner or someone being worth an insane amount of money, the point here is simply that he is the best of the bunch.
Due to the fact that Elliott didn’t really fall off (at least in the way that the others did) after getting paid, it’s possible that we don’t see him reach a dissolution with his team the way that Johnson and Gurley might this offseason. Still though, the reality is that the state of the running back position is changing more than we can even see right before our eyes, although if there is an exception to that it might actually be Zeke. Sort of.
Does that make you feel better? Even just a little bit?