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The troubling devaluation of the NFL running back position has been going on for a while

Perhaps the days of Emmitt Smith and Adrian Peterson are gone, but running back like Saquan Barkley should still get paid.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

When former running back Demarco Murray had his 2014 breakout season, where he led the league in rushing with 1,845 yards, notched his second straight Pro Bowl selection, and won AP Offensive Player of the Year, there were questions around the number of carries he was getting. The Dallas Cowboys rode his 449 total touches to a 12-4 record and a playoff berth but didn’t reward him with a long-term deal. Quite the contrary, Murray left to play for the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles in 2015.

I remember during a particular NFL Live panel during Murray’s breakout year where panelists debated the Cowboys’ strategy during Murray’s contract year. Former player and NFL head coach Herm Edwards was all systems go with “America’s Team” leaning heavily on their star — but taking that many hits throughout a season can wear on you. Much of this debate foreshadowed the overall shift in how the running back position has been viewed within football today.

The game has shifted to a pass-first style where quarterback yards have exploded (nine QBs threw for over 4,000 yards in the 2022-2023 season). That has led to an overall devaluation of the running back position. Teams have moved away from needing the next Barry Sanders and Walton Payton and have elected to do a more running back by committee style. If you look at the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, their leading rusher in 2022 wasn’t 2020 first-round pick, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, it was 2022 seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco.

Tennessee Titans Derrick Henry and New Orleans Saints Alvin Kamara seem to be the exceptions to the rule. However, general managers across the league have established unwritten rules. Sign these running backs to rookie deals, and at the end of the deal, slap the franchise tag on them because the $10 million threshold is so low. If they cannot reach a long-term deal that is aggressively lower than what other positions back, they let them go and consider them damaged goods.

This is a fight that Giants running back Saquan Barkley is facing now. Yes, he has some injury concerns, but Barkley’s impact on the 2022 season is undeniable. The Giants ranked fourth overall in rushing last year, and not only did Barkley lead the team in rushing yards, he tied for first in overall receptions. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the Giants don’t make the playoffs without him.

But even with these facts, players like Barkley, Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, and former Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook have moved through this artificially low market where teams are scoffing at giving them more money. Remember LeVeon Bell’s holdout in Pittsburgh? Missing that year at a contract standstill completely knocked him off his axis. Thus it feels like running backs get punished when they ask to get what their worth.

What’s scary about this is they are all in their 20s, and despite the offensive shift, you still need a good run game to succeed. Philadelphia Eagles made it to the Super Bowl and were fifth overall in rushing in 2022. Six of the ten leading rushing teams all made the playoffs – so, yes, the run game is essential even if management feels like the position can be filled with a revolving door of athletes.

Murray was 26 when he signed his five-year, $40 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, but had an immediate drop-off in production. Could you chalk it up to Chip Kelly’s coaching style? Perhaps. It could also be the overall wear and tear from the season before. Even with a bounce-back year when he played for the Tennessee Titans, he retired at 29. The NFL overall is a cutthroat business. You try to get as many lucrative contracts as possible before your body breaks down from all the brutality. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to happen with running backs now – not that they even get the chance to.