The NFL seems to be in an odd spot when it comes to the running back position.
For the first time in several seasons, the league is loaded with talented backs. Nearly every single team has one “stud” running back, if not two. The league is full of stars at the position with Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and David Johnson leading the way. Fresh talent continues to arrive via the draft, as Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey all had monster rookie seasons. The depth of the RB position has never been better.
But the value of running backs in the NFL has seemed to diminish league-wide, or that’s what the narrative has been as of late. Teams are becoming more pass-heavy and there has been an analytical movement telling us that running backs don’t matter. For those reasons, it’s hard to grasp what the RB position has turned into in the NFL.
Today, I want to try tackling where the RB position is headed into 2018. But to do so, we need to take a look back over the past decade to see how we have gotten here.
First and foremost, the premise that the league is becoming more pass-heavy is true. Teams are throwing the ball around three more times per game than they did in 2008. Take a look at the number of passing attempts and rushing attempts league-wide during that time frame.
What is the first thing you notice? It should be the steady trend of more passing and less rushing each season, except in 2017. Was this just a fluke year and something we should ignore as a statistical anomaly? Or is this a sign of things to come because of the aforementioned talent at the RB position?
It’s likely last season was just an outlier for several reasons. The biggest reason was the rash of injuries at the QB position devastated teams' passing games. Between Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz, a lot of the top-tier quarterbacks missed time last season with injuries, forcing teams to keep the ball on the ground more often.
However, with the influx of RB talent in the league, maybe teams are deciding to run more often. What I care more about is how teams are using their running backs. Gone are the true workhorse backs who are counted on to tote the rock 25-plus times every game. It’s just becoming so rare for a team to rely only on one back to carry the load. Don’t believe me? Just take a look.
In 2004, there were 110 instance where a single player ran the ball at least 25 times in a game. That number has steadily declined through the years to only 114 of those games in the past three seasons combined. We know teams are running the ball less, but they now trying to split up the work more evenly.
Take a look at the New Orleans Saints’ backfield in 2017. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara formed the most productive RB tandem in the entire NFL. Between the two of them, only Ingram carried the ball 15 times or more in five games. Kamara never exceeded 12 carries in a game. Teams have learned that finding two or three backs will help keep the offense running more efficiently.
I find it interesting that while rushing attempts are indeed down over the last decade, the importance of a running back has changed. What you are seeing now are teams using running backs differently to increase their effectiveness. How are they doing this? By feeding them more targets through the air. Here is a chart of the number of receptions by running backs each year since 2008:
Teams are increasingly valuing throwing the ball to running backs — and for good reason. Generally, those passes are safer and get completed at a higher rate. And it allows teams to get their talented running backs in space.
Although the NFL is still drafting running backs in the first round, the type of backs are changing. In decades prior, teams could select pure runners in the first round, rather than complete players. But now we are starting to see passing-down specialists being selected higher in the draft.
Look no further than Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 overall pick last year who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in his first season in the NFL. Though that number would scare off previous coaches and front offices, his value in the passing game significantly outweighs his struggles as a runner. McCaffrey caught 80 passes as a rookie, averaging more than eight yards a clip. You could make a case that he is one of the most valuable backs in the league based off what he can do in the passing game.
I expect that in 2018, teams will continue to feed their running backs targets and opt to get them touches via the passing game, rather than just on the ground. But what does that mean for the future of the position? Could we potentially see 3,000 receptions to running backs in 2018? Or potentially multiple running backs catch 90-plus passes?
Or will things flip the other way and teams will start to become more run-heavy? Has the success of the Cowboys and Jaguars caused teams to rethink how to win in the NFL? This will be a fantastic season to watch how the NFL deploys its running backs.
Make no mistake about it, the RB position is “back,” but it sure does look and feel a whole lot different this time.