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Are Young Running Backs The Future?


The running back position has been seen as the least important and most replaceable position in the NFL since about 2015. We have seen many teams succeed with a running back-by-committee approach, see the 2019 49ers. We have seen this approach and also teams like the Chiefs not use running backs often for years now but that might be changing real soon. The passing game adds so much to teams’ offenses that running has become way less valuable than in the 2000s and early 2010s. Quarterbacks’ and wide receivers’ talent has been at an all-time high so why run the ball?

Why Teams Have Given Up On Running Backs

Running backs are not important to some teams, simple as that. Most teams pass more than they run nowadays, a transition that has happened in the past seven years. One reason is that teams see the opportunity for more explosive plays in the passing game. However, the most important reason for the position dying out is injuries. We have seen injuries to running backs occur more than in any other position. This year alone we have had many long-term injuries to running backs, including Rashaad Penny, J.K. Dobbins, Elijah Mitchell, and more. Backs are very injury prone due to the mileage they put on their body throughout their entire football career so investing a lot into one is a tough ask for a team. That plays in part in running back contracts, while most positions’ contract values have skyrocketed, running backs have barely risen. The highest-paid running back in the league is Christian McCaffrey at $16 million a year. CMC is the most injury prone running back I have seen in my time watching football, playing just 10 games from 2020-2021. In fact, seven of the top twenty paid backs have suffered serious injuries in their careers. Teams do not see the point in investing a lot of money or draft capital in running backs because of the injury issues they suffer and they are not necessarily wrong. However, young running backs have been killing it this year and might flip the outlook on the position for the future.

2022 Draft Class

This year’s rookie running backs have been absolutely incredible. It includes Breece Hall (who just tore his ACL), Dameon Pierce, Kenneth Walker, & Brian Robinson Jr. Breece looked like a top 10 running back before his injury, Dameon Pierce is Beastmode 2.0, Kenneth Walker has done incredible when he starts, & Robinson looks decent enough. The first three I mentioned are all top sixteen in rushing yards, keep in mind Walker has only started two games.  Robinson has been okay since coming back from his gunshot wound, but given that he was shot it still is incredible that he is starting football games. The first three all have YPC averages of 4.8 or more, 11 rushing touchdowns, and are great on PFF. Their grades are 86.2 for Walker, 84.6 for Pierce, & 76.4 for Hall. Hall looked explosive in both the pass and run game before tearing his ACL, beating defenders with speed like on his 79-yard catch and run. Pierce on the other hand uses power to break tackles and is the only source of offense for the Texans. Walker came in after Rashaad Penny went on IR and looks very explosive as well, he is outrunning defenders on the outside whenever he can. This running back class is looking to change the mind of analytics people and NFL general managers and bring light to the dying position.

Other Young Backs

The rookies are not the only young running backs playing extremely well. Hometown favorite Rhamondre “The Rhamonster” Stevenson has been incredible in the committee with Damien Harris, rushing for 487 yards and 4 touchdowns on 5.0 YPC so far. Stevenson is also the NFL’s ninth-ranked running back according to PFF with a rushing grade of 83.3. There is also Travis Etienne who is in his second year but first year playing due to injury. Since he took over the snap share in Jacksonville the last three weeks, he has had 90 yards per game on 7.95 YPC and the eighth-best rushing grade at 83.7. Etienne has led the Jaguars to the ninth-best rushing attack in yards per game alongside, now traded James Robinson, & Stevenson and the Patriots are at eleventh. Sadly, my favorite second-year back tore his ACL when Javonte Williams went down in Week 4 against the Raiders, so nothing can be said about him right now.

While we have seen some serious injuries to rushers this year, those who have stayed healthy, like Saquon Barkley, are playing at higher levels than ever before. The focal point of at least nine offenses is running the football and I think that in the next couple of seasons we could see this number increase. With the change of tide for this position this season, this might be the beginning of a revival of ground-and-pound offenses.



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