The Declining Value of Running Backs in NFL


The money handed out to individual players around the NFL will always correspond to how NFL franchises deem “valuable” that player. Recent history illustrates how the value of the running back is decreasing, and its current trajectory suggests that the number will only continue to diminish.

Whether this has to do with the game’s style under constant change or the need to address other positions rather than running back, the obvious is true: the value of running backs just isn’t that high in today’s NFL landscape.


Although age isn’t the only factor in determining the shelf-life of NFL running backs, it is one of the main factors. Statistically, the top-10 rushers from the past 2019 NFL season had an average age of 24 years old. Seattle’s Chris Carson and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry are the oldest of the group. Both are just 25. The lack of older running backs on this list suggests that the productivity of running backs also corresponds with their age. Meaning, the older they get, the less productive they are. Many running backs only see a few years of peak productivity before they decline.

There are a few outliers to this. They include players like Adrian Peterson (35) and the seemingly ageless wonder, Frank Gore (37). Both running backs are still decently productive in the league today and have shown flashes of their dominance in recent years.

NameAgeYardsTDContract 2019 season (rough estimate)Injury history (NFL)Games missed
Derrick Henry25154016$1.8 Mcalf strain (2016)1
Ezekiel Elliott24135712$6.3 Mhamstring strain (2016)0
Christian McCaffrey23138715$4.3 M0
Nick Chubb2412958$1.85 M0
Chris Carson2512307$61.5 Kbroken ankle (2017), hip fracture (2019)13
Leonard Fournette2411523$6.7 Mankle sprain (2017), hamstring (2018)10
Joe Mixon2311375$1.7 Mconcussion (2017), ankle (2019)3
Dalvin Cook24113513$1.5 MACL tear (2017), hamstring (2018), chest (2019)19
Marlon Mack2310918$70 Kshoulder (2017), hamstring (2018), fractured hand (2019)10
Sony Michel249127$2.4 Mknee (2018)1
Adrian Peterson358985$2.5 Mknee, ankle, groin, neck, ACL tear, MCL tear, torn meniscus, sports hernia, hamstring43
Frank Gore375992$2 Mfoot, chest, ankle, hip fracture, ACL tear, torn meniscus14

Health and Wealth

Youth may also translate to usage in the NFL. In the past, we’ve seen teams “run their running backs into the ground,” or so experts have hypothesized. A prime example of this: Todd Gurley. Selected 10th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams, Gurley hit the ground running, literally. He managed to rush for more than 1,000 yards on the ground and score 10 TDs behind a porous offensive line. He regressed in 2016, but exploded during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, arguably becoming the best back in the NFL during those two years. He was rewarded for the efforts that made him a first-team all-pro in back-to-back years, and the Rams offered Gurley a 4-year, $60 million-dollar deal ($45 M guaranteed). At the time, it was the highest contract given to a running back of all-time. Hampered by a knee injury in the latter part of the 2018 season and all of 2019, Gurley would only manage 857 during the 2019 campaign, a far cry from what was expected from him given the contract he obtained.

What’s more puzzling about the Todd Gurley situation was his usage during the playoffs in his Rams career, especially during their Super Bowl run in 2019. The Rams sat Gurley for most of the game and often deferred to newly acquired running back C.J. Anderson. Gurley only appeared in 4 playoff games, where he has only 44 rushing attempts, ATTEMPTS. Before the 2019 campaign, the Ram’s running back had averaged 307 total touches per game. He saw that number decrease in 2019, garnering only 254 total touches (17 per game) while only missing one game during the entire season.

Let Gurley, like other recent backs, be a prime example as to why teams just can’t pay running backs the millions of dollars they rightfully deserve. Players such as Houston’s David Johnson and former Falcon Devonta Freeman have both received large contract extensions, only to be traded or released due to insufficient production or injury. It sounds frustrating and unfair, but it is the sad reality of the position. Beyond a few outliers at running back, the game just isn’t designed to keep backs in healthy and away from significant injuries during their careers. It’s the natural brutality at the position and the game. Simply put, teams just can’t trust backs to stay healthy past their rookie deals or short-terms contracts after their rookie deals expire.

Free Agency

There is nothing as a sure thing in terms of production in the NFL, worried about durability and injury, teams have hesitated to spend large amounts of money on running backs in free agency. Take the 2019 rushing champ, for example. Just this past offseason, Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing during the 2019 season and carried the Titans to the AFC Championship game. Henry earned second-team all-pro honors and was also named to the Pro Bowl. He was also in line for a record-breaking deal. Many experts around the league believed that the Titan’s running back should be the highest-paid at his position. The Titans hesitated to give Henry a massive deal and instead placed him under a $10.2 M franchise tender that would sign Henry through the 2020 season and allow the two sides to hash out a contract extension until then.

The highest-graded running back among experts in free agency this offseason was former Charger, Melvin Gordon. He later signed with the Denver Broncos on a 2-year, $16 million contract. At the end of the 2018 season, however, Gordon engaged in a holdout, expressing his need for a massive contract extension from the Bolts. Both sides couldn’t reach an agreement, and Gordon returned to the field for the Chargers in their fourth game of the season. That being said, we’ve seen the holdout experiment work and fail (Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliot) and come to realize just how little teams are willing to hand out rich contracts to running backs in recent years.

Value in the draft

Despite Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers, his replacement was already on the team in the form of undrafted Austin Ekeler. Ekeler would go on to have his best NFL season yet, setting career highs in rushing and receiving yards, as well as total touchdowns. Ekeler isn’t the first back we’ve seen undrafted or a day two or later pick. Some teams have struck gold in the later rounds of the draft and have even found a few diamonds in the rough while signing undrafted players at the running back position.

Gordon’s new teammate, Phillip Lindsay, was also undrafted and made the Pro Bowl his rookie year (2018). New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara has made the Pro Bowl twice (2020, 2018) since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017. Other 3rd rounders of the 2017 draft class that have made the Pro Bowl include Pittsburgh’s James Conner (2019) and Kareem Hunt (2018). Pro Bowls aren’t the only category of value when determining running back value in recent years. Since 2016 there has been plenty of value at the position beyond the first two rounds of the draft. Some notable names include David Singletary and David Montgomery (3rd round) in 2019; Conner, Hunt, and Kamara (3rd round) in 2017; Marlon Mack (4th round) of the Indianapolis Colts in 2017; Green Bay’s Aaron Jones (5th round) in 2017; Seattle’s Chris Carson (7th round) in 2017; and Miami’s Jordan Howard (5th round) in 2016.

It’s not to say running backs who are drafted in the first two rounds aren’t valuable, because they are. Don’t tell me there isn’t a GM around who wouldn’t draft Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey with his first pick given a chance, clearly any would. That’s not to say that there isn’t hidden value during the middle and latter end of the draft, because there is.


Kansas City ChiefsTeams can still find extreme value at the running back position. It is unfair to deem players at the position unreplaceable, but it’s just the truth. There are a few generational talents at the position once in a while, but there are always replacements in the college ranks waiting to take the place of backs with mileage on them in the NFL. Nowadays, it’s smart for teams to use running backs on their rookie deals while expending their significant dollars at other positions on the field, such as quarterback or the defensive side of the ball. We’ve seen contenders like Patriots and the newly crowned champions the Chiefs reach the Super Bowl without relying on a heavily paid star at the running back position. Recent champions have favored a running-back-by-committee type offense while relying on great quarterbacks and defense. The game has always been centered around the quarterback position, leaving running backs in the dust. Simply put, the shelf-life of the average NFL running back isn’t that long, nor will it ever be in the future.

Diehard Laker and Seahawk fan. I unfortunately witnessed the Seattle Seahawks passing the ball on the 1 yard line. I hope that sports can unite people and bring them closer together. Current student at Chapman University.

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