Lessons from 2018: The NFC South and the Future of the NFL Running Back

When the New York Giants selected Saquon Barkley with the 2nd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the questions surrounding the pick didn’t concern Barkley’s talent. No one doubted that the Penn State product could be a valuable offensive weapon for the Giants. Haters (myself included in that group), simply thought that the former NFC East stalwarts were probably better off taking a player from a “more important” position, particularly an Eli Manning replacement in this case. I still think, in this specific case, the Giants made a mistake to select Barkley, and that more broadly, economic forces have devalued running backs in the NFL Draft. On the other hand, it’s possible that the NFL has overcorrected in its members’ valuation of running backs, making the position a new market inefficiency, and a couple of the teams from the NFC South are good examples of how effective specific types of running backs can be in the modern NFL.

 

It’s no secret that the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league. Trust me when I report that pretty much every 2018 league-wide passing statistic was the best it’s ever been, and the most cutting edge teams are attempting to maximize their offensive efficiencies. My favorite fun fact about the 2018 NFL was that rushing attempts per game was at an all-time low, but rushing yards per attempt has never been higher than it was this past season. Teams are beginning to optimize the use of the running attack, and I think the idea that the optimal offense being more pass-first has been conflated with a devaluation of running backs. I don’t believe that devaluation is necessary. What is necessary is a change in function for the running back position. The rest of the NFL can learn from the talent and utilization of Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints.

 

Both McCaffrey and Kamara were integral cogs in their teams’ offenses. In fact, each second-year back led its team in total touches, and that’s really the fundamental idea behind the notion that running backs are not a dime a dozen as they’re made out to be. Even in today’s NFL, you can possess a high-powered offense whose system heavily features a running back. They just have to be able to do more than they’re used to. The days of Jerome Bettis or LenDale White are in the past; modern-day incarnations like LeGarrette Blount are systematically hated by advanced statistics like DVOA. The modern game revolves around the pass, and so running backs need to be able to pose a receiving threat. Those running backs that can run, pass, and block, they are not a dime a dozen.

 

Alvin Kamara was famously drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and immediately transformed the Saints’ offense, proving two contrary things. The first is that the supply of NFL-ready college running backs is so high that wise teams may pass on the position in the early rounds because they can count on drafting quality players later on. The second is self-evident: even though there are more running backs than there are jobs, a great running back is still not easy to find, and they can still transform offenses. In 2018, Alvin Kamara was first on his team in total touches while leading in neither rushes or receptions, meaning opposing teams knew there was a good chance the ball was headed to the running back. They just didn’t know how.

 

The same is true for Christian McCaffrey, who accrued more touches than Kamara in 2018, largely because he is employed by a franchise with fewer reliable offensive weapons. Still, that Carolina’s offense ran less efficiently than New Orleans is no fault of the young running back. Christian McCaffrey touched the football 326 times in 2018; the next highest skill player was D.J. Moore at 68. Of course, that statistic is deceiving, because Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is a dangerous weapon in his own right, should he decide to scramble. Still, Carolina’s offense is unimaginable without Christian McCaffrey.

 

Both of these guys are on their rookie contracts, which certainly artificially deflates their total earnings. I wonder what Kamara or McCaffrey would earn on the open market in some hypothetical world in which their teams were forced to release them. Todd Gurley signed a massive running back deal before 2018 started, which paid him $7.2MM that season. Meanwhile, the highest paid wide receiver was the big-bodied Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Evans, who earned $18.3MM, nearly double the salary of Gurley; yet, Gurley touched the ball 229 more times than Evans did. Obviously, when Mike Evans does touch the ball, it’s frequently well beyond the line of scrimmage, and the same cannot be said for any running back. Still, if teams are still going to allow their running backs to touch the ball 300+ times, it would behoove them to do so in a varied manner.

 

The Kamaras and the McCaffreys of the world kind of mark the first step towards a positionless NFL, something that I foresee years down the road. As teams try to optimize the efficiency of their offenses, it makes sense for every skill player to have the ability to move the ball in as many ways as possible. The reason “end-around” plays or “jet sweep” plays work so well and so frequently is because of their rarity. Defenses play the percentages, and receivers are more likely to move the ball via reception than rushing attempt. Imagine an NFL in which any player could run or catch the ball at any time. A march toward that NFL is what Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey represent; they are the first steps toward an NFL in which positions don’t exist.

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