Are Running Backs Becoming Undervalued?

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Doug Martin
By most accounts, Boise St. RB Doug Martin is a great talent. But most mock drafts have him falling out of the second round.

As the Green Bay Packers and the other 31 NFL teams rush to find a franchise quarterback and stockpile as many wide receivers, pass-catching tight ends and cover cornerbacks as possible, running backs are being left in the dust.

Passing rules today’s NFL, and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. This fact hurts the value of running backs, making the position expendable in many cases. The movement to downgrade the running back position reminds me a little bit of the book Moneyball’s impact on drafting high school players in Major League Baseball.

In Moneyball, author Michael Lewis highlights how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane avoided drafting 17- and 18-year-old high school kids, and instead tried to draft players with college experience. Beane thought high school kids were overvalued and much of their perceived value couldn’t be justified because, well, they were just high school kids.

After Moneyball was published, it didn’t take long for other teams to catch on and start thinking like Beane. Suddenly, high school players that may have been drafted early five years ago were being passed over for college prospects.

So what did Beane do? He started drafting more high school kids.

As the market adjusted to and caught up with Beane’s philosophy, high school kids suddenly became undervalued. Good prospects were being passed up simply because they were high school kids. Beane saw the market undervaluing high school kids so he started drafting them.

I don’t think we’re quite there with running backs yet, but we’re getting closer. Take a look at Peter King’s mock draft. He’s got one running back — Trent Richardson at No. 4 — going in the first round. Is there really only one running back in this draft with first-round talent?

Maybe. But more than likely, teams have de-valued the running back position so much that talented backs are falling to the later rounds. I suppose that’s fine as long as most teams continue to devalue running backs.

But eventually, some team is going to feel that the running back position has been de-valued too much. This team might start acting like Beane and drafting running backs early again while other teams stick to their philosophy of waiting.

If this team reads the market correctly, it’ll be interesting to see if the league’s overall view of running backs rises again.

I’m not arguing that running backs should be viewed on the same level as quarterbacks or pass rushers, but smart teams can take advantage of market inefficiencies if running backs get de-valued too much.

It’s too early to say that running backs are undervalued right now, but it’s something to keep an eye on in coming years.

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Adam Czech is a freelance reporter and a Packers fan living in the Twin Cities. Follow Adam on Twitter. Read more of Adam\\\'s writing on the Packers here.

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  • PackersRS

    Not the same deal, tho. It wasn’t a position that was devalued at baseball. I don’t see the same happening (smart teams picking RB), simply because it wasn’t a trend that stabilished RB in the 1st round was a bad value, it was the current rules of the game, as well as the RB’s average shelf life.

    • FireMMNow

      I agree with your reasoning PackersRS. Running backs are losing value because they are used less. Same deal with the FB.

      What I could see changing, as more and more teams are built to stop the pass, with smaller quicker DL, some team will build a team that is made to run the ball 40 times a game like the broncos tried to do. But in order to do that you have to have a D that can keep every game close as well.

      • PackersRS

        I don’t see it, not with the disparity of the rules.

        The best rushing offense last year (Panthers) got 5.4 yards per attempt.

        The best passing (Packers) got 9.3.

        In terms of 1st down %, the best rushing offense got it on 31.2% of the time (Panthers)

        The best offense (Patriots) got it on 42.8% of the time.

        The disparity is just too big.

        I don’t see how a franchise can make the decision to focus their offense around the running game. I understand time of possession, keeping the defense fresh, as well as turnover margin, but with the current rules, it’s just too much advantage to the passing game.

  • http://twitter.com/jrdulka Michael Dulka

    Part of the issue is that running backs aren’t having long careers compared to other positions. It seems that because of this, teams are looking at running backs as role players, rather than franchise players.

  • StCroixCheese

    I like the article thanks. This is a off topic, but another thought …
    I think another comparison to money ball is free agent vs. draft pick. I recall a ton of press on how Ron Wolfe put the ’96 team together using trades, and free agents in addition to draft picks. The press labeled him genius and decided that’s how that is the NFL of the future was going to be. Now all the press talks about how successful teams build through the draft, developing their own guys. Will the value of free agent fall a bit? Will they become more affordable? Will successful GM’s start to fill long term needs with 5th year players because after their first contract expires they will be more accurately valued. No longer overvalued as they have become?

    • PackersRS

      The problem I see is that, with the increase focus on draft and develop, teams will have more money to spend to keep their own, which will mean that seldomly a great player will hit the market.

      And the ones that do will be overvalued, as there will be less of them.

      At least that’s how I see the near future of FA. Yes, the price for FAs in general will drop considerably, which will make it a very good option for depth players. But building a roster through it will be even harder than it is now.

      • Adam Czech

        It only takes one team to drive up the price of a free agent. As long as guys like Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones are around, I don’t see FA prices dropping, but I think more teams will try to develop and keep their own players instead of thinking they can fill holes left by departed players through free agency.

  • Pete Kliman

    It’s about balance,and always was with the best teams. Only in the last few years have teams gone away from this. If we look at the earlier Packer champs, Dowler,Dale, and Mcgee had pretty good seasons. The Steelers and Patriot teams that won championships also ran the ball well.I’ll take a well balanced team any day. It finally bit us in the butt against the Giants.

    • Tarynfor12

      The Packers use enough run to initiate some resemblance of respect from a defense toward it.The lack of a run or the lack of respect toward wasn’t the reason for the loss to the Giants.The simple drops of passes that would have sustained possessions which would have enabled a better run respect if needed at all,lost that game.The weapons that got us there…self imploded.
      I know,if we had a better RB,we may not have had to pass as much…wrong…dropped passes for the Packers will always lead to the reason for a loss with or without a better RB.
      Even the play of our defense can’t be solely or too harshly blamed for the loss and that says a lot and points the finger to our WRs period.IMO.

      • Pete Kliman

        Yes ,of course there were dropped passes,but also Rogers was not sharp,the timing was off because he was being disrupted by the Giants D line. In total our passing game was not working ,now what, we had no ans. If we could have started to pound the ball the Giants would of had no ans. Nothing is more tiring and demeaning to a defensive front than getting methodically pounded. This topic does make for an interesting and enjoyable debate.

        • Pat Mc

          You both are right. A dropped pass in the 3rd quarter turned into a catch and it is 20-20. Another thing, the refs will be watching for OL formation that is illegal – like the giants used in that game. That turns everything around.

          A bigger Center – Guard to protect the middle will also open holes in the middle for the RB’s. The three RB’s already on the team will see more yards and a “balanced running” game.

          Yes a big running attack is great, I watch the SD-Vikings game (in person) where AD Peterson and LaDamian ran the ball in 2007. AD ran the most yards ever. Neither the vikings nor SD have won a SB since then. Does having a running game win the SuperBowl?

          I think having more balance is good and GB needs to look at RB’s in the 4th round or later. There will be a good RB there. GB needs ROLB, NT, Guard-center in the 1, 2 and 3rd rounds (or bpa)and if that is a RB then so be it.

          • PackersRS

            Agree with this.

            It’s more about the line blocking properly than the RB itself. I do think Starks will be our feature back, I’ve seen enough from him in the running game, but in pass block as well, he was rated as one of the best pass blocking backs in the league last year by Football Outsiders.

            Both the line and Rodgers do a wonderful job at selling the fake, but the line needs to do more than selling.

            • Pete Kliman

              Absolutely, how many times have we seen the back get tackled by penetration too early in the play.I hope most of that will be settled because we will have more continuity with the line this year.However,I don’t have that much faith having Starks as our feaured back because unfortunately he’s too injury prone.

  • Ron LC

    The average life span of an RB is low. In addition, the pasing game is being used to control the ball. Guys like Sproles and Cobb will do the job of a RB and not have to fight their way through the line.

    The game is definetely changing. Oh for the good old days. No face masks, cheap leather helmets, and the play didn’t end until the ball carrier was stopped wether he was crawling or moving under a guy. They just kept piling on until the ref blew the whistle.