On March 15th Ezekiel Elliott was officially released by the Dallas Cowboys after seven seasons. Earlier in March the New York Giants placed the Franchise Tag on Saquon Barkley. On June 8th Dalvin Cook was released by the Minnesota Vikings after six years. WOW! I mean, if you were playing fantasy football over the last five years, then you know these guys were a few of the Elite Running Backs that were being picked in the first round! So, what’s going on?!
Why does it seem like running backs are being discharged and disrespected in this age of football where it’s the norm for great quarterbacks to be making $40M+ per year? Or does a team NOT need a great RB to make a Super Bowl run (you see what I did there…run…)? Quick! Let’s get to some rushing stats faster than a Watt gets to a running back after bull-rushing a rookie Left Tackle. Boom!
Best Rushing Teams
In order to really find the true value of a running back, you can’t just look at their rushing yards for the season (but we will), or their receiving yards (which we also will), or their Yards Per Carry (YPC), etc. You need to look at the whole nine yards. Or in the case of the Chicago Bears, who led the NFL in Rushing Yards in 2022, the “whole 3,014 yards”. How did this fare for the Bears? Well, they finished with the worst record in the NFL, so…not very good. A person would think that if you’re leading the league in rushing yards that means you’re usually playing with the lead, and you can just run right over your opponents and win games, right?
Well, that person would be wrong. It wasn’t that way for the Bears at least, but maybe that’s because Chicago has a quarterback in Justin Fields, who thinks he’s a running back. While Fields led the Bears in rushing yards with 1,143, which is a lot of rushing yards, it’s just not what you want your QB to be doing. David Montgomery (who is now with rival Detroit Lions) and Khalil Herbert were the top two Running Backs on the Bears, and rushed for 801, and 731 yards respectively. Combined they averaged 4.6 yards per carry, so why was Fields running so much? That is a whole other topic. All you need to know is that the outcome was last place.
The second-best rushing team in 2022 was the Baltimore Ravens with 2,720 total rushing yards on 526 rushing attempts (5.2 YPC; not bad). The lead rusher for the Ravens was also not a Running Back (although many people call him one); it was QB Lamar Jackson, with 768 yards. Running backs for B-more, J.K. Dobbins (coming off a torn ACL) ran for 520 yards, Kenyon Drake finished with 482 rushing yards, and Gus “The Bus” Edwards (also coming off a torn ACL) “bussed out” 433 yards. This was a combined effort that showed some success and got the Ravens to the playoffs, but only for one game.
Their eventual demise in the playoffs was when they attempted a QB Sneak two yards away from the goal line, fumbling the ball and turning it over to their opponents, who took it 98 yards for a touchdown; a pivotal turning point in the game. Maybe giving it to a premier RB would have been a better option.
Atlanta’s lead rusher was a running back with over 1,000-yard rushing, which is the benchmark for any “great running back” to attain each year. Rookie Running Back, Tyler Allgeier finished the season with 1,035 rushing yards, which was 13th most for running backs out of only 15 total RBs to rush for 1,000 yards or more.
The Falcons RB2, Cordarrelle Patterson, also racked up 695 rushing yards, and this seems like a traditional “one-two punch” winner. But the Falcons actually got KOed quite often through the season finishing 7-10 in 2022, causing GM/ownership to conclude that the poor record was because of their third highest rated running game, and NOT due to the fact that they finished 31st in Passing Yards Per Game. Hence drafting Running Back Bijan Robinson with the eighth overall pick in the draft. Huh… I guess they REALLY want to be #1 in rushing yards.
Best Running Backs
Saquon Barkley was the main reason why the New York Giants finished fourth in total rushing yards behind the Falcons. Barkley, who also finished fourth individually for rushing yards, accounted for a career high 1,312 yards of the Giants total 2,519 rushing yards. ‘Quon also did it in his first full season from injuries since his rookie year in 2018, when he rushed for 1,307. Barkley also added 57 receptions for 338 yards which puts him fifth for overall yards by a running back. He had 352 total touches, landing him behind just two running backs; Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders, and Derek Henry of the Tennessee Titans. Those are some giant feats! So how does Saquon get rewarded?
Slapped in the face with the Franchise Tag, while his teammate and quarterback of the Giants was rewarded with a four-year, $160 million contract! Barkley has already come out and said that he will not play on the Franchise Tag and has not reported for Training Camp. He’s forcing the Giants to either pay him in the form of a long-term contract, or try their luck with backup RB Matt Breida, who’s two years older than Barkley (26) and rushed only 54 times for 220 yards in 2022. Or the G-Men could go with RB Eric Gray, who is a rookie drafted in fifth round, and/or RB Gary Brightwell, who’s been in the NFL for two years and has rushed for 144 yards. I like Barkley’s chances of getting a contract with the Giants here.
Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry
As mentioned earlier, Josh Jacobs and Travis Henry led all running backs in total touches, and they also led in Total Rushing Yards and total rushing plus receiving yards (just to prove that they could catch as well as carry the rock). JJ was dyno-mite and finished with 1,653 rushing yards and 2,053 total yards on 393 touches, while King Henry rushed for 1,538 yards and had 1,936 total yards on 382. Jacobs and Henry were the work horses for their respective teams, but it seems as though they were the only guys doing the pulling! Jacobs’ Raiders finished the year third in the AFC West at 6-11 (which was “par for the course” considering their schedule), and Henry’s Titans finished second in the (worst division in the AFC) South at 7-10.
Neither team made the playoffs. The “honorable mention” for Rushing Yards by a Running Back goes to the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb, who finished third with 1,525 rushing yards. Cleveland also finished 7-10, fourth in the AFC North, and out of the playoffs. So, when the top three running backs in rushing yards don’t even make the playoffs, what does this say for current Free Agents, Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott?
Dalvin Cook finished sixth for running backs in rushing yards with 1,173 yards with the Minnesota Vikings in 2022. Minnesota as a team only rushed for 1,661 yards, which was tied for 27th in the NFL. That means Cook accounted for over 70% of the Vikings total ground attack…and the Vikings LET HIM GO! I understand that it was for salary cap reasons, but for the love of Norse gods, what is your plan? Surely, Minnesota drafted a RB this year, right?
Yes, in the seventh round. Ok…well, they must have good depth at Running Back then? Meh. Alexander Mattison has been in the league for four years and has a career total of 404 carries for 1,670 rushing yards, Ty Chandler has six carries for 20 yards, and Kene Nwangwu has 22 carries for 75 yards. Unless they can somehow beg Dalvin to come back, I foresee a J.D. McKissic or Giovani Bernard type running back in the Vikings near future.
Ezekiel Elliott is still a free agent after being released by the Dallas Cowboys three months ago. In seven seasons with Big-D, Elliott averaged 1,180 yards per season at 4.4 yards per carry. However, Elliott only rushed for 876 yards last year though with an average of 3.8 yards per carry, which are both career lows. Dallas finished eighth in rushing yards in 2022, but most of that was from fourth-year RB, Tony Pollard, who ran for 1,007 yards at 5.2 yards per carry. Seeing how the Cowboys were set to save almost $11M by releasing Elliott, letting go of “Easy E” makes a little more sense than the Vikings releasing Cook. ‘Zek has averaged almost 15 games per season over his career so he’s not “injury prone” like Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley, but statistically, it looks like the soon-to-be 28-year-old Elliott might have lost a step. Not so much, however, that a team in need of a starting RB shouldn’t ride on by the former Cowboy.
Team In Need Of A Running Back
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The obvious team to mention first would be the one that finished dead last in rushing yards last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with 1,308 total rushing yards. Jacobs, Henry, Chubb, and Barkley all finished with more yards individually than the entire Tampa team. With Baker Mayfield as Tampa’s starting QB, the Bucs should be in desperation mode for a running back, and doing everything that they can to snag Cook or Elliott.
If not one of those two, they could also make an offer on Barkley to pull him away from the G-Men and their Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag. Tampa Bay’s current RBs are second-year rusher Rachaad White who had 129 attempts for 481 yards last year, veteran Chase Edmonds who split time with the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos last year, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Patrick Liard, who combined for 18 carries for 57 yards last season. The Bucs’ leading rusher last year was 28-year-old (now Free Agent) Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 668 yards on 189 carries. Forget the “sea legs” for these Buccaneers; somebody find them some “LAND LEGS”! YAAAR-ds is what they be after!
The Arizona Cardinal finished last season 22nd overall in rushing; not “terrible”, but certainly not in great shape. Injury-prone James Connor led the way, even though he only played 13 games, with 782 yards on 183 carries. Following him was, of course, Kyler Murray with 419 yards, and then Eno Benjamin (now with the New Orleans Saints) with 299 rushing yards.
Connor has missed games due to injuries in five of his six years in the NFL, and his best year was in 2018 (the one year that he wasn’t injured) when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and rushed 215 times for 973 yards in 13 games. ‘Zona is another team that doesn’t have a very solid QB (and just lost their best WR in DeAndre Hopkins) and should put in some extra effort to grab the best RB they can, so they don’t finish 4-13 like they did in 2022. Maybe Ezekiel Elliott will “pull and Emmitt Smith” and say goodbye to the ‘Boys and hello to Cards…but I doubt it.
Apparently, the Denver Broncos are just looking to see if they can hang on for eight seconds this season. In 2022 Denver was 21st in total rushing yards and ended the season with a 5-12 record, which was nine games behind the AFC West Champion Kansas City Chiefs, and the 5th worst record in the NFL. The Broncos’ leading rusher was 33-year-old running back Latavius Murray, who is now surprisingly with the Buffalo Bills. Murray carried the ball 160 times for 700 yards, which isn’t too bad for the savvy ten-year veteran. Behind Latavius was 30-year-old running back Melvin Gordon III (who is currently a Free Agent) with 318 rushing yards, quarterback Russell Wilson with 277 rushing yards, and their projected starting RB for 2023 Javonte Williams, who rushed for 204 yards in roughly 3 ½ games. Why so few games last year? Javonte blew out his knee, tearing his ACL and LCL, which are important ligaments if you want to do things like walk and stand. Behind Williams on the depth chart for 2023 is six-year veteran Samaje Perine, who had done a nice job as a backup in Cincinnati the last three seasons, but never amassed more than 400 yards in any one season. Then they have Tony Jones Jr who rushed for 55 yards in Seattle last season, and Tyler Badie, who had a carry last year. That’s it. No yards. Just a carry.
Betting on Javonte to come back from major knee surgery and play more than half the season is a worse idea than playing Rodeo Cowboy Poker. Running backs who tear one ligament in their knee have a hard time coming back the next season. If the Broncos want to compete with the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, and the Raiders this year, they better pony up for a legit running back.
The Minnesota Vikings… yes, I know I already grilled them for letting Cook go, but anyone who’s not a Vikes fan looks at this backfield and wonders how they’re going to finish better in total rushing yards this year than they did last year when they were 27th in the league. Alexander Mattison hasn’t exactly been injury-free in his four years, suffering from a Grade 2 ankle sprain in 2019, and an appendix rupture and Grade 1 concussion in 2020. Mattison is averaging 4.1 yards per game throughout his career, but the last two seasons he’s only averaged 3.7 and 3.8 yards per game respectively, which puts him in the lower tier for starting running backs.
Minnesota is already in jeopardy of finishing second in the NFC North this year. If Mattison goes down and they need to rely on their three other RBs who have a combined three years of NFL experience, they’ll be lucky to finish third.
Super Bowl Importance
If we look at our 2022 Super Bowl Champ Kansas City Chiefs, they finished 20th in rushing yards last year with 1,970 years, which is more than 1,000 yards fewer than the Chicago Bears. The Chiefs leading rusher and rookie, Isiah Pacheco ran for 830 yards, which was only half of what Josh Jacobs collected. Talk about an undeserved Super Bowl ring. On the other sideline there were the Philadelphia Eagles who were fifth in total rushing yards at 2,509 yards, and their leading rusher was Mile Sanders also ranked fifth individually in rushing with 1,269 yards. If this doesn’t prove that Pat Mahomes is the best QB in the NFL, I don’t know what does.
What's the Cost?
So, how much is a great running back worth? At the end of the day, this is a team sport, and it isn’t baseball! Quarterbacks don’t (or shouldn’t anyway) get all the credit for team wins, and there is no statistic in football for “Saves” when a Kicker makes a game-winning Field Goal. Running backs are a very important piece to a team, otherwise that team becomes one-dimensional and predictable. Seeing as how the “retirement” age or longevity of an NFL running back is about 29 years old, they absolutely SHOULD get paid more. Think about this: when a running back gets drafted out of college, they’re 21 or 22 years old. That usually means two contracts in their NFL careers of three to five years each…if they’re great RBs. One contract is their rookie contract, which is lower by nature, and the next contract they better get paid on, because as we can see with Cook (27 years old), and Elliott (28 years old) teams are already devaluing these guys as “old”. Quarterbacks can play until their early 40’s if they’re “elite”; Tom Brady was 45 when he retired, and Aaron Rogers is 39 and still playing with the Jets.
If those types of QBs are going to be making $40-$50M per year and playing for 20 years, then “elite” running backs need to be making at least $10-$20M per year due to getting hit on almost every down and playing half as long. RBs get crushed when they carry the ball, they get smashed when they’re blocking for their QB, and they get destroyed when those same QBs check down and throw the ball away to them just so they don’t have to take a shot. I stand with Saquon on this one. To quote KGB from the movie Rounders: “Pay him. Pay that man his money.” Thanks for “the read”!