What is the standard at the running back position?
The Value of Things is all about two things. First, it is all about determining the proper value assigned to players and positions. Secondly, it is about creating a lab-like environment where we can experiment with different numbers. A few folks have pointed out that there are better in the business than me. That’s obvious. However, hopefully my analysis is worth every penny I’m being paid.
We’ve looked at quarterbacks and wide receivers, so running backs are the next logical position to look at. Running back is an odd position in the modern NFL. They make a lot of plays and are important to the success of their team, but conventional wisdom says not to pay them a ton of money for very long. They just don’t have the shelf life.
Of course, someone needed to tell that to the Texans the past few seasons. David Johnson was one of the highest paid running backs in the league and obviously wasn’t living up to the billing. In fact, the Texans employed both the oldest and the most expensive running back room in the NFL the past two seasons. They had very little to show for it.
A look at the top ten
We are trying to keep things simple here, so we will continue to look at the top ten highest paid running backs according to Spotrac. We will look at the total number of touches that they have had (rushes plus catches), the total number of yards, the yards per touch, and the total number of touchdowns over the past three seasons. Again, we are trying to determine if there is an industry standard at the position.
Christian McCaffrey— 615 touches, 3,551 yards, 5.8 YPT, 27 TD
Ezekiel Elliott— 935 touches, 4,383 yards, 4.7 YPT, 34 TD
Alvin Kamara— 809 touches, 4,355 yards, 5.4 YPT, 36 TD
Dalvin Cook— 942 touches, 4,955 yards, 5.3 YPT, 36 TD
Derrick Henry— 955 touches, 4,978 yards, 5,2 YPT, 45 TD
Nick Chubb— 788 touches, 4,422 yards, 5.6 YPT, 39 TD
Joe Mixon— 787 touches, 3,509 yards, 4.6 YPT, 28 TD
Aaron Jones— 756 touches, 4,207 yards, 5,6 YPT, 40 TD
Saquon Barkley— 497 touches, 2,391 yards, 4.8 YPT, 12 TD
James Conner— 593 touches, 2,778 yards, 4.7 YPT, 31 TD
The outliers are pretty easy to see. Of course, we have to remember that some of these guys were very recently paid. Conner wasn’t highly paid before the last year or so. Aaron Jones was just paid this offseason as well. So, the pay is more about what is expected moving forward than what has already happened. Of course, teams put themselves in the best position when they can pay for future production and not for past performance.
Conner and Barkley appear to be the odd men out. Barkley in particular falls below the standard at every single position. If we were to set 4,000 yards, 750 touches, and 5,0 YPT as the standards then he fails to meet any of them. Conner fails to meet those as well, but did produce 31 touchdowns. Christian McCaffrey actually comes reasonably close in a few of the categories (touchdowns, yards, and yards per touch) but hasn’t been durable. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that most of those teams struggled this past season and probably will continue to struggle.
The current strategy for the Texans appears to be to recreate this performance in the aggregate. It would be a huge shock if any of their backs combined for even a 1,000 total yards next season. However, you could imagine a three headed monster like Marlon Mack. Dameon Pierce, and Rex Burkhead potentially combining for 1,500 total yards and ten touchdowns. None of them are getting paid a lot, so the entire running back room is back in line where it should be in terms of pay.
It is highly likely that the next big time running back the Texans have is playing in college right now. They could address the position with high pick in 2023 or 2024 when they have the extra draft capital. Doing so would make a lot of sense because running backs have a shorter shelf life. So, waiting makes sense. We know this team isn’t likely to be good until 2023 or 2024 anyway, so getting your stud then makes sense. In the meantime, we get to see if any of the current backs can be contributing members of that group.