One of the most interesting ways football has changed over the course of my lifetime is the Runningback’s value. When I was a kid in the 90’s, runningbacks were still a primary driving offensive force. Quarterbacks obviously mattered, wide receivers mattered, offensive lines mattered, all that jazz, but the run game drove the offense, and the run game was usually defined by one primary bellcow. The league normally had a couple future hall of famers going at the same time, like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, or Terrell Davis and Marshall Faulk. But pretty much during the span of my life, everything shifted and now runningbacks feel like disposable tools.

Who is the last true Hall of Fame RB we had? Probably Adrian Peterson, who was the last non-QB to win MVP since over a decade ago. We have a few “good” and even “great” running backs in the league right now, like Derrick Henry or Saquon Barkley, but neither of them are sniffing the hall at their current rate. Dalvin Cook showed promise but is already toasted. Saquon has only had 2 good seasons. Henry, despite being probably the biggest offensive driving force for a team in the last 5 years, is currently being shopped if reports are true.

On top of that, it is widely accepted that paying RBs big money now is stupid. Zeke was a top-class RB for a few years, got his bag, and fell off a cliff. Now he’s a free agent and nobody wants him. That contract hamstrung the Cowboys last year and probably resulted in them losing Amari Cooper. The funniest part about that is that people saw it coming for miles. I remember the arguments against paying him when he was still a rookie and people looked at his usage numbers. RBs are just tools now. They used to get drafted really high. Now everyone talks about how you can snag an acceptable one in the 3rd or later and save your firsts for something more valuable, like a cornerback. Breece Hall was the consensus top running back in the draft last year. He went early second to the Jets, who basically had him as a luxury pick seeing as he was the 4th player they picked after a CB, WR, and DE. When Saquon was due for the draft I saw so many people calling him this generational talent and the best overall player in the draft…and the Giants still got laughed at for picking him second because using a top 5 pick on a running back, even one with such potential, was stupid. The Giants offered Barkley 12 mil per year according to reports, he turned it down before being tagged. While he likely could have done better on the market, I don’t think it would have been much better. RBs just aren’t valuable anymore.

So much has directly caused this. Marshall Faulk arguably started the trend of RBs being used as major passing game weapons. Faulk wasn’t a guy the Rams sent up the middle, they sent him out wide. Those more versatile types have become more important in the modern game. Saquon himself is one, following Faulk’s example. LaDanian Tomlinson was pretty good at it. Even Derrick Henry catches passes, and he’s built and moves like a stiff freight train. On top of that, you now have players like Deebo Samuel, who has completely blurred the line on what position he actually plays. What is Deebo? Deebo lives in the netherworld, belonging to no man.

Lastly, and somewhat alarmingly, quarterbacks have started to essentially turn into runningbacks themselves. Cam Newton would essentially be used as a battering ram for himself, instead of handing it off he’d just cut out the middle man and charge. Everyone likes to joke Lamar Jackson is actually an RB. Daniel fucking Jones’s one skill that sets him apart is his running ability. Russ and Rodgers made waves for a decade not by being runners but by scrambling like them anyway to find openings. Josh Allen couldn’t throw the ball for two years but he could run it! Mahomes scrambles! Taysom Hill plays every position on the court! Justin Fields is only good at scrambling (so far)! Jalen Hurts made the Eagles run game that much scarier! Why are running backs not out there screaming ‘THEY TOOK OUR JOBS”. I blame Michael Vick for all of this.

Those guys that run the offense are just gone. Replaced by committees, positional fluidity, and their own quarterbacks. Almost like how fullbacks essentially vanished as teams started to send more guys out wide. I think Adrian Peterson might be the last of the true hall of fame bellcows. People love to say the game is cyclical and that things eventually come back around as everyone constantly adjusts to what works. Maybe one day running backs will return. I don’t think it will ever be like that again. Safety concerns seem to favor not having dudes slam into each other in the trench so often and favor dudes who get shit done in space.

Also, if you want my opinion on Saquon, I am very worried about paying him. His value to the team is, in a lot of ways, his versatility in the passing game. But I worry about him for the same reasons people were worried about Zeke. Backs don’t have long shelf life anymore, and Barkley already has an unfortunate injury history. Having that much cap space tied to a fungible position is very risky. By the end of last season the offense wasn’t even relying on him as much anymore as it was on Jones. I saw too many years of bad useless Giants runningbacks to ever want him truly gone, but I worry. I worry a lot.