Most NFL teams treat the running back position like an iPhone. Whereas people cycle through one iPhone after another every two years, teams will use backs as the focal point of the run game for around four years before usually drafting another back.
This offseason featured plenty of talented running backs in Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard who were in line for a contract extension. But all came away empty handed following the Monday 4 PM deadline. While this was somewhat understandable given the wear and tear of the position, it feels like an unnecessary low point for the running back market.
What makes the decisions a little reasonable is that once running backs get signed to a new extension, the results are mixed. While there have been some good ones in recent memory such as Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry, the bad ones like Todd Gurley and Devonte Freeman seemed to be fresh in the minds of general managers. Even players who were still productive after their extensions like Ezekiel Elliot and Dalvin Cook couldn't replicate their previous production enough to the point where they became cap casualties (released to help teams get under the salary cap), and are now waiting to be signed.
But the simplest explanation for why executives are hesitant, is that running backs wear down quicker than most skill positions. Every time they touch the football, they're guaranteed to be tackled. Going through that type of physicality typically causes them to become less durable after a certain amount of years.
That being said, it's still shocking to see zero running back extensions this offseason. They are a bigger victim of the length of rookie contracts compared to other positions. First round rookies usually play all five years assuming the teams pick up the fifth year of their contract, but running backs at that point in their career might be on the verge of breaking down. That's why most extensions for backs come after their third season. If rookie contracts for running backs were four years instead, perhaps they'd get more extensions.
Then there's the overall value of running backs that's being ignored. Teams might be leaning more on the passing game, but that doesn't mean today's running backs don't have anything to offer. There are plenty of guys who are a threat in the running and passing game, or can simply take pressure off their quarterback. And while there might not be as many workhorse backs like there used to be, the few backs who do consume many touches make a significant impact each week.
For Barkley, he was practically the entire Giant offense as they heavily utilized his talents last season. Although the previous three years were a far cry from Barkley's rookie year due to injuries, he enjoyed a resurgent 2022 season, shredding defenses en route to the Giants' first playoff appearance in six years. From yards after contact to downfield sprints, Barkley accounted for almost 30% of the Giants' total yards from scrimmage.
Josh Jacobs was always a solid player, but after the Raiders declined his fifth year option, this was a prove-it year for Jacobs and he delivered in a big way. He led the league in rushing yards while also tying his career high in touchdowns. While the motivation of securing a contract could've played a role in Jacobs' monster year, this was the type of season he's been expected to have for a while.
Unlike Barkley and Jacobs, Tony Pollard spent last year splitting carries with Ezekiel Elliott, but when he got the ball, Pollard often made the most of it. He rushed for 1,007 yards despite registering 193 carries, the least for a back with over 1,000 yards last season. Pollard was tagged in February, but extending him would've made more sense since he's now the focal point of the run game after Elliott's release.
The only way to summarize these recent transactions is that the running back market has truly taken a nasty fall. It's unfortunate to see a position be deemed as replaceable to the point where it doesn't matter if they were an all-pro the year before. This has already caught the attention of other running backs who are in line for their first extensions such as Najee Harris and Jonathan Taylor. It will be interesting to see whether these approaches will pay off or backfire because this is probably going to influence how general managers negotiate with running backs going forward.