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The NFL running back debate explained

An explanation on what is happening with the NFL and the HB position.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Over the last few days, there has been a ton of discourse over the HB position. This comes after Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard all failed to reach contract extensions. This has led to a ton of conversations from fans and players about the game we love. Each side makes equally valid points, and today we will investigate the problem and some solutions.

What has happened to the HB position

Over the last few years, NFL GMs have realized that you don’t need a star HB to win. Teams are realizing that building a solid offensive line and paying other positions is way more critical to a Super Bowl winning roster. Heck, just look at last year’s Super Bowl winner the Kansas City Chiefs. The team’s star HB was a 7th-rounder, Isaih Pacheco. The last 9 Super Bowl winners prove that teams don’t need elite or expensive HBs to win the Lombardi.

Teams are also realizing it is just as easy to find starting-caliber HBS in rounds 2-7. Players like Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Breece Hall, Kenneth Walker, and Jonathan Taylor are all HBs taken in the second round. Teams have also found success drafting HBs in rounds 3-7. Players like Isiah Pacheco, Rhamondre Stevenson, James Conner, Tony Pollard, and even the New Orleans Saints found Alvin Kamara in rounds 3-7.

The Simple economics of the situation

The HB market comes down to basic economic principles. In economics, there is the concept of supply and demand. Supply is the amount of something, and demand is how many people want it. When supply is high, the demand is low. This is because there are a lot of different options. Right now in the NFL, there is a large supply of highly capable HBs. So, the demand to pay HBs is very low, as there are many options teams can go to.

There isn’t some vendetta against HBs or collusion by the NFL. The simple matter of the fact is that it doesn’t make sense for NFL GMs to pay a high tab for something they can replace somewhat easily. For example, would you spend $40,000 for a car when the market price is about $25,000?

In defense of the HBs

It’s not hard to see why HBs want to be paid more. They put their bodies on the line every game and have the lowest life span in the NFL. Most HBs usually reach the end of their careers by ages 27-28 years old. They want to be paid as much as possible while they can.

Some HBs can even play a role in the receiving game. Meaning they can contribute to the offense through the air and on the ground.


There’s one graphic that’s been going viral by former NFL WR Dez Bryant. The graphic is as followed.

While it is technically true this graphic is lacking so much context. Most teams only carry one kicker on their roster and maybe one on the practice squad. In comparison, most NFL teams carry 3-4 HBs. Teams will also have HBs on the practice squad. This means there are a ton of HB contracts that are skewing this $1.81 million number. The average practice squad player makes $201,000. This graphic doesn’t reveal its sample size. This leads me to believe they are taking into account practice squad HBs. If you added up every starting HBs contract, the number would look a lot different.


My favorite solution to fix the problem would be disbanding the franchise tag. A franchise tag binds players to a team for one year at a fixed salary. Players can often be stuck in situations they don’t like, and they only have two solutions. They can play or hold out. Franchise tags put too much power in the hands of the owners and typically leave a player defenseless.

Eliminating the tag would give teams slightly less power over HBs. This way, after their rookie deals, HBs could ask for a long-term deal and test the open market if the team decides not to. It gives them more power in a position with a short life span.

The other solution is to add performance-based incentives for backs. For example, Seattle Seahawks rookie HB Kenneth Walker was absolutely unreal last year. He took over the starting role after fellow teammate Rashad Penny went down with an injury. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Walker’s base salary last season was only $705,000. Teams, for example, add a $1-2 million bonus for HBs that hit 1,000 yards. This would keep players motivated and allow them to earn more money in their careers.


Two things can be true at once. Players like Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs are very talented, but you don’t need to pay an elite HB top dollar to be a successful NFL team. I think that’s what people are missing here. No, these players can’t be replaced by just anyone. However, with the right scheme and O-line, teams can find success in the running game at a cheaper price.

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