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As ominous free agency again looms for RBs, NFL insiders wonder if the tides will ever change

INDIANAPOLIS — They tried to prevent this. They tried to circumvent this. And they tried to, at bare minimum, vent about this.

An offseason later, an NFL running backs’ Zoom meeting seems only to have accomplished that third objective.

Last July, NFLPA executive vice president Austin Ekeler helped organize a live call for a position group that felt undervalued and disheartened. On that call and over group text, they wondered why they weren't getting long-term deals and why the franchise tag seemed to become a weapon used in concert against them.

Was this just unlucky timing, as the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Pollard and Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs all hit free agency in the same cycle? Were the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook released more because of their outdated megacontracts than because any reasonably large running back contract would now become taboo across the league?

Perhaps, players hoped, this was a blip on the radar and a cyclical league’s trend would rebound.

The prevailing sentiment at the NFL scouting combine is it will not.

Consider that more than 40 running backs in NFL history have received multiyear contracts averaging more than $7 million per year, per Spotrac.com. And yet, a full 20 years after the first contract entered that stratosphere, just five running backs enter the 2024 season still riding contracts in that range. (Guarantees and structure are among other relevant factors by which to judge contracts.)

Yahoo Sports spoke with NFL executives, coaches and agents at the combine this week to gauge league perception of the running back market. Here are our top three takeaways:

1. The roster-building argument

Most NFL teams don’t believe the run game, in the broad sense, has lost its value. But many are reconsidering their route to establishing a run game. Coaches and agents alike cite an increasing trend toward investing in offensive line contracts rather than running backs to power a run attack. An offensive line’s ability to simultaneously protect the team’s most important asset, its quarterback, wins further points.

Browns general manager Andrew Berry, whose running back, Nick Chubb, is earning one of the top five most lucrative contracts at the position, expounded on his takeaways from weathering the loss of Chubb to a season-ending ACL tear. The Browns ranked 12th in rushing yards and 14th in rushing touchdowns despite losing Chubb.

“Obviously Nick's one in a million, and maybe he is one in a billion actually, and so we're not going to get the consistent explosive runs that you get with the best back in football,” Berry said. “But we also do firmly believe that the run game is predominantly predicated on the strength of the offensive line and then the actual scheme. Obviously, when you have a difference maker like Nick and someone who can create at the level that he can, he can truly elevate that area of the game. But we did have to learn to run without him and we were able to do it effectively enough.”

Add in a steady crop of cost-controlled, NFL-ready draft prospects and change is hard to envision.

2. The schematic argument

It’s no secret that the NFL has increasingly valued quarterbacks and the passing game. Rule changes, salary cap allocation and marketing star power all make this very clear. One AFC defensive assistant explained Thursday that unless a running back can create explosive, end zone-reaching runs without much help from a supporting cast, defenses feel confident they can routinely find answers to thwart him. Add in the advent of increasingly athletic quarterbacks who create some of the spacing and timing problems that they once needed running backs to produce, and the run game impact again continues to stem from elsewhere.

“I just think it’s a passing league,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “So I think those backs that can run out of the backfield but can also be a mismatch in the passing game, they’re going to have more value than your traditional, old-school, line-them-up-three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running back.”

The Christian McCaffreys of the league whom teams view more as “offensive weapons” than running backs will continue to cash in. Traditional running backs will face a shakier path.

3. The analytics argument

Supply and demand impact any market. So too does prevailing sentiment. The fewer teams pay running backs new money, the less teams will need to pay running backs new money. One NFL agent framed the conversation as a matter of "replacement cost." If a team can sign three more tailored NFL running backs for the price of one premier back, and receive 70% of the impact, how impactful would that be? Add in some schematic and pre-snap wrinkles that buoy lanes for running backs, and fans need look no further than Mike McDaniel's Miami Dolphins success to understand.

Buzz circulated around the Miami Dolphins signing Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor last training camp. Instead, the Dolphins rode a one-two punch of veteran Raheem Mostert and rookie De’Von Achane to a top-10 rushing attack.

Front offices increasingly believe they can compensate for the loss of a top running back more easily than they could a quarterback, pass rusher and offensive lineman. Inside linebackers and safeties have seen similar market dips that the agent believed the advent of analytics will only continue to propel.

Again, analytics point to what roster-building practices continue to demonstrate.

“I don't think there's a devaluation of the running back position. I think the division of labor has been separated a little more,” Titans head coach Brian Callahan said. “You want guys that can carry the ball, you want guys that can protect, and you want guys that can be dynamic out of the backfield. Sometimes that's one player, sometimes that's three. I think what's happening is that division of labor has been divided up amongst that room.

“So, I don't devalue the running back position. I know how valuable it is. You just have to have a lot of different types of them, ultimately, when you're building that room for your team.”

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