Is it still important for NFL teams to have a star running back?

Derrick Henry is all smiles after the Tennessee Titans beat the Baltimore Ravens.
Photo of Ricky Dimon

Ricky Dimon

NFL · 1 year ago

Show Bio

Since graduating from Davidson (The College That Stephen Curry Built), I have been writing about sports--just about any and all you can think of!--and coaching tennis in Atlanta, Ga. Beyond the four major sports, I am an avid tennis fan and cover the ATP Tour on a daily basis. If I'm not busy writing, you can generally find me on a tennis court or traveling the world wherever a sporting event takes me.

In this year’s NFL Draft, a running back was not selected until the final pick of the first round (LSU star Clyde Edwards-Helaire went to the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs). In 2019, only one running back was taken in the first 52 picks of the draft (none until Alabama’s Josh Jacobs went to the Oakland Raiders at No. 24).

What is the explanation? One thing’s for sure: it’s not because every single team in the NFL is set at running back.

No, there were plenty of teams that experts identified as “needing” a running back prior to either the 2019 or 2020 draft. Nonetheless, players at that once-heralded position got passed up, passed up again, and passed up some more.

But why?

Pass happy

Well, the importance of the running back position is very much up for debate these days. Gone are the days when teams would feed their backfield workhorses with an alarming—perhaps even inhumane—number of carries and ride them to win after win and even to Super Bowl after Super Bowl. Most records in sports are made to be broken, but the peak number of rushing attempts in a single season does not appear to be one such record. Amazingly, of the top 55 single-season carries in NFL history, only one has come in the last 10 years (DeMarco Murray, who carried the ball 392 times for the Dallas Cowboys is 2014, is tied for seventh on the list). Of the top six, only two have come since the turn of the century (Larry Johnson is No. 1 with 416 carries for the 2006 Chiefs and Eddie George is fifth with 403 carries for the 2000 Tennessee Titans).

Those are the cold, hard numbers—but they really aren’t necessary. Anyone with half a brain who has watched even a few NFL games over the past decade or so knows good and well that this has turned into a pass-happy league. Instead of pounding the rock down opponents’ throats, teams prefer to let their quarterbacks run around in the backfield and then fling the football around to countless numbers of receivers all over the field.

“Why go four wide when we can go five wide?!?! The more receivers the better! Let’s give our star QB as many options as possible!”

That is basically what coaches are thinking these days.

Oh, Henry….

That is not to say, of course, that running backs have become entirely irrelevant. Sixteen different running backs broke the 1,000-yard mark in 2019, led by Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans with 1,540 yards. Seven running backs scored at least 10 touchdowns on the ground (Henry and Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers were tied for first with 16). Henry led Tennessee to playoff upsets of the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens and was just rewarded with a four-year, $50 million contract extension.

Keep in mind, though, that the best teams in the NFL last season were the Chiefs (led by 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes), the Ravens (led by 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson), and the San Francisco 49ers (led by a dominant defense). Where were the running backs on those teams? Christian McCaffrey is arguably the best RB in the business and his team, the Carolina Panthers, went 5-11 overall and 0-8 in their last eight games.

It is also worth noting that Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott thinks he has “dominated” every year since being drafted in 2016. But he has never rushed for more than 1,631 yards (2016) in a league in which running backs used to exceed 2,000 yards. Elliott has also never equaled his 15 rushing touchdowns that he posted as a rookie. It has been downhill ever since for both Elliott and his team.

If those numbers can even come close to being “dominant” for a running back, it is clear the position’s value has diminished. Having a star running back is all well and good, but it is not essential. In other words, having a guy like Derrick Henry is a luxury…not a necessity.

Virginia Bonuses

See All
PointsBet

$500

Get 5x $100 Risk-Free Bets!

Sign up for a new PointsBet account

Make a bet of up to $100 and receive a refund if you lose

Get this offer once a day for the first 5 days you sign up

Must be 21+. Full terms are available at PointsBet.

DraftKings

$200

Bet $5 on Any MLB Game, Get $200 if Your Team Wins!

Sign up for a new account with DraftKings Sportsbook and make your first deposit

Bet $5 on any MLB team to win their next game

Win $200 in free bets + any cash winnings from your original wager

Offer valid for new players only. Must be 21 years or older to play. Reward paid in site credit. Full terms available at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Monkey Knife Fight

$100

Claim Instant Deposit Match up to $100 + Free $5 game

Register for a Monkey Knife Fight account & deposit using promo code PICKSWISE100

Monkey Knife Fight will match your first deposit up to $100

Deposit $100 and you'll get $100 bonus + a free $5 game

18+. Terms and conditions apply. You must live in one of the states where real money DFS is legal.

PointsBet

$2,000

Get $2,000 in Risk-Free Bets!

Register for a new PointsBet account & deposit

Receive a free bet refund up to $500 if your first fixed odds bet loses

& a free bet refund up to $1,500 if your first two PointsBetting Wager loses

Must be 21+. Full terms are available at PointsBet.

Caesars Sportsbook

$1,500

Get up to $1,500 Risk-Free First Bet!

Sign up for a new Caesars Sportsbook account

Make your first deposit of $50+

If your first bet is not a winner, get it all back as a free bet (up to $1,100) if you lose!

21+. Terms and conditions apply.

BetRivers

$250

Get a $250 Deposit Bonus!

Sign up for a new BetRivers account using promo code PICKSWISE

Make a deposit & get it doubled up to $250 total

To get a $100 bonus, deposit $100

Must be 21+. Play in IA Only. Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-BETS OFF

Unibet

$500

Get a $500 Risk-Free Bet!

Register for a new Unibet account & make a deposit

Place your first bet up to $500 risk-free!

Get refunded up if you lose up to $500

New players only. Terms & conditions apply. 21+. VA only.

BetMGM

$1,000

Get a $1,000 Risk Free Bet!

Register for a new BetMGM & deposit

Place your first bet up to $1,000 risk-free!

Get refunded up if you lose up to $1,000

21+. Terms & conditions apply.

FanDuel Sportsbook

$1,000

Get a $1,000 Risk Free Bet!

Register for a new FanDuel Sportsbook account & deposit

Place your first bet up to $1,000 risk-free!

Get refunded up if you lose up to $1,000

21+. Terms & conditions apply.

DraftKings

$1,000

Get a $1,000 Deposit Bonus!

Register for a new DraftKings Sportsbook account & deposit

DraftKings will match 20% of your deposit up to $1,000 total

To get a $100 bonus, deposit $500

21+. Terms & conditions apply.

Monkey Knife Fight

$100

Claim 100% Instant Deposit Match up to $100!

Register for a Monkey Knife Fight account & deposit using promo code PICKSWISE100

Monkey Knife Fight will match your first deposit up to $100

Deposit $100 and you'll get $100 bonus + a free $5 game

18+. Terms and conditions apply. You must live in one of the states where real money DFS is legal.

Yahoo DFS

$25

Get $25 in Site Credit With Yahoo DFS When You Deposit $5!

Register for a new account with Yahoo DFS and deposit $5+

Enter a $5 DFS contest

Upon entry, you will receive a bonus $25 in credit into your account!

21+ and new players only. Full terms available from Yahoo DFS.

TVG

$200

Get Your First Single-Horse Win Wager Back Up to $200 if you don't win

Register for a new TVG account and make a deposit

Place your first single horse win-type bet up to $200

If your horse doesn't win you'll get a refund up to $300

21+. T&C's apply. Please gamble responsibly.

TwinSpires

$200

Get a $200 Sign-Up Bonus with Twinspires Racebook!

Open your TwinSpires.com account using offer code BET200

$200 bonus cash will be credited in increments of $100 for every $400 wagered

To earn the full $200 bonus players must wager $800 within 30 days

21+. Terms and conditions apply.