Running backs have become devalued in the NFL and James Robinson is another prime example.
I like to fancy myself as am myself as an NFL Draft expert. Yet I have no problem admitting that I had no clue who James Robinson was throughout the 2020 NFL Draft process or after he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent after the fact.
If you claimed to know much about him or claim to have predicted his success, forgive me but I would have to call your bluff there. However, if there were a “Running Backs Don’t Matter” All-Decade team for the 2020s, Robinson has likely already earned a spot.
Since the rules of the game slowly but surely began to favor passing the football over running the football over the past decade or so, runningbacks and their value have become utterly obsolete as the NFL has completely turned into a pass-first league.
It’s more exciting, and more excitement leads to bigger ratings and in turn more revenue for the NFL, so it’s not hard to understand why the NFL has been so on board with this change in philosophy.
The smarter organizations have been ahead of this curve for quite some time now, with some of the stragglers seeming to finally catch up to this obvious change (still looking at you, Dave Gettleman).
One of those straggling organizations was the Jacksonville Jaguars, who sent shockwaves through the league this offseason when they released former top-five draft pick Leonard Fournette (the fact that they couldn’t even acquire a seventh-round draft pick for him was very telling on where the league stands regarding running backs right now, in general) with one affordable year left on his rookie contract despite having a middling amount of success early on in his career.
Instead, they chose to roll with undrafted rookie James Robinson out of the powerhouse that is Illinois State University — and the results have been fantastic. But not to take too much away from Robinson’s marvelous rookie campaign, the Jaguars have once again proven it doesn’t matter much who your running back is so much as it does who you have blocking for them.
Additionally, coaching and scheme play a huge factor in the overall success of a team’s running game, as quarterbacks are much more likely to be able to play well in spite of bad coaching rather than the other way around (see Le’Veon Bell and Adam Gase).
Robinson, NFL running backs find success via situation.
Investing a first-round pick in tackle Cam Robinson, a high second-round pick in Jawann Taylor, and doling out a big contract to guard Andrew Norwell is the real reason the Jaguars are having so much success running the football.
Running behind that monster offensive line has James Robinson third in the NFL in rushing in his UDFA rookie season with 762 yards on a gaudy 4.4 yards-per-carry average with five rushing touchdowns. He’s also chipped in nicely in the passing game, hauling in 249 receiving yards and another two touchdowns through the air.
We recently saw another example of this with Phillip Lindsay and the Denver Broncos, as the former Colorado Buffalo came out like a gangbuster during his first two seasons as an undrafted free agent in the league as he topped 1,000 yards in each of those campaigns; he also sported rushing averages of 5.4 and 4.5, respectively, while finding paydirt nine times during his rookie year and seven times during his sophomore seasons.
I could go on and on with countless examples of running backs that were taken later on in the draft to go to have massive success.
Aaron Jones (fifth-round pick in 2017 who led the NFL in touchdowns in 2019), Alvin Kamara (third-round pick in 2017 that’s made the Pro Bowl every year he’s been in the league) and James Conner (third-round pick in 2017 that seamlessly took over for the “indispensable: Le’Veon Bell to the tune of 21 TD’s in 31 starts on a 4.4 career rushing average despite battling injuries) all fit the bill.
A shifting NFL landscape has led to the demise of the running back.
Before this new era of football, yes, running backs were enormously important but the game has shifted so much that any organization that is investing a premium pick or a fat contract in a running back in this day in age is straight-up foolish — other than Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott, but there are exceptions to every rule and we still have a long way to go to judge if those contracts will have paid off.
Not to mention, both of those teams had few very holes when they decided to invest high draft picks and then big contracts in these special players.
While looking at the New York Giants specifically, general manager Dave Gettleman’s decision to spend the second-overall pick in the 2018 draft in “generational talent” Saquon Barkley set the franchise back for multiple years.
If he didn’t believe in one of the quarterbacks in that draft class, that’s fine — but to just sit there at No. 2 and take a player that plays the least-valuable position in football when there were multiple teams itching to trade up for one of those quarterbacks was malpractice.
With all the holes the Giants had on their roster at the time, it was the equivalent of putting fancy rims on a car with a blown transmission.
The Indianapolis Colts (who held the No. 3 pick in that draft) were more than happy to trade down with the Jets, take an offensive lineman with Hall of Fame potential (Quenton Nelson has already made two First-Team All-Pro squads in his first two years) while nabbing a trove of valuable draft picks in the process.
Indianapolis ended up acquiring three top-50 picks just to move down three spots in the draft and select the player they wanted anyway and it completely jumpstarted their rebuild and has allowed them to remain competitive despite the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck.
They turned those three picks into solid starting right tackle Braden Smith, PFF All-Rookie team member cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and productive pass-rusher Kemoko Turay — all on rookie contracts and helping the team win.
While this may seem like a personal attack on running backs, the fact is that it is simply the easiest position to replace and the position has the shortest shelf-life of any other due to the constant pounding backs take on a game-in-game-out basis. What other position can you find so many players at that flourish despite being taken so late in the draft relative to their counterparts or not even being drafted at all?
On the flip side, just about every single large contract extension given out to running backs over the last few years have blown up in teams’ faces, with the organizations typically dying to get out of their pacts before the second or third year or the extension even kicks in.
And while this may sound crazy, you can (and I will) make the argument that having an above-average or elite kicker is much more important to a team’s success than having a running back in the same ballpark.
It’s really quite simple and the proof is in the pudding; teams that have been able to realize that running backs are easily replaceable and should not be heavily invested in are the ones that are having the most success for the most part. Teams that have failed to grasp this like the Giants, Falcons, Jets and the Cardinals (before they parted ways with David Johnson) have toiled in mediocrity.