Are we seeing the end of the workhorse running back?

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April 28, 2017 by coachcarter717

9,000 rushing yards wasn’t enough for Marshawn Lynch as he looks for a fresh start away from Seattle. (Courtesy of Rod Mar / Sports Illustrated)

Written by Carter Cotrupi

The running back position in today’s NFL has seemingly changed for the better. For the longest time, the consensus around the position was a “workhorse,” a three-down back who can take the majority of offensive snaps and put up 150+ yards for 60 minutes of football. In this mindset, you think of guys like Bo Jackson and Walter Payton. Both could run back and forth horizontally for 30 yards before moving down field to get a ten-yard gain.

However, the modern era of football has seen a steady increase in athleticism and agility across all positions in the game. Defenses have upped their tackling mechanics to avoid big backs from bullying single defenders. Running backs who can shoulder a handful of tackles and still break away for big gains are few and far between in today’s NFL.

The only possible exceptions to this observation include the likes of third-year Arizona Cardinals star David Johnson and the newly unretired Marshawn Lynch. Both players have shown great strength and endurance in their runs while managing to limit their time off the field due to injury. Normally, I would include Adrian Peterson in this group, but only time will tell if there’s anything left in the tank for him.

Coaches around the league have tried to hold onto the idea of the workhorse RB by putting their faith in big guys like Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls. Yet, with each passing season, it becomes clear that the NFL’s modern level of competition is too great for any single rusher. Most running backs now simply aren’t built to withstand playing every snap of a 16 plus-game season at the pro level. With the evolution of the mobile quarterback throughout the 2000s, coaches now have the chance to spread out the offense in their ground attack.

Like I mentioned, the running back position remains one of the most important in terms of required skill sets, but it comes with a high demand that not many athletes can shoulder. The injury bug has plagued many great running backs in recent memory and teams who are not prepared with a contingency plan often find themselves with a serious talent gap going down the depth chart.

Some teams have gotten lucky in their injury-riddled seasons and have unearthed the likes of Jordan Howard (Bears), Spencer Ware (Chiefs) and Jay Ajayi (Dolphins). Other teams lost their stars and were forced to pass the torch down to the mediocre talents of Christine Michael (Seahawks/Packers) and Jerick McKinnon (Vikings).

(Courtesy of Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Up until recently, the concept of a running back committee was usually composed of perennial backup talent forced into the spotlight. It was rare to find untapped talent in a team’s RB depth chart because they were not often utilized outside of serious tragedy to their superstar rusher.

Fortunately for these overlooked players, more NFL teams are straying away from the powerhouse three-down back and opting instead for multiple RBs in specialized roles. A good example of this scheme is what the New England Patriots did with their running back squad last season. You had Legarette Blount in short yardage situations, James White catching passes out of the backfield and Dion Lewis as the hybrid speedster looking for big gains.

The Patriots certainly were not the first team to employ the running back committee on the field, but that will not stop them from adding to their dynamic running game. The signing of Bills RB Mike Gillislee might spell the end for aging Blount as Belichick and company look to continue the committee strategy with younger talent.

In a more surprising signing, Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints secured Adrian Peterson for the next two years at $3.5 million per year. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this signing is how the team plans to plug-in Peterson to a group that already contains Mark Ingram.

Peterson, known throughout his career for his bulldozing style of play, is not much different from Ingram’s power style. However, Coach Payton showed very little patience for Ingram’s fumbling troubles toward the end of the regular season. If Ingram is still considered to be in Coach Payton’s doghouse, then was the Peterson signing to spark some competition? It will be interesting to see if these two veteran backs can share playing time and where the 32-year old Peterson will stand in the depth chart.

One thing is certain; everyone should be looking towards the Atlanta Falcons and their high-powered offense for the blueprint on making stars out of multiple RBs. The tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman lit up the stat sheets and caused way too many headaches among fantasy owners last season combining for the most total yards from scrimmage by a running back combination. Freeman gained 1,541 yards rushing and Coleman added 941 total yards on top of that. Both players are explosive running out of the backfield and each can complement Matt Ryan’s dynamic passing attack.

(Courtesy of David Goldman / AP Photos)

Personally, I have a great fondness for the running back committee movement in the NFL. I think there is something truly special about a coach who can utilize all 53 players on his roster to their full potential. Some football fans would love to see a resurgence of the old-school power backs who can break someone’s clavicle every five minutes, but speed is the name of the game today. Too many coaches have gotten burned over the years for putting all their eggs in one basket like Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Doug Martin missed the majority of the 2016-2017 season.

This year’s NFL draft should be very interesting for teams looking at the running back position. Top RB prospect names include LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and FSU’s Dalvin Cook. Will these upcoming rookies be expected to spearhead their offense or will they be given time to rise up the ranks of a committee? Could teams view the return of veterans Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson as a revival of the workhorse RB? Only time will tell. We’re on to the 2017 season, folks.

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