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538 Sports: NFL teams don't value running backs anymore, and what it means for Devonta Freeman

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The analytics site found that NFL teams just don't like running backs anymore. We still love running backs, but paying them sure gets tough.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have reportedly been trying to sign their young running back Devonta Freeman, but there seems to have been little movement since he began clamoring for a new deal. Freeman has been a great player, but can the team meet his contract demands and keep other core players?

Benjamin Morris of 538 Sports looked at modern offenses and running back contracts, and determined that backs are finally getting paid what they are worth. It’s no surprise, but he says, “In the modern NFL, teams appear reluctant to commit resources to ball carriers like they used to.”

They even include this cool graphic that helps sum up how teams value backs compared to other positions.

The biggest change since the glory days of Jamal Anderson is guys like Jamal Anderson aren’t getting paid. What’s changed? Per this article, running the ball “sucks.” While all teams not run by Mike Mularkey have cut back on running the ball, they have seen the average yards per play skyrocket.

Obviously, running the ball is important if you want to kill the clock, set up play action, take the pressure off of your quarterback, or just generally win the Super Bowl when your defense is gassed. Statistically, the best use of an offensive play is to throw the ball.

Of course, running the football has ancillary benefits, such as burning time off the clock, avoiding turnovers, gaining positive yards more consistently, picking up shorter yardage a higher percentage of the time, keeping the defenses honest, and so on. (There may even be situations in which teams pass too often, such as with 2-point attempts.) That sounds like a lot of good uses for the run! But note that, when it comes to these things, the quality of your running back — at least by conventional measures like how many yards they gain — is of secondary importance.

This is because even a great rushing attack is still worse at picking up yards than even a mediocre passing attack. The all-pro running back may gain a lot of yards as his team funnels its offense through him, but many (or even most) of those yards are picked up in spots — like when a team is slightly up or down in the third quarter — where passing would have been better (or at the very least, where teams should be passing more often). Indeed, much like with having a good punter, there’s a danger that a great running back could hurt his team, if he entices them to run too often.

Morris argues that the more valuable back is involved in the passing game, noting the elite talent of Le’Veon Bell. Freeman is absolutely talented, and one of these versatile backs, but he’s clearly in a tier below Bell. And if we are looking heavily at the passing game, Freeman isn’t quite as explosive as Tevin Coleman.

What eventually happens with Freeman is still unknown. The Falcons are desperately short on cap space, and would likely need to make multiple moves to fit an extension for Freeman. He should come in well above Lamar Miller’s four-year, $26 million deal. That will be tough for the team to pay, and based on the trends, few teams will be willing to pay that either.