49ers star Christian McCaffrey was quick to defend the value of his position in the rapidly evolving NFL.
The perception of running backs in the NFL has changed drastically over the last decade. Once bastions of offensive stardom, running backs are now considered mostly expendable. Teams no longer invest high draft picks in the position. In the rare instance when a team does invest a high draft pick in the position, it generally invokes the extreme displeasure of their fanbase (see: Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions).
That said, there are still a few stragglers in the superstar running back tier. One of them is Christian McCaffrey, who has spent every healthy second of his career making defensive coordinators bow their heads in shame.
Now with the San Francisco 49ers, McCaffrey was on the doorstep of the Super Bowl last season. He is very much central to the Niners’ offense and he has strong opinions about the value of his position.
Christian McCaffrey wants you to know running backs are still important
When asked about the depreciating value of halfbacks in the modern era on The Rich Eisen Show, McCaffrey gave the following defense:
“I think when you look back in history and look at what the running back position has meant to football, they touch the ball more than anybody. And I was a guy who liked Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, some of the best to ever do it, and these guys, they didn’t just play for a long time, they played well for a long time, and I look at Derrick Henry as another example. Derrick Henry is older than I am and that guy’s done nothing but produce.” (h/t NBC Sports)
He’s not wrong, of course. Running backs remain heavily featured in NFL offenses. There are still long-tenured star RBs — McCaffrey being one of them, along with Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, and to varying degrees, others.
But the realization for most NFL teams over the past decade has been that McCaffrey is the exception, not the rule. Plus, McCaffrey has had multiple seasons derailed by injury. So has Barkley. It’s hard for NFL running backs to sustain elite production with the persistent mileage put on their knees.
NFL teams have gotten smarter about spreading the wealth between multiple running backs, rather than simply going all-in on one three-down runner. That naturally devalues the star running backs, because they spend fewer snaps on the field.
As McCaffrey notes, however, even running backs who only spend half their team’s offensive snaps on the field will get more touches than any other skill position. The best receivers in the game only get double-digit catches on the best of days. Besides Travis Kelce, there aren’t many tight ends coming remotely close to the yardage and level of involvement of the best running backs.
Even still, running backs are paid less than receivers, tight ends, and almost every position. McCaffrey doesn’t have an issue with others getting paid, but he would like to see halfbacks get more love on the free agent market.
“I’m for everybody getting paid. I love when guys earn money and are able to feed their families and have life-changing, generational-changing money. It’s such a special thing because we all work really hard. It’s fun, it’s a blessing, it really is. When I look at what receivers make around the league and then you look at what running backs make, we’re at the bottom of the list.
The running back will never die out completely. McCaffrey has the essence of his position correct: there’s significant value in a player who can get early-down yardage and collapse the defense inward, in turn opening up passing lanes and setting up big plays. There will also continue to be running backs who, like McCaffrey, can beat the defense as rushers and pass-catchers. That dual threat ability is still highly regarded.
But where McCaffrey’s argument falls short — at least in the eyes of financially stingy front offices — is that running backs are more interchangeable than the average skill position. The best offenses in the NFL these days tend to involve two or three different backs every week. Often to preserve and extend their best back’s career. There’s nothing quite like the wear and tear on NFL running backs. That increases the value of a big contract for the individual, but also makes front offices less willing to hand them out.