Opinion: Top RB prospects should be encouraged — not bamboozled — by McCaffrey’s big deal

I’m guessing guys like Jonathan Taylor and D'Andre Swift, soon-to-be-NFL draftees at the top of the running back crop, had to notice with a special sense of wonderment: Christian McCaffrey broke the bank last week in becoming the richest running back in NFL history.

This is what can happen when you produce in multi-dimensional dynamism as McCaffrey has with the Carolina Panthers. Numbers tell part of the story: The only player in league history with 2,500 rushing yards and 2,500 receiving yards in his first three years. Now $16 million a year in new money.

But just because McCaffrey got paid as the new face of Cam Newton's old team — and without the holdout strife that Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell engaged in — doesn’t mean the value on running backs in the NFL has suddenly soared out of character.

As much as every team needs a weapon like McCaffrey and as deep as the running back talent seems for the draft that begins on Thursday night from Roger Goodell's basement, it's likely an RB won't go off the board before the middle of the first round.

"Is there a guy in this group that is going to go extraordinarily high in the top 10 or top 15? I'm not sure about that," Los Angeles Chargers GM Tom Telesco said during a pre-draft Zoom conference on Friday. "Obviously, I don't know where everybody else's draft boards are, but I don't know if one will go that high."

Rrunning back D'Andre Swift demonstrated his three-down impact at Georgia. (Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)

Sure, it's draft season, which means poker faces and smokescreens are in.

Yet when it comes to running backs, the buzz always seems to be about a devaluation. And that's anything but a smokescreen. The first running back drafted last year went 24th overall to the Raiders. And if Josh Jacobs didn't get hurt late in the season he might have won NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Saquon Barkley was taken No. 2 overall by the Giants in 2018, but in the past five drafts, just five runners were top-10 picks. Teams surely need 'em, especially in January. Yet the dime-a-dozen mentality seems to persist for the risky position.

Especially in a draft like the one on the horizon, when there's an even deeper pool of talented wide receivers. Sorry, running backs. Fair or not, you know the rap.

"If I was to go in the first round, I think it will show that the value of the running backs isn't really down," J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State's 2,000-yard rusher, said during the NFL scouting combine. "We do a lot of things on the field and we help our team win. You can see with the Titans and Chiefs. The Chiefs closed out the Super Bowl with running plays."

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Yeah, but the Chiefs are built around the prolific arm of Patrick Mahomes. The Titans? Derrick Henry won the NFL rushing crown and led Tennessee to the AFC title game, but there's still no long-term contract while Henry stays put on a $10.2 million franchise tag.

Maybe this year's running back crop will produce another Henry or McCaffrey.

After all, when Joe Burrow, the quarterback pegged to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals, was asked to identify the best player he teamed with during stints at two college powerhouses — Ohio State, then LSU — he picked … a running back. That would be LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who might be the most well-rounded back in the draft — if it’s not the aptly-named Swift, who demonstrated his three-down impact at Georgia. Some, however, project that Taylor, coming off back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons at Wisconsin, will be the first back off the board.

There’s no shortage of running back-needy suitors. The Bucs could use fresh legs to complement Tom Brady. Miami. Pittsburgh. Buffalo. Philadelphia. Detroit. And so on.

Just don’t be surprised if the "run" on running backs is a Day 2 theme.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million extension. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

Telesco knows. It's the market. The Chargers (who fuel intrigue because of the possibility of drafting one of the top quarterbacks at sixth overall) don’t have a serious running back need, with an Austin Ekeler-Justin Jackson 1-2 punch. But Telesco is less than a year removed from Melvin Gordon’s long holdout. Gordon turned down $10 million per year, sought $13 million, returned for 12 games, then wound up signing a 2-year, $16 million free agent deal with the Broncos last month. He gambled and lost. Tough market.

The Chargers re-upped Ekeler last month (4 years, $24.5 million) for significantly less than what Gordon sought.

Still, there are exceptions. Before McCaffrey's four-year, $64 million extension, Elliott's six-year, $90 million ($15 million-per-year) contract in 2019 set the market. Elliott eclipsed Todd Gurley's four-year, $60 million deal signed in 2018.

The big-money runners, though, are far and few between. Attrition is a factor. Gurley, now a Falcon, was dumped by the Rams after struggling to rebound from a knee injury. David Johnson, now a Texan, was never the same threat who commanded a three-year, $39 million extension from the Cardinals in 2018. McCaffrey, like Gurley and others, did well to strike a new deal with significant guarantees while hot. He's never missed a game in his NFL career, but caution remains. He plays the NFL's riskiest position, where drop-off tends to be quick.

The attrition rate undoubtedly factors into the draft stock for running backs, although it can be difficult to quantify precisely. Rare talents tend to buck the trends. Yet it's also not uncommon for teams to chase Super Bowls with committees of lesser-valued backs.

"A lot of it may be dependent on where your team is and how you're going to build your team," Telesco said. "We all have the same resources under the salary cap — that kind of dictates how your team is built. I know, for us, we're trying to build a team that's not just putting a portfolio of players together."

Within all of that, running backs represent a great paradox. So often they are run into the ground and then discarded for the next one. Their position is "devalued" yet also critical for their multiple components within the grand plan.

As Telesco put it, "Running backs in this league … that can run the football, catch out of the backfield and pass protect, they're still assets to have."

Especially at an ideal price or draft slot.

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