The perceived value of the running back position in the NFL might be lower than it has ever been. For evidence of this phenomenon, you only need to take a look at the most recent NFL Draft. Najee Harris and Travis Etienne, premier draft prospects, were taken late in the first round, and many questioned whether selecting them that high was the right decision. And while some might disagree, the advanced metrics confirm that the value of RBs in the NFL is far lower than any other offensive skill position.
According to the Offensive Value Metric, running backs are the NFL’s least valuable offensive skill position
I know not everyone will be on board with the idea that running back is a low-value position. To help prove my point, let’s look at the Offensive Value Metric (OVM). The OVM is a grading system created by the (Bx) Movement to evaluate players based on how much impact they had on their own statistics. By extension, it is also a measurement of how much influence they had on the offense overall.
Historically, running backs have performed terribly on this metric, something that was especially true in 2020. The highest-graded running back in the league last season was Wayne Gallman, who earned a grade of 15.92.
Among all NFL players who qualified for an OVM grade, that number ranked 173rd. In other words, the most effective running back in the NFL wasn’t even close to cracking the league’s top 100 grades.
Dwyane Haskins was the only non-running back ranked below him with a grade of 13.52. And Haskins still ranked above all but five running backs.
Put simply, the OVM considered running back to be the least valuable of the NFL’s offensive skill positions last season, and it wasn’t close.
The OVM grades for running backs plummeted in 2020
The enormous discrepancy in OVM grades between running backs and the other offensive positions wasn’t so dramatic two seasons ago. 2019’s highest-graded running back was Derrick Henry (21.27). In fact, five running backs earned a grade above 20 points that year. That’s still not great, but it’s far better than what the best players at the position earned a year later.
So, what changed in 2020? Well, the NFL started tracking a new statistic for running backs: rushing yards over expectation (RYOE). It is calculated by taking the number of yards a running back averaged on each play and comparing it to what the NFL’s advanced statistics suggest they should have averaged.
A player with a positive RYOE per attempt created yards where the average running back wouldn’t have. On the other hand, an RB with a negative RYOE per attempt failed to take full advantage of the space available to them.
Comparing running backs to pass catchers
In 2020, the highest RYOE per attempt was earned by Nick Chubb, at 1.75 yards above expectation. Without any context, that might not seem terrible. However, let’s take a moment to compare it to what receivers do with the ball in their hands after the catch.
The best pass catcher in the NFL in that category was Deebo Samuel. According to the NFL’s advanced metrics, his average of 12.3 yards after the catch was 4.4 yards higher than expected. That is more than double Chubb’s differential.
And while Samuel’s statistics are truly exceptional, comparing how running backs and pass catchers generally performed in 2020 doesn’t look much better. Chubb was one of just five RBs with an RYOE per attempt of 1.0 or better. There were 42 wide receivers and tight ends who reached that mark, approximately one-third of all qualifying players.
The fact of the matter is, pass catchers can have a much greater impact than their running back counterparts. This discrepancy isn’t necessarily the fault of the NFL’s running backs; there isn’t some leaguewide flaw in how they perform. It is simply more difficult to create value when running directly at the opposing defense than in the relatively open space further downfield. But that doesn’t change the fact thattheir teammates consistently outvalue running backss.
A running back’s OVM grade only measures their rushing statistics
There is a rather significant caveat to the data I have discussed here, one that you might have noticed already: yards over expectation, and the OVM generally, does not track how running back’s performed as receivers. Unfortunately, despite the position increasingly being used in this role, the NFL does not track a running back’s advanced metrics in this capacity.
While this problem affects all running backs to a certain extent, it hurts some more than others. For example, prolific receiving backs like Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara have a significant portion of their production discounted. Meanwhile, more traditional backs such as Henry or Chubb, who are barely used as receivers at all, are represented far more accurately by the OVM. Although, even their grades are missing part of the picture.
As such, while the low value of running the ball is clear, the value that RBs provide in other areas remains unaccounted for. It is unfortunate, but we can only work with the information available to us.
The running back position is, for many reasons, less-valued than ever
The advanced metrics clearly show that running backs are the least valuable of the NFL’s offensive skill positions. Running the ball simply provides less opportunity to make an impact than throwing or catching it. That doesn’t mean teams should never run the ball or that running backs have no value whatsoever.
But the comparative inefficiency of running to passing, combined with the myriad of other issues faced by running backs, primarily durability and replaceability, less to the position appearing to be valued less by the NFL with each passing year.
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Lucas Ellinas is a writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Ellinas.