By: Jake Leicht
A few weeks ago, several members of the Blitzalytics family had a fairly heated debate. This is not new, we often have great discussions about various aspects of football. That is part of the reason that I love being affiliated with Blitzalytics. We can have intense debates among people who know and love football.
This particular discussion revolved around a simple question: Is it tougher for NFL teams to replace a starting running back or a starting receiver? There are merits to both answers, and I am going to be digging through both positions to try to gain some clarity as to which skill position is the tougher to replace.
The running back position is somewhat undervalued in the NFL world. The prevailing thought is that anybody can carry the football on the offense. Typically, teams will draft running backs later on in the NFL draft hoping to find a diamond in the rough at the position for relatively cheap. If a team drafts a RB in the first round, they normally catch a little bit of flack from draft analysts. Teams also do not want to spend big money on the position either (see Le’Veon Bell). By age 30, most running backs are viewed as too old, and they do not get the same amount of opportunities for carries and contracts than the younger backs do.
Not so fast my friends. Running backs can be very difficult to replace for NFL teams, especially if the RB is star. Last season, the Arizona Cardinals lost their franchise back David Johnson during week 1 for the entire year. They went on to feature 5 different running backs in their offense. Together they combined for 1,184 yards on the ground and 6 touchdowns. The starting running backs also had 24 total catches for 202 yards. While that may sound decent, those RBs did not come close to replicating David Johnson’s value. In 2016, Johnson 1,239 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. Oh and by the way, he also caught a staggering 80 footballs for 879 yards and 4 touchdowns. The fact of the matter is that it is very difficult to replace a star running back’s production.
Can you imagine if the Saints lost their second year running back Alvin Kamara? In his first season with the team, he had 1,554 total yards and 13 touchdowns. Drew Brees targeted Kamara out of the backfield a staggering 100 times. He caught 81 of those passes. Kamara was Brees’ safety valve. Taking him away from Drew Brees would kill the Saint’s offense. While it is true that NFL teams can find someone to simply carry the football for them, they cannot replicate the production of running backs that can both be a weapon on the ground and in the air.
While running backs find it very difficult to get big time guaranteed contracts, wide receivers are having a much easier time getting their money. According to an ESPN article by Bill Barnwell, the highest paid running back this year will be Le’Veon Bell at $14.5 million. The running back with the most guaranteed money over the next 3 years is LeSean McCoy who will be making $27.3 million over that time period. On the flip side, Antonio Brown will be the highest paid receiver this year. He will make $17 million. Mike Evans will be making an insane $55 million dollars over the next 3 years. So in summation, the highest paid wide receiver will make $2.5 million more than the highest paid running back this year. Mike Evans will be making $27.7 million more than the highest paid running back over the next 3 years. It is clear that NFL teams value wide receivers more.
Why do teams value receivers more? Well for one, receivers do not typically start slowing down in their production until around their age 32 to 34 season. That means that they produce at a higher level for nearly 3 more years than the average running back. That is huge for NFL teams. Wide receivers also do not take the physical beatings that running backs do.
Not only are receivers more durable, they are also very difficult to replace in an NFL offense. Sure, teams can find other players to catch the ball, but starting wide receivers do more than just produce. For example, defenses are more apt to double team star receivers. This would leave passing lanes more open for other players to catch the ball and make plays. If the star wide receiver was to get injured, all of the sudden those extra passing windows go away. Now the quarterback would have to make tougher throws to receivers who are not nearly as gifted as the starter. That is a major problem.
Losing a starting wide receiver also has a major impact on a quarterbacks timing. NFL teams work hours upon hours amongst their first string skill players to gain the timing necessary to be an effective offense. Losing one starting receiver can cause a quarterback to lose faith in what the offense is doing. Quarterbacks rely on this timing in many ways. For one, they have to look off defensive backs, specifically safeties, every single play. Sometimes they turn to throw the ball to a receiver before they even see that player open. They simply know who should be open due to what the defense is doing. That is all timing. It is very difficult for a quarterback to get this timing with backup receivers.
While I agree that it would be very difficult to replace a star running back in the NFL, I think it would be much harder to replace a starting wide receiver. I played quarterback in college, and I can guarantee you that it would be much harder on me if I lost a starting wide receiver rather than a running back.
The quarterback position is the most important position in sports. Teams have to make their quarterbacks comfortable. They do that by providing him weapons in the passing game. The better the weapons, the better off the QB could be. Sure it would be nice to have a star running back to hand the ball to, but it is even nicer knowing that you have a wide receiver than can get open for you in the most desperate of times.
I think the NFL world agrees with me as well. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers for example. The Steelers could have signed either Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell to a long term deal in 2016. They decided to give Brown a 4 year, $68 million dollar deal which included a $19 million signing bonus. The Steelers have given Bell the franchise tag for the past two seasons. After this season, Bell will probably leave them for a team willing to pay him a huge contract. The fact is that when the Steelers had to choose between giving the best wide receiver or best running back in the league a big contract, they chose to give the contract to the wide receiver. Do you think they gave Brown that deal without first consulting Ben Roethlisberger? Of course not. I guarantee you that the Steelers talked to Big Ben, and he replied that he would rather have Antonio Brown than Le’Veon Bell.
To me, that speaks volumes. Wide receivers are more difficult to replace in an NFL offense than running backs.