Running backs occupy a strange place within the NFL positional hierarchy right now. For as much as a game-breaking back can thrill both fans and their fantasy owners while bearing the potential to affect results (look no further than Corey Clement in the Super Bowl), they tend to be approached cautiously by talent evaluators, be it through draft decisions, trades or contract negotiations.
To put it simply, too much can go wrong and mar their value. Running backs typically see their value plummet as they near their dreaded thirties, if they are even fortunate enough to get that far. The combination of being so reliant on speed and dynamic movement coupled with being tackled by much larger men every time they touch the ball makes those that play the position rather vulnerable. This tenuous playing existence helps explain why so many teams, including the Super Bowl champion Eagles, have opted for a committee-based system.
Now, NFL teams can protect themselves all they want, but evaluation errors still happen. Consider that every NFL team had a chance to draft Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara before they each ultimately fell to the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Conservative tendencies towards runners or not, teams will forever fall victim to over- or undervaluing backs who, despite their sometimes limited shelf life, can make or break your offence. As these 15 lopsided trades involving running backs show, the next head-shaking RB transaction you hear about will hardly be the first.
15 Trent Richardson
The standard unwritten rules of the draft that caution against valuing running backs too highly were thrown out the door in 2012 when Trent Richardson arrived in the league. It's easy to forget now, but the Alabama star was absolutely dominant in college, winning two national titles and earning the Doak Walker award. It was enough to prompt the Cleveland Browns to surrender a boatload of picks to move up all of one spot and ensure they got their man.
As recent history would suggest for the franchise, the Browns making a big draft gamble didn't quite pan out. The Minnesota Vikings "settled" for Matt Kalil at No. 4, nabbing a Pro Bowl OT who has started all 81 of his career games. Along the way, the trade also netted them starters in Jarius Wright and Robert Blanton. More significantly, Richardson brought no value to Cleveland beyond one mediocre rookie season before being traded in another lopsided deal - but we'll get to that.
14 Ricky Williams
There are a number of ways to measure the degree of infatuation Mike Ditka had for Ricky Williams ahead of his draft year in 1999. Of course, the easiest way to measure how much Ditka and Saints management wanted the Texas star is to look at what they sacrificed to bring him in. To position themselves to select him at No. 5, they essentially off-loaded an entire draft's load of picks, and then some.
If you follow the trade tree on the acquired selections, the deal gifted Washington with future Pro Bowlers Arrington, Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen, all for a guy who would spend just 38 games in the Big Easy. Unsurprisingly, Ditka saw his New Orleans tenure come to an abrupt end after his apprentice's rookie campaign.
13 Jay Ajayi
Jay Ajayi is a Super Bowl champion, something that could hardly have been predicted just a few months earlier. As recently as October, the 2016 Pro Bowler was somewhat stranded, stuck on a slumping Miami Dolphins team while reporting earning the enmity of coaches and executives with the organization. While no one affiliated with Miami has spoken publicly on the problems with Ajayi, internal strife is the only reasonable explanation for the head-scratching Halloween decision to gift him to the Philadelphia Eagles.
In exchange for a dynamic 24-year-old who rushed for nearly 1,300 yards last season, the Dolphins only managed to pry a fourth rounder from the Eagles, one that will come at the end of the round at that. While Ajayi was more of a passenger than a driving force for Philly on the road to the Super Bowl, he offers promise as a still-young back who will return next season with a better understanding of the system and his role within it. For Miami, the deal signalled head coach Adam Gase's control of the team, but still felt like 25 cents on the dollar.
12 DeMarco Murray
Unlike most trades on this list, the 2016 pre-draft deal that brought DeMarco Murray to Tennessee still has a chance of turning around. Heck, it could even one day prove lopsided against the Titans. It merits inclusion here, however, both because of the early results to date and some of the strange quirks that have emerged in the aftermath of the deal.
Though he has faded some from his incredible 2014 campaign, Murray was easily the biggest name in the deal. He rewarded Tennessee with nearly 1300 yards rushing in 2017 before slowing down this past season. Beyond Murray, though, the trade also involved QB prospect Connor Cook, whose only NFL start to date came in the playoffs. Also odd was the journey of the involved No. 113th overall pick which was used on ILB Nick Kwiatkoski and was flipped three times in seven weeks before landing with the Chicago Bears.
11 LeGarrette Blount
An All-Rookie team member in his first pro season in 2010, LeGarrette Blount soon fell out of favour with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After getting the ball just 41 times in his third NFL season as a sparsely used bench player, it was of little surprise to see the Bucs move on. Luckily for Blount, his exit from Tampa resulted in a rather soft landing with the New England Patriots.
The Pats' dynasty was already under way and Blount helped further cement the club's reputation as a haven for redemption projects. At the cost of just a 2013 seventh rounder and fringe NFL running back Jeff Demps, New England got a reliable back and solid depth piece whose tenure coincided with two Super Bowl rings. If that wasn't lucky enough, the 31-year-old left the Pats this past season for Philadelphia, where he has since won another ring with the Eagles.
10 LeSean McCoy
When Philadelphia Eagles coaches informed LeSean McCoy that he had been traded to Buffalo in exchange for Kiko Alonso, he thought someone was messing with him. The brash running back claimed that he had never heard of Alonso and couldn't fathom why the Eagles would get rid of him. A $12 million cap hit and a strained relationship with head coach Chip Kelly surely played a role, but this was still a dynamic offensive player in his prime.
Three years on since the trade and the Bills have clearly won, even if the Super Bowl champion Eagles aren't exactly losing sleep over it. McCoy remains the everyday back in Buffalo and was probably the best player on a playoff-bound team this season. Averaging 1,100 yards per season since joining the Bills, the player known as 'Shady' extended his Pro Bowl streak to four this season. By comparison, Alonso lasted all of one injury-marred season in Philly, although his trade tree for the Eagles ultimately led to the deal that enabled them to nab Carson Wentz.
9 Ki-Jana Carter
Heading into the 1995 NFL Draft, Carolina Panthers were an expansion franchise seeking a marketable star and armed with the No. 1 overall pick. Fortuitously, there just so happened to be a consensus No. 1 in explosive Penn Staye superstar Ki-Jana Carter. But before anyone in Carolina could buy their Panthers jersey with Carter on the back, the franchise traded out of the pick, puzzling the new fan base.
In exchange for passing on Carter, who went to Cincinnati, the Panthers tabbed Kerry Collins with their No. 5 pick to be the first franchise quarterback and added a defensive end in Shawn King. While King was serviceable, Collins would make the All-Rookie team and go on to reach two Pro Bowls and even lead the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000. It turned out to be quite a coup for Carter, who never rushed for as many as 500 yards in a season.
8 Darren Sproles
While it may not have been a popular decision among fans and teammates, the New Orleans Saints' decision to trade Darren Sproles for a fifth round pick ahead of the 2014 draft didn't seem like a particularly risky proposition. After all, the diminutive fan favourite had just turned 31, which practically made him a dinosaur by RB standards. While there was some curiosity over what then-Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly could do with the former Kansas State star, few expected his best years to be ahead.
It came as something of a shock, then, that Sproles' arrival in the City of Brotherly Love coincided with a remarkable three consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, the first three of his 12-year career. That streak came to an end this season after Sproles suffered a broken arm and torn ACL in a week 3 game against the New York Giants. The Saints, who got just 14 games out of fifth round OLB Ronald Powell, would still probably like to have that one back.
7 Marshawn Lynch
The list of failed first round draft picks made by the Buffalo Bills is a long one, and there was a time when Marshawn Lynch seemed to be just another wayward selection. The 12th pick in the 2007 draft made the All-Rookie team in year one, but soon fell out of favour as his rushing numbers slipped each year. By 2010, Buffalo was ready to move on from the 24-year-old, sending him to Seattle in a mid-season trade that netted them a fourth and fifth rounder.
Bills management would probably like to have that one back. Lynch's impact on the Seahawks was instant, with the Skittles-lover making the Pro Bowl in each of his first four full seasons in Seattle. Over that stretch, he averaged nearly 1,350 yards and 12 touchdowns while helping the 'Hawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. Both Chris Hairston and Tank Carder, the players drafted with the Bills' acquired picks, remain in the league, albeit hardly with Lynch's resume.
6 Marshall Faulk
For as great as the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis was, the franchise has just one Super Bowl trophy to show for their 13 seasons with one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks under centre. Surely there are Colts fans who wonder what could have been, particularly if they had another complimentary Hall of Fame talent on their roster. The scenario isn't all that far-fetched, actually.
In Manning's 1998 rookie season, he was handing the ball off in the backfield to future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk. The pairing, one that prompts 'what if' questions all these years later, was quickly snuffed out when Faulk was traded to the Rams for second and fifth round picks in 1999. Both clubs went on to big things, but it makes for a pretty interesting hypothetical to envision Faulk taking hand-offs from Manning through his career instead of Kurt Warner.
5 Terrell Davis
Seeking an heir apparent quarterback for Warren Moon in the fourth round of the 1995 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves locked in on Kansas State QB Chad May. They were concerned, however, that he wouldn't remain on the board until they picked so they threw a sixth rounder at the Denver Broncos in order to move up 11 spots. They got their man, but the celebration didn't exactly last long in Minny.
May never played a down in the NFL, riding the bench as a back-up and getting passed on the depth chart by Brad Johnson and Randall Cunningham. His inability to pan out as a pro would have been a low-risk miss, if not for the fact that Denver turned that sixth rounder into Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. In just seven career seasons, Davis collected two Super Bowl rings and an MVP award while reaching three Pro Bowls and even reigning as one of seven players with a 2,000-yard season on their resume.
4 Corey Dillon
While few would probably count Corey Dillon among the top running backs of all-time, he does currently stake a claim in ranking among the top 20 in rushing yards and touchdowns. He even went to four Pro Bowls during his 10-year career. It wasn't, however, until after a trade to New England from his long-time home with the Cincinnati Bengals that he could be called a champion.
After suffering through some injuries and a dip in production in 2003 during his age 29 season, the Bengals sensibly flipped Dillon for a second-round pick that became DB Madieu Williams. Williams was good enough to stick around for four seasons in Cincy, Dillon still had a 1,600-yard Pro Bowl season in him that coincided with a Pats' Super Bowl 39 victory.
3 Trent Richardson
Yeah, this guy again. It isn't exactly a glowing representation of Trent Richardson's NFL career that he was involved in nearly as many one-sided trades (two) as he had 100-yard rushing games (three). Barely over a year after his much-buzzed about arrival in the league, the Cleveland Browns had seen enough to know that they were ready to cut their losses while the then-23-year-old still carried some cache. Enter the Indianapolis Colts and GM Ryan Grigson.
Undeterred by his disappointing rookie campaign, the Colts bet big to the tune of their 2014 first round pick. At best, Richardson was merely a bystander during Indy's 2013 and 2014 playoff campaigns, not even dressing for two postseason contests after a team-enforced suspension, before being waived. The only saving grace here is that the Browns remained the Browns, and the coveted draft pick they stole away ultimately led to the failed Johnny Manziel experiment.
2 Jerome Bettis
The trade that landed Jerome Bettis in Pittsburgh represents the precise type of windfall that has helped the Steel Curtain remain one of football's predominant franchises for so many years. With the St. Louis Rams owning the No. 6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft and coveting Nebraska star Lawrence Phillips, "The Bus" appeared to be the odd man out in the backfield despite rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in the league. He fell into the waiting arms of the Steelers.
The Rams actually got the better of 75% of the deal. Pittsburgh drafted LB Steven Conley in the third round without him ever amounting to much. Still, this trade is all about Bettis and Phillips, whose careers went in very different directions. Bettis is a Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer, with more than 13,000 career yards to his credit. Phillips, on the other hand, underwhelmed during a career better remembered for a long rap sheet and a litany of off-the-field incidents.
1 Herschel Walker
Few NFL players can lay legitimate claim to having engineered a dynasty. Herschel Walker can be counted as one of the rare few, although not exactly in the kind of way he'd ideally have wanted to. The talented back best known as "Crazy Legs" went the other way in a deal that helped construct the framework for the Dallas Cowboys teams that dominated the 90's NFL landscape.
While that might seem overblown, let's consider the 1989 deal. In order to land Walker, a superstar running back who had just rushed for 1,514 yards the year prior, and a trio of draft picks, the Minnesota Vikings parted with a king's ransom that included five players and eight draft picks. The Cowboys didn't strike it rich with every one of their assets, but then again they didn't have to. Though the players acquired didn't stick around for long, the draft choices netted Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson and their 13 combined Pro Bowl appearances, while also leading directly to the addition of Russell Maryland. Three Super Bowls in four years don't happen without the Walker trade.