The running back position has been one of the most confusing when it comes to their worth throughout history. The position has phases, some when they’re valuable, and other times when they’re meaningless. Currently, the running back position is extremely valuable. Within the past three drafts, there has been a running back selected in the top 10. Some years, there have been no running backs selected until the end of the first round pf the draft. It really varies on the level of skill the running backs have, on how much these teams pay these running backs, and how much they’re willing to give up.
We have seen throughout history a lot of bad trades, and a lot of bad free agent signings that involve running backs. Some teams have underestimated the skill level of many running backs, and ended up on the losing side of a deal. You never know how valuable a running back could be to your team. In the NFL these days, running backs sometimes are almost as valuable as the quarterback. Teams like the Cowboys, Rams and the recent Super Bowl-winning Eagles all succeeded in part due to their backfield. It’s really a gamble whenever teams go into the offseason looking to get rid of, or obtain a running back.
20 Signing: 49ers Sign Lawrence Philips
The San Francisco 49ers thought Lawrence Philips’ off the field issues came to an end and that he would be able to be the running back he was in college. But he never managed to reach those expectations. The 49ers signed him to a two-year deal, worth $1.75 million, with some extra money on the side that included a signing bonus. Philips got through half a season, and that was his career in San Francisco. He never started a game in a 49ers uniform, and only rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns in his time there.
Back in 1999, $1.75 million was more than what it is now. So for the 49ers to spend that and not have any positives come from it is fairly disappointing.
19 Trade: Eagles Trade LeSean McCoy To Buffalo For Koa Misi
Chip Kelly got off to a good start in Philly, leading the team to a 10-6 season and winning the NFC East. After a narrow Wild Card round loss to the New Orleans Saints, Kelly then decided to show everybody what a genius he was and how he could win with a team he built himself. He won a power struggle with GM Howie Roseman and proceeded to trade all of Philly's top playmakers.
The worst trade of all may have been sending LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for Kelly's former Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy had a solid 2014 season under Kelly, so it was baffling as to why Kelly would want to get rid of him, only to make a bad RB signing (more on that later). McCoy has continued to be a star in Buffalo, while Alonso only lasted one year in Philly before being shipped off to Miami in what was essentially the Eagles cleaning house from the mess Kelly made.
18 Signing: Saints Sign Adrian Peterson
One of the biggest headlines this offseason, was that the New Orleans Saints signed Adrian Peterson to a two-year deal worth $7 million. It’s pretty crazy, because the Saints had one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, and Peterson was not a part of that. Peterson was traded to the Arizona Cardinals early in October, before he could even rush for over 100 yards with the Saints. It was clear Sean Payton and Adrian Peterson were frustrated with each other, so they shipped him to Arizona in return for a sixth-round draft pick.
The Saints run an offense where the goal is to spread the ball around and to rotate at running back based on who could help in the passing game and who can get the tough yards on third down. Peterson's a back that thrives on being the do-it-all workhorse, so this was clearly a poor fit from the get go.
17 Trade: Seahawks Trade Marshawn Lynch To The Raiders
Everyone’s opinions on this trade will vary due to the circumstances. Marshawn Lynch was retired when the trade occurred. Lynch didn’t want to continue his career in Seattle, but was willing to come back to play football if it were for the Raiders, in their final years in Oakland. The Seahawks received a fifth-round draft pick in return for Marshawn Lynch and a sixth-round draft pick. The Seahawks are still struggling to find a running back since Lynch retired, so why would they get nothing in return, to trade away a Seahawks legend?
As for the Raiders, the trade didn't really work out for them either this year. While he picked up his game a little at the end of this season, the Raiders still disappointed and Lynch wasn't quite "Beast Mode" anymore.
16 Signing: Jaguars Sign Toby Gerhart
Before the Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette in the draft, they desperately needed a running back. At one point, they believed signing Toby Gerhart would help. Gerhart agreed to a three-year deal worth $10.5 million. Gerhart hadn’t doubled the success he had in college, into the NFL. Through four seasons with the Vikings, his best season came when he rushed for 531 yards and scored a touchdown. It seemed clear that Gerhart wasn’t going to come into Jacksonville and be the workhorse there. He also only started six games in Minnesota, but the Jaguars seemed to find out he wouldn’t be their starter within the first season.
Between the two years Gerhart was there, he was unable to rush for over 400 yards. He never made it to his final season.
15 Trade: Washington Trades Champ Bailey For Clinton Portis
There’s so many ways to look at this trade, and it can be looked at as a positive for both teams. But, the Washington Redskins traded away a future Hall of Famer, for a running back who had success for only a few seasons. The Redskins got seven years out of Portis after the trade. The Broncos got 10 years out of Bailey. Not to take anything away from Portis, as four times during his Redskins career he rushed for over 1,000 yards. But Bailey was a consistently elite CB in the league with the exception of his last few seasons. He also had a season where he caught eight interceptions, and another where he had 10.
Bailey was one of the most dominant cornerbacks in the league, and the Redskins gave that away for a few good seasons from Portis.
14 Signing: Bucs Sign Derrick Ward
In the 2008 season, following their upset over the 18-0 New England Patriots, the Giants rode that momentum to a first place finish in 2008. The team looked better than ever, as they deployed a three back attack of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, dubbed Earth, Wind & Fire. Derrick Ward was a breakout star that year, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards, averaging 5.6 yards a carry and adding 384 receiving yards. The Bucs felt Ward could be a lead back, and signed him to a four-year contract worth $19 million. It didn't take long to figure out that Ward wasn't cut out to be the top back, as he plummeted to 3.6 yards a carry. Ward was cut by the team the following summer. After a short stint in Houston, Ward announced his NFL retirement.
13 Trade: Colts Trade First Round Pick For Trent Richardson
Teams are really strict when it comes to trading draft picks, and you almost have to be the perfect player in order to be worthy of a first round draft pick. To put it into perspective, the San Francisco 49ers haven’t lost a game with Jimmy Garoppolo as the quarterback, and they only had to give up a 2nd round draft pick to get him. Yet the Colts felt a running back who hadn't proven anything was worth a first rounder.
Richardson’s best season as a Colt came in 2014, when he rushed for 519 yards and scored three touchdowns. Those stats are similar to what some fourth-round draft picks put up. The Browns were supposed to pick 26th, but traded with the Eagles to select 22nd . If the Colts didn’t go after Richardson, players they would have been interested in would’ve included Kelvin Benjamin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Kyle Van Loy. All those guys are players who could have had an impact on this Colts team to this day.
12 Signing: Emmitt Smith Signs With The Cardinals
He was arguably one of the best running backs of all time, so how could a team possibly go wrong by signing him? Emmitt Smith holds the record for most rushing yards in NFL history. Jerry Jones must have known that the wheels on Smith were wearing out, so he let the Cardinals sign him to a four-year deal, worth $13.6 million. Smith just came off of his first season in 11 years, without rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Smith’s first year was a disappointment, as he missed a lot of football, and finished the season rushing for 256 yards. His last season of his career was better, when he rushed for 937 yards and nine touchdowns. Smith retired after his second season, giving up the hopes of Cardinals fans that they would get one of those dominant seasons of his in Arizona.
11 Trade: Rams Trade Jerome Bettis To The Steelers
He may not seem like it, but Jerome Bettis became one of the best running backs in Steelers history. He got a nickname, “The Bus” with his ability to run over defenders with his huge body. The trade to send Bettis to the Steelers, included the Rams giving the Steelers Bettis and a third-round draft pick, while the Rams got the Steelers second-round draft pick as well as their fourth-round pick. But, even though Bettis had a mediocre 1995 season, he still seemed to be worth more than what they got.
When Bettis got to Pittsburgh, he ran for over 1,000 yards for six straight years. In 2006, Bettis finally reached the Super Bowl, when the Steelers defeated the Seahawks. The Rams were definitely on the wrong side of this trade.
10 Signing: Texans Sign Ahman Green
The Houston Texans signed Ahman Green just a tad bit late. The Texans signed Green to a four-year deal, worth $23 million. This contract was given to Green after he finished an incredible career in Green Bay, this resulted in six seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing. Not only was he successful running the football, but he was also a reliable threat catching the ball.
Unfortunately, Green was unable to stay as successful as he was in Green Bay, when he signed with the Texans. During his two-year stint with the Texans, he only played 14 games, rushed for 554 yards and scored five touchdowns. In the season before he signed with the Texans, he was able to put up better numbers in one season, than over his two-year career with the Texans.
9 Trade: Colts Trade Marshall Faulk To Rams
Maybe at the end of the day, things worked out for both teams. But isn’t it pretty intriguing to think that Marshall Faulk could have been part of the Peyton Manning era? Faulk is one of the best running backs of all time, and was inducted as part of the 2011 Hall of Fame class. Faulk has the seventh most rushing touchdowns, and 11th most rushing yards in NFL history. Think about that; the Colts could have had that type of success at the running back position with one of the best all time quarterbacks under center.
The Colts received a second- and fifth-round draft pick in the trade that sent Faulk to the Rams. Mike Peterson, the second-round pick, only lasted his rookie contract before he left Indianapolis. Brad Scioli, the fifth-round pick, definitely gave the Colts more than what is expected with that type of draft pick. The Colts ended up drafting Edgerrin James who proved to be a great piece of the Colts' vaunted offense, but you wonder what things could've been like with Faulk's receiving ability with Peyton throwing him the ball.
8 Free Agency: Jaguars Sign Chris Ivory
In 2016, the Jaguars signed Chris Ivory to a five-year deal, worth $32 million. In a time where the running back position is gaining a lot of importance, the Jaguars thought Ivory would help. He wouldn’t, at least he hasn't lived up to what his contract is worth. Ivory played with the Jets, only having one season where he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Ever since he came to the Jaguars, he hasn’t rushed for over 500 yards.
$32 million is a lot of money for a player you’re not committed to. The Jaguars showed they weren’t committed to Ivory when they selected Leonard Fournette, with the fourth overall draft pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. Signing Ivory to this big contract was pointless, when a year later they went and drafted a top running back who has become their starter.
7 Trade: Bills Trade Marshawn Lynch To The Seahawks
Whenever you have a player who is special, a guy who is going to be there for the long run, you do whatever it takes to hold on to them. Now it’s tough, considering Lynch didn’t perform anywhere near what he did in Seattle. The Bills traded Lynch to make more room for Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. After Jackson rushed for 1,062 yards in 2010, he was never able to rush over 1,000 again. Spiller had another two good seasons with the Bills, but then eventually made his way out of Buffalo.
After Lynch’s first season in Seattle, he rushed for four straight seasons of over 1,000 yards. He was given the nickname “Beast Mode” for his ability to plow through defenders. Lynch became one of the best running backs in the game after the Bills traded him. And all the Bills got, was a fourth-round pick, and a conditional pick.
6 Signing: Panthers Extend Jonathan Stewart's Contract
After Jonathan Stewart’s rookie contract was up, the Panthers extended him by offering him a contract for five years, worth $43 million. Throughout Stewart’s first four years, he was pretty good. But he never got better. Until this day, Stewart has only had one 1,000-yard season, which came in his sophomore season. To be considered as an elite running back, usually you have to hit that 1,000-yard mark. That doesn’t make Stewart a bad running back; but he wasn't worth a contract like that.
The Panthers showed they needed an upgrade, when they used their first-round draft pick in 2017 to draft Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is used more to run routes and catch the football, but there’s a clear need for a do-it-all running back in Carolina as Stewart ages. There’s a reason they re-worked that contract.
5 Trade: Dolphins Trade Jay Ajayi To Eagles
Did the Miami Dolphins get enough for former running back Jay Ajayi? The trade sent Ajayi to Philadelphia, who eventually went on to win the Super Bowl. In return, the Dolphins got a fourth-round pick. There was a fear that his knee issues would linger, which would make him suffer moving forward in Miami. Well, it didn’t seem like they were an issue when he came to Philadelphia. Ajayi returned to his 2016 self, when he rushed for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ajayi added power to the Eagles offense, that already seemed like it had enough ammo. He also played a key role in helping this rushing attack become one of the best, as they dominated the trenches to help make it easier for Nick Foles to succeed after Carson Wentz got injured. Ajayi looked phenomenal in half a season with the Eagles, so who knows how he would look starting for a full season?
4 Signing: Doug Martin Signs Extension With Bucs
He was supposed to be one of the best running backs to come into the league, after he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season. Despite the one other season where he rushed for over 1,000 yards, Martin has looked like a lost cause. In 2016, Doug Martin signed a five-year deal worth $35.75 million. This came after another good season of Martin’s.
Clearly, Doug Martin is inconsistent. He’s also injury prone. He hasn’t played a full season since before he signed his big contract. And in fact, the only time Martin has rushed for over 1,000 yards, is when he’s been healthy and played all 16 games. It was a risky contract to give from the beginning, but do the Buccaneers really want to continue paying Martin with his inability to stay healthy? The Bucs really should have thought this one through.
3 Trade: Saints Trade Whole Draft For Ricky Williams
The title sounds ridiculous, right? Well, it’s true. Before the 1999 NFL Draft, Mike Ditka, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, traded away seven draft picks to the Washington Redskins, in order to get the fifth overall draft pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, just to draft Ricky Williams. It became the biggest trade in NFL history for one player since 1959. You really have to like someone to have to give up that many draft picks to get someone, but it may have been the worst thing possible.
Williams lasted three seasons in New Orleans, before he really made a name for himself in Miami. During his time as a Saint, he rushed for 3,129 yards and 16 touchdowns. The thing with this trade is the Redskins failed to take advantage of getting an entire draft, as they drafted no difference makers with those picks. So, poorly executed all around.
2 Signing: Eagles Sign DeMarco Murray
After DeMarco Murray’s incredible 2014 season with the Dallas Cowboys, he decided that the Cowboys offer wasn’t enough, and he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles signed him to a five-year deal worth $42 million. He lasted one season in Philly.
Things weren’t working in Philly under head coach Chip Kelly. After Murray’s best season in 2014, he rushed for only 702 yards in 2015. Murray is most dominant running between the tackles, which Kelly wasn’t allowing him to do. Chip Kelly ran the Eagles offense like a college offense, which has the running back bouncing to the outside a lot. Murray struggled to adapt, and then struggled to get on the field. If DeMarco Murray really wanted to have a successful career, he should have just stayed in Dallas.
1 Trade: The Herschel Walker Trade
Ever wonder how the Dallas Cowboys became so good in the '90s? They were involved in the biggest trade in NFL history, which included 18 players and draft picks. The trade was involved the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings got Herschel Walker, and four draft picks. The Cowboys received five players, and eight draft picks. The players they received weren’t the ones who really made the difference, it was who they used their draft picks to get. With the draft picks that the Vikings gave them, the Cowboys drafted Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, who were key parts of their success.
Walker only lasted two and a half seasons in Minnesota before he was gone. It was the worst trade in NFL history. Imagine, if this trade never went through, history could be completely different. If the Vikings organization used some logic, the Cowboys likely wouldn't be viewed as America's team today.