The Buccaneers need to stay away from “star” running backs for their own good.
As the NFL continues to change, the emphasis on parts of the game and key positions also shift. The running back position used to be one of the most important on the field during the era where the run was king, but the recent changes to the rule and the emergence of a pass-heavy league have flipped the script.
A great quarterback is more important than a great running back in the modern era, evidenced by the fact that the teams with the best running backs (Titans, Panthers, and Saints) are unable to get over that hump for the Super Bowl.
In fact, there is evidence that points to the fact that the presence of a star running back actually hurts rosters that are trying to compete for the biggest prize in the sport, and the Buccaneers need to play close attention.
Look at the teams with the highest-paid running backs in the sport. Spotrac lists out average pay per season for the top running backs in the NFL, and the results are staggering.
Christian McCaffrey comes in atop the list. From a fantasy football standpoint, when healthy, there is almost no equal. But McCaffrey does not make the Panthers any more or any less of a Super Bowl contender, and he takes up a nice chunk of the salary cap to do this. There are also constant question marks around his availability. The position is fickle, after all.
Moving down the list, Ezekiel Elliott is a shadow of his former self, and he isn’t even the best running back on the Cowboys. Think Dallas is happy that they have an expensive running back when his contract would afford a top-tier corner?
Alvin Kamara is next. Any chance the Saints make the playoffs now? Nope. Why? Because a great running back can’t overcome a bad quarterback.
Derrick Henry’s Titans are practically locked in to make the playoffs, but the team is still working just fine in his absence. Henry may be an exception, but if it were true that running backs mattered, the Titans would’ve fallen apart by now, which they haven’t. On the Vikings and Dalvin Cook, why is it that drafting Cook’s backup in fantasy every season is so important? Much like McCaffrey, Cook is too often an injury risk, which again shows why you don’t pay running backs.
The Browns are a dumpster fire with the best run game in the league (mediocre quarterback play), the Packers are dominant for reasons far beyond their run game despite paying Aaron Jones(top-tier quarterback play), and the rest of the list largely speaks for itself.
The good teams aren’t paying their running backs. The good teams are primarily absent from the top of that list, and there is a good reason why; paying a running back like a star takes away from literally every other position that one can spend money on. Every other position on the field has more value than running back due to the fact that the scheme matters more than the back.
Teams like the Rams, Chiefs, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Bills, Patriots, and Ravens are much lower on that list, and no one would ever say that those teams are a “star” running back away from competing. In fact, those teams find great backs who play on cheaper deals (see Leonard Fournette, who is a star in everything but a contract).
Finding a good running back is important, but what you pay them is the litmus test for how well your franchise is run. The best teams see the position as replaceable, while the bad teams create ceilings for themselves when they pay a player exponentially more than their job is worth.
Some fans may not be happy that the Bucs keep passing on players like J.K. Dobbins or Jonathan Taylor in the draft, but these decisions prove themselves over and over again when their second contracts come around. It may be nice to get the flashy stats in the short term, but tying yourself to one player at the position long term rarely pays out in a game that values air yards more than rushing yards.
The Buccaneers have shown that they understand this precedent, and the fanbase needs to understand that young players on cheap contracts will pay off much more in the long run. Teams need to find good running backs that can outperform their contracts, which is exactly what helped propel the Bucs to a Super Bowl. You never want to do the opposite.
Chalk up another massive win to Jason Licht. Stop paying running backs.
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