Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and the year the NFL running back position began to lose its power

“Running backs are expendable.” 

Those words, recently spoken by my brother-in-law, stung me like a Clubber Lang punch to the stomach. I grew up in the 1990s, when the NFL’s biggest names were mostly running backs. Emmitt Smith won league and Super Bowl MVP in the same year. Barry Sanders shared league MVP honors with Brett Favre the same year Terrell Davis carried the Broncos to an upset of Favre’s Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. The following year, Davis won league MVP as Denver repeated as champion. 

Odds are, if you had the No. 1 pick in your fantasy football league entering the ’98 season, you were taking either Sanders or Davis, without much hesitation — a pedestal for backs that hasn’t changed that much in the fantasy world, but one they’re far from atop these days in reality.

If the ’90s were a high point for the running back position, the 2020s represent the low point. Only three running backs currently have multi-year deals that equal $50 million. Conversely, three quarterbacks will make north of $50 million this year, with that number set to go up as soon when Joe Burrow signs an extension. Many of of the league’s best backs — a list that includes Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, Josh Jacobs and Austin Ekeler — are woefully underpaid. Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook, who amassed a combined 2,436 total yards and 22 touchdowns last season, are free agents. 

Things have gotten so bad for the position that Ekeler recently hosted a virtual meeting with some of the league’s top backs. The goal of the meeting was to try to figure out the best way to make it clear to team owners that top-notch running backs are still worth investing in. 

“All the running backs out there, what we can do in the short term is to continue to make an impact,” Ekeler said during a one-on-one interview with CBS Sports. “I’m going to go out there and try to score as many touchdowns as I can, play my…


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