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With Jonathan Taylor and the Colts at the forefront of a league-wide discussion, we ask the questions: Are running backs becoming a thing of the past? Is there any way to revive the value of the position?

The 2023 NFL season was supposed to be a time of optimism and excitement for Colts fans. Things were finally looking up after what can only be described as a difficult campaign in 2022. A new franchise quarterback prospect in Anthony Richardson paired with a new and innovative head coach in Shane Steichen sent positivity around the fan base.

Training camp itself is meant to be an exciting time for fans of all NFL teams. Following a long offseason without football, we can start to look ahead to the new season and see our favorite players on the field again. Especially those of us planning to draft our fantasy football teams.

Colts, Jonathan Taylor Find Themselves At The Center Of An Ongoing Running Back Debate

However, the good times were short-lived. News around the franchise has been dominated by one story: The ongoing Jonathan Taylor contract situation. My colleague Hunter Haas wrote about the state of the running back market earlier this month and has also written about the quickly unfolding situation between the Colts and Taylor. On Saturday, Ian Rapoport reported that Taylor had requested a trade during his meeting with owner Jim Irsay.

That trade idea was quickly dismissed by Irsay. The request apparently came before any tweets from Irsay or Taylor’s agent, if you believe that. It’s hard to know what the disconnect between Taylor and the Colts is. But we can only assume it is significant given Taylor’s trade request. Some issues will likely be specific between the All-Pro talent and the Indy front office, but it seems as though the main issue is centered around money and job security. Although the Colts have said no offer has been made to Taylor at this point.

If the main issue does come down to the Colts simply not being willing to pay Taylor what he believes he is worth, then this is part of the wider issue of how the NFL treats and values its running backs.

Multiple Star Ball Carriers Were Shown The Door This Offseason And Taylor Might Be Next

This offseason alone has seen the Vikings move on from Dalvin Cook and the Cowboys from Ezekiel Elliott. Whilst Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley, and Josh Jacobs have all failed to get the big, long-term contracts they were after following great seasons. So what are the issues facing the running back market today?

The overriding issue is that elite running backs have much shorter careers than they used to. The longevity of LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson seems unfathomable today, let alone the careers of legends like Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton further in the past.

Marshawn Lynch is the kind of running back who should have had a career worthy of the true greats at the position, but injuries prematurely pushed him out of his prime. Todd Gurley looked unstoppable as the Rams reached the Super Bowl in 2018, but injuries quickly made him very stoppable. Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott are currently without teams, having both been drafted in 2016, whilst 2017 draftee Alvin Kamara looks like a shadow of his former elite self. Derrick Henry remains an outlier, as he so often is, but even Christian McCaffrey was at risk of being labeled injury-prone before his most recent campaign with the 49ers in 2022.

I am not qualified to say with any great conviction why running backs are getting injured more seriously and often these days. I suspect it is partially due to linebackers being bigger and hitting harder than in yesteryear. What is abundantly clear is that devaluation at the position is happening. And it presents a major issue for the elite running backs putting their bodies on the line for far less in return than their peers.

Taylor Paid His Dues, But Indianapolis Is Hesitant To Repay The Favor

Let’s look at a young, elite running back like Jonathan Taylor. He played for years in college for free in a run-heavy offense. Because, like other programs, Wisconsin wants the team to win at any cost to encourage donors to keep giving money to the school. He then joined the NFL, coming off the board as a second-rounder to Indianapolis.

Taylor quickly became the bell cow back at the heart of the offense, succeeding in 2021 when his quarterback failed spectacularly. When he was — predictably — injured in 2022 after this heavy workload, his team seemingly gave him the cold shoulder. The front office has been unwilling to give the young star the long-term deal he fairly thinks he deserves.

Whilst Taylor has made more money than most of us could dream of, he has had year after year where college and NFL rules have determined his market value. And for several of those years, he’s been unable to earn anything at all. Now, when the Badger alum gets a chance to cash out accordingly, he finds the Colts unwilling to pay him.

Stats Show Why Taylor Is A Premier Ball Carrier In The NFL

As I said, this is not a situation unique to the Colts and Taylor. Elite, young running backs across the league continually find themselves in this position. As ball carriers are retiring earlier, their draft stock has dropped considerably. It may seem incomprehensible to us now that Saquon Barkley was the second overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. But it used to be regular for elite running back prospects to go inside the top five.

We do still see some players at the position go early in the first round like Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, Najee Harris, and Travis Etienne in recent years. But it is becoming increasingly easy to draft elite running backs in the middle rounds. Taylor himself was an early second-round pick in 2020. Since then, Javonte Williams, Breece Hall, and Kenneth Walker came off the board in the second round.

Interestingly, all three have already had significant injuries but have shown tantalizing upsides. The theory goes that as it becomes easier and cheaper to draft running backs on rookie contracts, you can just keep drafting rookies and replace them when it is time for them to get paid.


The future is bleak for the likes of Taylor. Even worse, the running back position as a whole. I do hope that things change for these players, and I believe it is possible. But how can they do it?

Can The NFL Salvage The Running Back Position?

It cannot happen alone; that much is for sure. Plenty of running backs may be calling for Ballard to give Taylor a record-setting new contract, but I fear that would do more harm than good for Indy. One outlier contract is more likely to get Indianapolis laughed at across the league than it is to unilaterally change league behavior.

Some bold and some less bold league-wide solutions must happen to save the running back. Like Martin Luther, I pin my treatise to the NFL’s Cathedral door. I do think NILs address one of the problems I identify in this article by ensuring college players receive compensation for their likeness. But there are radical solutions the NFL could consider to further address the issue.

A Few “Off-The-Wall” Solutions

The first is to shorten rookie contracts for running backs to three years from four; with a player drafted in the first round having a fourth-year option rather than the current fifth-year option. To save the NFL owners from complaining about the cost, an extra year can be added to the rookie contracts for quarterbacks. Those with the longest and most lucrative NFL careers will only sacrifice a little to help running backs get their paydays earlier.

I’d also get rid of the franchise tag entirely. This is partly due to wider philosophical reasons. I don’t think anyone in any field should have to work if they can’t agree to a contract with their employer. And the franchise tag generally gives too much power to teams over players, regardless of position. For running backs specifically, getting rid of the tag would prevent teams from keeping players hostage like Taylor.

Those are the more radical potential solutions that I’m not expecting NFL owners to support anytime soon. But there are other, more modest, and gradual solutions that don’t require the formal support of NFL owners.

A Couple More Reasonable Solutions

The first continues on the theme of quarterbacks sacrificing for the sake of ball carriers. As quarterback contracts continue to balloon, signal-callers can work with teams to take slightly less so running backs get more. Think Daniel Jones. Imagine if he took slightly less per year, leading to a new contract for Saquon Barkley. Even Justin Herbert, who fully deserves a huge contract, didn’t take a pay cut for Austin Ekeler. Beyond the running back debate, there’s a case for quarterbacks settling for lower money. It presents front offices a chance to surround them with more talent and increase their Super Bowl chances.

Fundamentally, if we want running backs like Jonathan Taylor to last in the modern NFL, we need NFL teams to stop running them into the ground. That also means giving star running backs fewer snaps and moving towards running-back-by-committee models. Now, if individual elite running backs are not the focal points of their offenses, they will be paid less as a result. That won’t help Taylor, however.

Running backs are not unreasonable. They will accept less money per year if the contract reflects their value. However, teams are unwilling to grant security, mostly due to the violence of the position. Perhaps the Colts can convince Taylor to accept something like $12 million a year? It’s possible if enough guarantees and long-term security exists within the contract.

If the NFL does move to more of a running-back-by-committee model, there will be pressure to get the most out of a running back room without increasing their injury risk too much. I can only assume that a substantial amount of the injury risk to running backs comes from repeatedly running into the brick walls called NFL defenders. Although, trying to quickly change direction on NFL turf doesn’t help either.

Will Running Backs Adapt Or Die? The Taylor Decision Could Set The Standard

In other words, if being a ball carrier is the main injury risk for running backs, could the NFL utilize the position in different ways? Surely the answer is yes. Running backs should continue to develop as blockers or receivers to add value to their teams. It will allow them to say on the field without putting the same kind of miles on the clock. You might also see NFL teams using more two-back sets just as they use two tight-end sets.

There are far more knowledgeable people than me in the NFL. They spend far more time than me thinking about the league during the offseason. It is hard to believe that the running back position is beyond repair. The 32 franchises can find a way to substantially improve the current plight of the NFL running back. This is, after all, a league that prides itself on its ability to adapt and innovate.

Any solution will likely come too late for this Jonathan Taylor negotiation. However, a change must occur to safeguard the future of the running back in the NFL. Or else.

More from The Blue Stable:

If the Colts cannot find common ground with Jonathan Taylor, what would a trade package look like?


I'm a Colts fan from the UK. I started supporting the Colts when me and my brother bought Madden 08 and I choose The Colts because they had the best offense and worst defense in the game. My passion for the Colts and the NFL has really bloomed over the past five years and continues to go from strength to strength. For this I can thank finding the right friends and the magic of NFL Redzone. Twitter: @BenchSebastian


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