INDIANAPOLIS — In recent years, the NFL turned against running backs.
No longer were star backs being selected in the first round, and productive backs who reached free agency found that the lucrative deals once waiting for them were no longer available.
The NFL became a passing league, and running backs were no longer considered a wise investment.
“There’s that real need for a quarterback, a pass rusher, an offensive left tackle — those type of positions take precedence,” Tennessee Titans General Manager Ruston Webster said. “Some of it is (because) the league is predominately a throwing league. ... You can’t play without a left tackle; you can’t play without a quarterback; you need pass rushers. They’re at a premium for everybody.”
This thinking could be bad news for a player like Mark Ingram, who could become an unrestricted free agent if he does not first reach a deal with the Saints before the March 10 deadline.
Coming off a season in which he ran for 964 yards with nine touchdowns on 226 carries over 13 games, in previous years, the 25-year-old Ingram could expect to have several teams waiting with bags of money to obtain his services. Now, with the way teams view running backs, it’s difficult to know what a fair-market value is for Ingram.
Something in the neighborhood of the two-year, $6.2 million contract Ben Tate received from the Cleveland Browns last season after rushing for 771 yards on 181 carries for the Houston Texans in 2013 previously could be a good baseline. But the fact that Tate was released after eight unproductive games for Cleveland could have further set back free agents.
The other possible strike against Ingram is that this year’s pool of running backs in the draft is said to be one of the deepest and most talented groups in years. After the last two drafts did not see a running back taken in the first round, many are projecting Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley to be selected on the first night.
At least 15 other running backs, including LSU’s duo of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, could be selected before the draft comes to a close.
That could make it difficult for a team to justify spending millions on a free-agent running back when a team could wait until the middle rounds of the draft and find a suitable player at a cheaper rate — especially since multiple players are needed at the position.
“I know over the years we’ve talked about devaluing running backs,” Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. “At the end of the day, you have to have a few guys who can carry the load. This year, I think a couple of the running backs at the top have a chance to be special.”
Whether it’s Ingram or one of the rookies, the Saints will likely be in the market for a running back this offseason. They currently have Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas under contract. Travaris Cadet is a restricted free agent.
What the Saints have to decide is how to allot their money for the position. If they re-sign Ingram, it will almost certainly cost more than drafting a running back. While unlikely, it could be cheaper to draft a running back in the first round.
Last year’s 13th pick, Aaron Donald, received a four-year contract worth a total of $10.3 million. With the rookie wage scale, it’s safe to assume this year’s top running back pick will receive something close to the same amount of money.
Going deeper into the draft, the value will get better. It could be difficult to justify spending so heavily on a free agent when there are other needs and the team has limited resources.
So why have teams decided to shy away from a position that once was considered one of the most important in football?
“There’s a myriad of reasons, probably,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht said. “The shelf-life has been a concern, I think. You draft a player in the first round, you ideally probably want to get to that second contract.
“There just haven’t been a whole lot of those types of players that teams felt were worthy of that.”
The question now is whether the Saints get to that second contract with Ingram — and if teams agree with the talent evaluators to end the first-round drought on running backs.