I was personally on the forefront of the anti-running back train. I remember thinking that if Mike Shanahan could get thousand-yard seasons out of Orlandis Gary and Reuben Droughns it would make no sense to spend a high pick on a running back. The past year or so has slowly changed my mind. Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers was a knockout trade. A second contract for Aaron Jones was a great investment. And speaking of Jones, the Packers’ offense does nothing with AJ Dillon at RB and moves the sticks with Jones. I wouldn’t be shocked fi the next Packers draft includes a high pick for a RB.
AJ Dillon is likely in his final year with the Pack, Patrick Tayor and Emanuel Wilson are just OK, and Aaron Jones has a massive cap hit next season. All of these factors spell a change at starting RB next year. In the past, I would’ve expected and hoped for a late round pick or bargain free agent signing, now, I bet Gutekunst invests more capital than you’d expect in a running back.
The Shanahan/McVay tree has a recent history of investing in RB. Look at the 49ers, Rams, Dolphins (attempting to trade for Jonathan Taylor), Seahawks, and Bengals. They all have either signed or drafted an expensive RB in the past few years.
You could certainly argue that a lot of those decisions have been bad. Cam Akers might be the only back in the league playing worse than Dillon. The Dolphins already have two ultra cheap backs who are top 5 in efficiency right now. The Seahawks’ pair have both had flashes but no sustained plus play. And Joe Mixon could be called Joe Mehxon a lot of the time.
But when these teams hit on truly dynamic backs, like McCaffrey, Devan Achane, Aaron Jones, Bijan Robinson and Kyren Williams it’s a legitimate game changer. There are misses, but that’s true of every position. The direction that defenses are going in the league (soft coverage, light boxes, smaller players) means dynamic running backs are the way of the future.
What is a dynamic back?
If the Packers draft a running back early, or even trade for or sign an expensive veteran, I’ll be fine with it as long as the player is more in the Aaron Jones mold than the AJ Dillon mold.
To have an effective modern offense, it helps to have a back who can run between the tackles but its imperative to have a back who can line up out wide and be more than a red herring and one who can beat super-fast linebackers to the edge.
These guys are available in the draft each year, but they aren’t necessarily first round-only players. Aaron Jones went in the fifth, Elijah Mitchell went in the sixth, Raheem Mostert was undrafted, Isiah Pacheco went in the seventh.
That doesn’t mean I would take any of those guys over Breece Hall, McCaffrey, or Travis Etienne who were all drafted high.
Running back has evolved to be like most other valuable positions: take a true star/freak athlete if they’re available high and focus on traits in the later rounds. If they choose to take a back in the later rounds, I hope they take one every year who runs under a 4.45 40.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.