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Pass-happy era hitting running backs, linebackers where it hurts

Associated Press
Tackling machine London Fletcher (left) remains unsigned, while Ray Rice has yet to receive a long-term deal.

America's Game is changing. The pass-happy era is here to stay. It was reflected in the initial waves of free agency over the past month, and it will be reflected again when the 2012 NFL Draft begins.

It's a great time to be a wide receiver or cornerback. And of course, it's always a great time to be a quarterback. Linebacker and running back? Not so much.

The spread offense -- with four or five eligible receivers being sent out into routes -- isn't going anywhere. Slot receivers and nickel backs who can man the slot are more valuable than ever. We've seen it play out in the box scores, with a record number of quarterbacks eclipsing 4,000 yards passing, guys like Wes Welker becoming stars, and even traditional grind-it-out teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers featuring multiple 1,000-yard receivers.

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We've seen it play out on film, too -- top teams like the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New York Giants all go with multiple spread formations. And more teams have started going to 2-4-5 defensive formations like Green Bay utilized en route to a Super Bowl title. Which means more receivers and corners on the field at one time.

So it's only natural that we'd see it translate to the transactions page, as well. A solid third receiver or third corner is more coveted than ever. Receivers and corners are being valued -- perhaps overvalued in many cases -- while there are plenty of one-year bargains to be found with running backs and linebackers, who seem more interchangeable than ever.

Think back to the start of free agency last month. Remember how many solid but unspectacular receivers were getting paid? Pierre Garcon got $22 million guaranteed, and he's been a No. 2 receiver -- at best. Laurent Robinson got $14 million guaranteed, despite a limited sample size. Even Reggie Wayne, nearing the end of his career, did very well, very quickly on the open market. Note the recent extensions for Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, too, which boosted the top of the market to the $16 million-per-year range.

On the other side of the ball, I did a double take when Cortland Finnegan got $33 million in the first three years of his deal alone. Then Brandon Carr topped $10 million a year, too. These aren't perennial All-Pros we're talking about. Clearly, something is going on here.

In the meantime, running backs are getting no play. Guys like Brandon Jacobs eventually signed one-year deals. Peyton Hillis took a one-year, prove-it deal. Heck, take a look at who is still out there on the open market: Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, Ronnie Brown, Tim Hightower. They might not be stars, but all were starting backs not that long ago and it's difficult for them to get a sniff.

As for the guys charged with wrapping them up, it's been tough times for them, as well. If you can rush the passer, like D'Qwell Jackson or Kamerion Wimbley, you're going to be OK. But if you aren't on the field on third down or can't run with an elite tight end ... No soup for you! Guys like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch and David Hawthorne sat on the market for a long time and ended up getting well below what some projected.

London Fletcher, who some thought would be a slam dunk to go right back to the Washington Redskins, remains on the market with offseason work set to begin next week. That tells you all you need to know. DeMeco Ryans was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for just a fourth-round pick, and Keith Rivers, a first-round pick not all that long ago, is headed to the Giants for just a fifth rounder.

I realize some of these guys are older and/or have injury histories. But still we're talking about the best available talent at the position, and the market is bare. It wasn't that long ago that inside run stuffers like Bart Scott were getting upward of $9 million per year. (The Jets can't trade his contract now, no matter how hard they try; no one will absorb it.)

I suspect we'll see more evidence of this trend in the draft.

It's a very strong receiver draft, and that, coupled with the need for speed and size to create matchup problems in spread formations, will lead to a run on them. NFL.com's Gil Brandt has 13 of them in his top 100 prospects, and I'm sure we'll see some go higher than expected. And a year after just one running back went in the first round -- and late in the round via trade at that (Mark Ingram at No. 28 to the New Orleans Saints) -- we might see two go in that round this year. Inside linebacker is another position where teams figure they can continue to find ample value in the middle rounds.

The reality is the cap hasn't really grown much since 2009 and might not for several more years until more revenue kicks in, so teams must budget accordingly. The more second receivers and third corners are being paid, the less there is for the backs and linebackers walking to the sidelines to make way for sub-packages.

Elite quarterbacks, receivers and pass rushers can command $50 million guaranteed, while elite running backs like Ray Rice and Matt Forte are still sitting on the franchise tag. It's a fact of life in the modern game.

Everything is cyclical, so this won't last forever. But with so many quarterbacks thriving and the passing game so robust, it won't be changing anytime soon, either.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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