RB Index, Week 3: NFL's dual threats deserve MORE money

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It's time for running backs to receive the credit and compensation they deserve. Other than the quarterback, no offensive position player is asked to do more or be more versatile: RBs have to run the ball (obviously), protect the quarterback and now, more than ever, they are heavily involved in the pass game.

If running backs were truly valued based on their production (like my colleague Bucky Brooks argued they should be), they would absolutely get the annual salaries and overall guaranteed money many receivers get -- something Le'Veon Bell has not been shy in asking for.

So, what has changed in the past two years to warrant this raise? Let me break it down for you.

In 2016, zero running backs led their teams in receptions, and just four ranked second, per NFL Research. Last year, five backs led their teams in receptions and seven finished second. That's a substantial increase, and a sign of things to come at the position.

Now, through the first two weeks of the 2018 season, seven backs lead their respective teams in catches, while five rank second. Eight of those 12 backs also currently lead their teams in rushing attempts. That's a lot of touches.

With the NFL transforming into a more pass-happy league, conventional thinking suggests that the running back position is not as important as it used to be -- that the "workhorse" is dead. Are you kidding me? The workhorse is alive and well -- we just need to rethink how we define the term. No longer is it used to describe a guy who carries the ball 25 times; instead, we have to consider the amount of times a guy touches the ball (carries and catches). So, I don't understand why so many backs are integral to their teams' passing game on top of handling their rushing responsibilities but are earning less than guys who don't touch the ball nearly as much.

Look at running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Paul Richardson, who both hit free agency in 2018. Lewis signed a four-year, $19.8 million contract with the Titans that includes $5.75 million in full guarantees and $8.25 million in injury protection, per Over The Cap. Richardson signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Redskins that includes $20 million in guarantees, $12.5 million of which was guaranteed at signing. Now, a quick look at their 2018 stats:

Lewis: 30 carries for 117 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and one rush TD; six receptions for 36 yards (6.0 yards per catch).
Richardson: eight receptions for 85 yards (10.6 yards per catch).

This doesn't make any sense. Lewis has touched the ball 28 more times than Richardson this season, yet Richardson is making much more dough -- guaranteed and annually. I understand the receiver averages more yards per touch and we're working off a small sample size this season, but if Richardson has touched the ball just eight times in two games, and hasn't scored a touchdown, how much value does that player really have?

As I mentioned earlier, running backs are integral in pass protection, picking up blitzes (often 1-on-1) and chipping edge rushers. So, if we're counting (and we are), that's THREE different but essential skill sets that modern running backs now need to possess. And yet, tight end Trey Burton, who's primarily asked to do just two of those things, received a four-year, $32 million deal from the Bears in March that included $18 million guaranteed at signing, per Over The Cap. Burton has even fewer catches and yards (five for 35 yards, one TD) than Richardson!

Look, I'm not trying to knock Richardson, Burton or others at their positions. I'm ecstatic that those guys are getting their money. I'm just sick of running backs not getting their due. Now, I am a fan of the recent deals David Johnson and Todd Gurley were able to secure, especially in terms of the $30 million-plus in guarantees. But even with those deals, the average annual salary of the top 32 highest-paid running backs in 2018 is $5.41 million, while tight ends are earning $5.80 million and receivers are at $12.03 million, per Over The Cap. You can make the case that running backs have the shortest shelf life of any position and that "cheap" runners -- middle-to-late-round picks or undrafted free agents (SEE: Phillip Lindsay) -- enter the league each year and make a big impact right off the bat. I just don't see that as reason enough to not value proven RB talent at a higher rate when these players are so instrumental to an offense.

I'm hopeful the heavy reliance on modern-day workhorses leads to more money for running backs. Come on, pay 'em!

Every week of the 2018 NFL season, former All-Pro running back and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew ranks his top 15 backs. For the first quarter of the season, the Ground Index rankings are based on a combination of:

1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2018 season.
2) Weekly performances, while considering strength of opponent.

Following Week 4, rankings will be judged solely on this season's efforts. Now, let's get to it. Entering Week 3, MJD's pecking order is below.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.

1
Todd Gurley
RB
Rams

Previous rank: No. 1

It didn't take Gurley very long to do damage in the Rams' home opener, with two touchdowns in the first half and another in the third quarter vs. the Cardinals. The fourth-year back, who signed an extension with $45 million guaranteed in the offseason, has been every bit of the game-changer he was last season -- and he's made the Rams into true Super Bowl contenders.

2018 stats: 2 games | 39 att | 150 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 6 rec | 70 rec yds | 1 rec TD

2
Alvin Kamara
RB
Saints

Previous rank: No. 2

Surprisingly, Kamara didn't have a catch in the second half vs. the Browns, but he did heat up on the ground in the final two quarters. He finished with 13 carries for 46 rushing yards (37 coming in the second half). The Saints are now 6-0 when he has at least 10 carries, and 6-6 when he rushes fewer than 10 times.

2018 stats: 2 games | 21 att | 75 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 15 rec | 165 rec yds | 1 rec TD

3
Melvin Gordon
RB
Chargers

Previous rank: No. 3

Gordon's presence in the pass game is greater than it's ever been. He's on pace to shatter last season's career highs in catches (58), receiving yards (476) and receiving TDs (4) in 2018, proving he's a true dual-threat back for Los Angeles.

2018 stats: 2 games | 24 att | 92 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 15 rec | 140 rec yds | 2 rec TDs

4
Joe Mixon
RB
Bengals

Previous rank: No. 4

I know Mixon is recovering from knee surgery, but I have to reward him for playing through the injury and producing against the Ravens (before I remove him -- at least temporarily -- from this list while he's sidelined). It's too bad he'll be out for 2-4 weeks because the second-year back is second in the NFL in rushing yards heading into Week 3.

2018 stats: 2 games | 38 att | 179 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 1 rush TD | 6 rec | 57 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

5
Saquon Barkley
RB
Giants

Previous rank: No. 5

I'm baffled by how much the Giants have used Barkley in the passing game. The rookie held his own with 14 catches for 80 yards in a loss to the Cowboys, while rushing for just 28 yards on 11 carries. He'd be much more effective in the run game if the O-line could actually create lanes for him.

2018 stats: 2 games | 29 att | 134 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 1 rush TD | 16 rec | 102 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

6
Ezekiel Elliott
RB
Cowboys
3

Previous rank: No. 9

The Cowboys leaned on their star running back vs. the Giants and found success. Weird. They have to stick to that game plan if they want any chance at winning the division.

2018 stats: 2 games | 32 att | 147 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 2 rush TD | 8 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

7
Dalvin Cook
RB
Vikings
1

Previous rank: No. 6

Cook racked up 90 total yards (38 rushing, 52 receiving) against the Packers before exiting the game in overtime with what was initially thought to be a hamstring injury. My colleague, Tom Pelissero, later reported Cook told him it was just a cramp. Hopefully that's all it was. In a tough NFC North, the Vikings need Cook's services.

2018 stats: 2 games | 26 att | 78 rush yds | 3.0 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 9 rec | 107 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

8
Christian McCaffrey
RB
Panthers
3

Previous rank: No. 11

McCaffrey hasn't been a huge threat on the ground, but he's been instrumental in the Panthers' pass game, leading the team in receptions. He's doing his part. However, every player on the Panthers' offense needs to do a little bit more.

2018 stats: 2 games | 18 att | 87 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 20 rec | 147 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

9
Jordan Howard
RB
Bears
1

Previous rank: No. 8

The Bears' run game stalled on "Monday Night Football," with Howard carrying the ball 14 times for just 35 yards (2.5 yards per carry) against the Seahawks. It's nice to know that if the run game isn't clicking, Mitch Trubisky can make a few plays to put points on the board. This wasn't the case in 2017.

2018 stats: 2 games | 29 att | 117 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 8 rec | 58 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

10
Lamar Miller
RB
Texans
NR

Previous rank: Not ranked

With all the stars on the Texans' roster, Miller is often overlooked. He shouldn't be, though, as no player has had more games with 50-plus rushing yards than Miller (27) since 2016. He has provided a steady ground game for Bill O'Brien. Another interesting note: Miller was more effective in Week 2 on outside runs (5.3 yards per carry) compared to inside runs (4.0 ypc), according to Next Gen Stats. Keep an eye on this going forward.

2018 stats: 2 games | 34 att | 166 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 3 rec | 13 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

11
Kareem Hunt
RB
Chiefs
4

Previous rank: No. 15

With Alex Smith under center in 2017, the Chiefs' offense ran through Hunt. That's not the case this season with Patrick Mahomes taking the snaps, and Hunt's numbers through the early going are proof. Expect Hunt's production to increase as defenses figure out how to slow Andy Reid's high-flying passing attack.

2018 stats: 2 games | 34 att | 124 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 1 rec | 5 rec yds | 1 rec TD

12
Tevin Coleman
RB
Falcons
NR

Previous rank: Not ranked

Coleman had himself a day, breaking free for 107 rushing yards against the Panthers while Devonta Freeman sat out with a right knee contusion. A steady player for the Falcons in the past, Coleman is taking advantage of this opportunity as the main guy in the backfield.

2018 stats: 2 games | 25 att | 126 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 1 rush TD | 5 rec | 44 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

13
David Johnson
RB
Cardinals
3

Previous rank: No. 10

Johnson should be getting the ball more, but he might not see much more action because the Cardinals are constantly playing from behind. First-year head coach Steve Wilks let it be known that every position will be evaluated and that the team will be more creative with Johnson heading into Week 3.

2018 stats: 2 games | 22 att | 85 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 1 rush TD | 6 rec | 33 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

14
Matt Breida
RB
49ers
NR

Previous rank: Not ranked

Breida got his first career start against the Lions and made the most of it. He finished with 11 carries for 138 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Breida can run between the tackles and make catches out of the backfield. He has great vision and the speed to take it the distance. The league leader in rushing yards is certainly making a case for a bigger role in San Francisco.

2018 stats: 2 games | 22 att | 184 rush yds | 8.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 4 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

15
Phillip Lindsay
RB
Broncos
NR

Previous rank: Not ranked

An undrafted rookie, Lindsay is proving he deserved to be picked in April. He's an explosive, versatile back who has shown playmaking ability in both the run and pass games. He creates more problems for the defense than fellow rookie Royce Freeman, and he's been difficult to contain.

2018 stats: 2 games | 29 att | 178 rush yds | 6.1 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 3 rec | 35 rec yds | 1 rec TD

Dropped out: James Connor, Pittsburgh Steelers (Previously No. 7); Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 12); Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets (No. 13); Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins (No. 14).

The Ground Index delivered by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the FedEx Ground NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote.

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