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Trend shows RBs taking backseat to less-publicized positions

Within the next few days, as we get into the NFL Scouting Combine, we're going to hear more and more about the de-emphasis of offensive skill positions outside of quarterback. Running backs, as important as they are, won't be as valued as they once were.

The same goes for wide receivers, for the most part -- although the top-end prospects, like Georgia's A.J. Green, will get more love than the top running backs. We really don't need to get to the combine before really examining the trend. Just look at what's happened with the franchise tag the past two days.

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The Minnesota Vikings struggled in the passing game last season with Sidney Rice sidelined after hip surgery, but opted not to place the franchise tag on the receiver. Instead, they decided to bind outside linebacker Chad Greenway. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, appear to be letting standout running back DeAngelo Williams test free agency after tethering center Ryan Kalil with the franchise tag Tuesday.

Rice and Williams are game-changing players who will be valued on the open market -- if they're not re-signed before the current collective bargaining agreement expires on March 3. The fact that they could be on the open market is newsworthy because each makes his team better, but apparently not as good as an outside linebacker and center do.

Let's put that differently. Outside linebackers and centers are simply harder to find than running backs and wide receivers. How about that? A center over a tailback. My, how times have changed.

Then again, so has the value of a running back. Of last season's top five rushers -- Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Michael Turner, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew -- only one was a first-round draft pick: Johnson. Jones-Drew came in the second round, Charles in the third, Turner in the fifth and Foster went undrafted.

Cleveland's Peyton Hillis, a seventh-round pick by Denver in 2008, finished with 1,177 rushing yards, a total to best Oakland's Darren McFadden, the fourth overall pick in the same draft, who had a career-best 1,157 rushing yards. As for Williams, he actually was somewhat expendable because Carolina has Jonathan Stewart in the wings and had Mike Goodson, a fourth-round pick, emerge.

More and more veteran running backs will be treated that way, with the NFL becoming more of a passing game and teams using more multiple ball carriers. It used to be that offensive linemen, like centers, were viewed as guys you could find in the late rounds and get a lot out of them. Now it's running backs.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is likely to get his contract re-worked before next season, but we saw a productive tailback like Thomas Jones get sent packing last offseason and guys like Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Cadillac Williams, Clinton Portis, Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Willis McGahee could join DeAngelo Williams in free agency.

Rice, meanwhile, probably will be one of the top free agents should he hit the market. Elite wide receivers do seem to carry a tad more value than running backs, as we see with San Diego franchising Vincent Jackson and teams like Atlanta, Green Bay and Houston signing their key wideouts (Roddy White, Greg Jennings and Andre Johnson) to long-term deals.

Rice found himself in a situation where Greenway, an outside linebacker, simply plays a more valuable position -- and one that doesn't come cheaply. The Vikings, on the surface, would probably miss Rice more, but finding a productive outside linebacker/pass rusher is one of the most difficult tasks for any team each season. That's why Pittsburgh franchised LaMarr Woodley and another example of why pass rushers typically never hit the market.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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