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Why are running backs paid like kickers, punters?

By sundown of free agency's opening day, Gregg Rosenthal was moved to paraphrase Waylon & Willie: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be running backs.

The brutal hits and short careers were traditionally mitigated by Heisman Trophies, No. 1 draft slots, universal acclaim and money to the ceiling.

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Now all but the cream of the tailback crop get shunned, slighted and ultimately signed to contracts on par with kickers and punters.

The six signed running backs from Around The League's original Top 101 free agents list will average $2.89 million annually under their new contracts. The NFL's six highest-paid punters will average $2.91 million in base salary for the 2014 season, per

"That position needs its own union," one undisclosed general manager told ESPN's Adam Schefter early in free agency. "We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs."

How bleak is the running back landscape?

The best opportunity afforded the 2011 rushing champion is battling Darren McFaddenfor playing time in Oakland.

The only active player with six consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons has attracted nary a nibble on the trade market.

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The workhorse back who carried the Patriots' offense down the stretch last season will find himself fortunate to caddy for Le'Veon Bell if his Friday visit with the Steelers goes well.

Premier college prospects are entering a league that has dramatically devalued running backs since the dawn of the 21st century.

Over the past eight NFL Drafts, there have been as many running backs selected in the top five picks as there were in 2005 alone.

Last year's draft class was the first since 1964 not to include a first-round running back. Don't be surprised if the position is shut out of the first round again in May.

So why are running backs being devalued in both free agency and the draft?

It starts with the influx of spread offenses at the college level and continues with the NFL's ever-growing trend toward the pass and away from the run.

"You've got three schools who predominantly run a pro style offense," Jerome Bettis recently told USA Today. "Georgia, LSU, Alabama. After that it's a crapshoot to get a ... premiere running back."

Colleges are not producing stud runners because the emphasis is now on dual-threat quarterbacks operating out of the spread.

"I think it's a result of what's happening in college football," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert recently surmised. "The running backs, for the most part in a lot of offenses ... are not emphasized as much, so you don't get to see as much production or dominance."

By the time running backs reach the NFL, they are already limited to specific offensive sets, making it easier for teams like the Patriots to utilize a handful of backs -- each with a customized role.

When teams finally break down and pull the trigger on a high-profile prospect, they're too often left holding the bag with an underwhelming Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram while watching two second-rounders, a third-rounder and a sixth-rounder lead the end-of-season rushing list.

It's hard to blame NFL teams for refusing to throw big money at a multi-chambered backfield even if the superpower Seahawks and 49ers operate the run-heaviest offenses in the league.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" the guys do the news, open the mailbag and play "Win Wess' Toaster."

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