The brutal hits and short careers were traditionally mitigated by Heisman Trophies, No. 1 draft slots, universal acclaim and money to the ceiling.
Now all but the cream of the tailback crop get shunned, slighted and ultimately signed to contracts on par with kickers and punters.
"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 only active player with six consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons has attracted nary a nibble on the trade market.
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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.
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.