Running backs have been in a weird holding pattern in recent years. There was a time where it looked like the position was so devalued that a couple of promising seasons out of a back was enough for a team before moving on to another, cheaper rookie.
Spending a top draft pick on a running back is still a questionable proposition. The long-term future of the first-round running back likely depends on the success of players like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in the coming seasons.
Even if the value of the individual running back is up for debate, a strong running game is still important in the NFL. A few teams do it well and consistently, like the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers. Of those teams, only the Vikings have a franchise at running back: veteran Adrian Peterson, who is one of only two active players in the top 50 for career rushing touchdowns.
That doesn't mean only the Vikings are going to ride their star running back to success, though. There are several teams that are going to put an added emphasis on running the ball next season, but each is taking its own approach. One in particular has been planning it for at least five years. Another is making the switch out of total necessity. And the third has suddenly flipped the script and dumped all its resources into beefing up the running game.
The Long Plan: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys likely believe they're right on the cusp of being serious playoff contenders again. Regardless of what happens on the defensive side of the ball, things are sliding into place on offense that have been in the works for a long time. With Tony Romo under center for the past decade, they have been afforded some measure of stability over the years, but not much else beyond that.
And now, Romo's injury history has become a concern -- the veteran quarterback has played a full 16-game season just twice in the past six years. So, the Cowboys started prepping for a time when they could be one of the league's most dominant rushing teams. They have taken a simple, but methodical approach: drafting a bunch of nasty offensive linemen high in the draft.
Dallas' starting offensive line features three first-round picks, from Tyron Smith, who was drafted in 2011, to the more recent picks of Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014). Another player, La'el Collins, was rated as a first-round talent before a pre-draft ordeal forced him to go undrafted. That's essentially four first-round picks, and it's already paid off in big ways.
DeMarco Murray rushed for 16 touchdowns and 1,845 yards behind that line in 2014. The following season with the Philadelphia Eagles, he had just 702 yards and saw his per-carry average drop from 4.7 to 3.6 yards. Dallas got 1,089 yards out of an over-the-hill Darren McFadden last season. In the last two years, only the Seahawks (5,030) and Panthers (4,318) had more rushing yards than the Cowboys, who totaled 4,244 yards.
But those teams have rushing quarterbacks and are not strictly power run teams like the Cowboys, who will introduce yet another first-rounder this season: Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick and one of the most highly touted backs to enter the draft in a long time. Some thought the Cowboys reached by picking him in the top five, but he's basically proof their plan is coming to fruition. The Cowboys wanted to build a potent rushing attack, and Elliott has the potential to be a game-breaking back in the NFL for years to come, especially behind that offensive line.
The Last Resort: Cleveland Browns
The Browns are looking like they will be trying to kick the tires on Robert Griffin III as their starter at quarterback. Griffin, who rushed for 815 yards in 2012 when he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, can be a dangerous running threat and the run-fake-option could be a reliable tool for the Browns' offense this season.
This offseason, most of the headlines for the Browns have revolved around the quarterback position, analytics and how their wide receiver group will shape out (they drafted five WRs this year). Yet, their success in 2016 is likely predicated on the running game not just being a point of focus, but a successful one.
The problem: Cleveland has not found much success as a running team in recent years -- the last time the Browns were in the top half of the league in rushing offense was in 2009. Last year, with backs like Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson topping the depth chart, they finished No. 22 in the league.
At the very least, the Browns coaches know this is the direction they have to go in now. New head coach Hue Jackson is known for being good with quarterbacks, but his teams have also traditionally run the ball well. Running game coordinator Kirby Wilson said that Jackson "truly does enjoy" running the ball.
"We are going to be a run-oriented football team," Wilson said after an OTA practice in late May. "Everything starts with the run game, our offensive line and our backs. As coach told us, we are going to be a physically dominant, running football team."
Johnson, 22, will himself carry much of the team's offensive hopes on his back this season, whether the Browns always knew they were heading in this direction or not. As a rookie last year, he put up 379 yards and a 3.6 yards per carry average.
Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Tennessee Titans
In recent years, the Titans focused on finding a quarterback of the future, but they've also been investing in the running back position. Now that the quarterback position is set with Marcus Mariota, the Titans want to do everything they can to help him, and that includes continuing to shore up the running game.
At the running back position, Tennessee brought in Shonn Greene at one point and Dexter McCluster at another, just throwing bodies in the rotation and seeing what happened. Two years ago, the Titans drafted Bishop Sankey with a second-round pick. Last year, they added David Cobb, another high-ceiling running back, in the fifth round.
Antonio Andrews saw the field a lot last season due to injuries, and with a backfield that also included Sankey, Cobb and McCluster, Andrews ended up as the team's leading rusher.
This offseason, the Titans acquired Murray, who led the league in rushing with the Cowboys just two years ago. But why stop there? A month later, they used a second-round pick on Derrick Henry, the Heisman winner out of Alabama and the second running back taken in this year's draft.
On top of adding two starting-caliber backs, the Titans drafted offensive tackle Jack Conklin in the first round, giving them three first-rounders on their starting OL. They also signed former Texans center Ben Jones.
The Titans are clearly going all-in. While building a strong offensive line to protect their future franchise quarterback, they decided to throw everything they could at the running back position. We'll see if it pays off this season.