The NFL is running it back.

After recent declines in both the valuation of college running backs and the presence of true franchise rushers in the pro game, the position is entering another golden era.

For a while, it appeared the premier back – the position popularized for decades by Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Adrian Peterson – would fade away like the fullback, in-line tight end, and pure box safety – made obsolete by the passing game’s growing prominence.

In 2014, no running backs were drafted in the first round for the second straight year – a first in the event’s 82-year history. Before 2013, there had only been one draft – in 1963 – in which a running back didn’t go in Round 1.

In 2015, a wide receiver led the NFL in yards from scrimmage for the first time since 1969. Running backs had claimed the distinction for 45 years until Falcons star Julio Jones racked up 1,871 total offensive yards.

Even more mind-boggling: Steelers receiver Antonio Brown finished second with 1,862 total yards, over 150 more than the third-ranked Peterson (1,707). Not since 1987 had the NFL’s leading running back finished with fewer than 1,800 total yards.

However, there was a shift in 2017, with predominant ball carriers seeing a significant uptick in carries. The running back and running game were re-emphasized.

Four running backs either carried the ball at least 320 times or averaged 20 carries per game (on at least 100 attempts). The 20-carries-per-game average would equate to 320 carries over the course of 16 games.

Not since 2010 had the league produced more than two running backs who averaged more than 20 carries per game. In fact, only three NFL running backs averaged more than 20 carries per game in 2015 and 2016 combined: Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott.

So does that mean the running back is back?

“Oh, sure,” 11-year veteran rusher Jonathan Stewart said at Giants camp Wednesday.

“For a while I think, actually probably since my (2008) draft class, really the value of a running back … people kind of kicked it to the curb a little bit,” the 2015 Pro Bowler added.

New school taking over

The running back revival has been driven by the stellar young rushers dominating the league.

Rams running back Todd Gurley, 23, led the NFL last season with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and was one of six rushers to average at least 18 carries per game.

Elliott’s average of 24.2 carries per game was tops in the league, although he missed six games due to suspension. Still, he averaged 21.5 carries in 2016 as a rookie, so it’s unlikely his average would’ve dipped in those six games.

Bell’s 321 total carries led the league. The three-time Pro Bowler averaged more than 21 per game in each of the last two seasons.

Last year also marked the second straight season in which a rookie finished as the league’s top rusher and two rookies placed in the top 10 in rushing yards.

Elliott and Bears rookie Jordan Howard placed first and second, respectively, in 2016. The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt led the NFL last year, while Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette finished eighth – each helping their team make the playoffs.

League taking notice

Young NFL running backs making the position vogue again likely influenced this year’s draft. Six RBs were taken in the top 50, and three in the first round.

There hadn’t been three running backs selected in the first round since 2012, and not since 2008 had six running backs left the board in the top 50.

“I think that (the re-emphasis on the franchise back) has something to do with it,” said an NFC front-office member who asked to remain anonymous. “I think that plays a factor in it. And with this last draft there was a much stronger running back class than we’ve had in a long time, so I think that played a factor in it as well.

“But I think we just kind of went through some trends for a while where the running back was somewhat phased out and now it’s re-emerging and teams are saying, ‘We need a strong running game to win, especially late in the season and late in games.’ It’s just constantly evolving. It goes one way sometimes and then goes the other way.”

Rookie and second overall pick Saquon Barkley, Stewart’s new teammate, became the first running back taken in the top two this April since the New Orleans Saints drafted Reggie Bush second overall in 2006.

In total, 10 running backs were selected in the top 50 over the past two drafts – one more than the four drafts from 2013-2016. Six running backs taken in the top 50 this year equals the number of running backs selected in the top 50 of the prior two drafts combined.

The offensive game is still centered on the passing attack, but the recent shift back to franchise running backs has also influenced the number of 4,000-yard passers. The 2017 season produced only six quarterbacks who threw for 4,000 yards, down from nine in both 2015 and 2016 and the fewest since 2010, when four quarterbacks passed for 4,000 yards.

Money talks

The financial value of running backs also appears to be rebounding. Last month, Gurley signed an extension with the Rams reportedly worth $60 million over four years, with $45 million guaranteed.

That’s good news for Bell, who rejected an extension offer from the Steelers that reportedly offered only $10 million in guaranteed money. He’ll play this season under the one-year franchise tag.

Gurley and Bell each average more than $14 million a year on their current deals, a major boost from the 2016 extension signed by Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, whose five-year deal averages only $8.25 million annually, according to Spotrac.

“The guys like Zeke and Le’Veon Bell out there are showcasing their talents in ways that either we’ve never seen before or (are) kind of a reminder of certain running backs in the past or whatever it is,” Stewart said. “It’s a good thing. It’s actually really cool to see Todd Gurley get paid the way he did, too, so running backs get what they deserve in the future.”

If this era is any indication, Gurley won’t be the last running back to be paid his due.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)