Braelon Allen arrived at Wisconsin in 2021 as a hard-hitting safety who had bulked up enough to become a linebacker for his home-state school.
The Badgers, of course, had another role in mind for their wide-eyed 17-year-old freshman: carrying the ball. Since then, nobody in the nation has more rushing yards than Allen, with 3,264 and counting entering the final month of his third season.
Even as NFL teams have regularly engaged in high-profile contract standoffs with standout running backs — hesitant to dole out high-end deals at a position that faces the most physical punishment and typically sees the fastest decline in production — some players in this sport were simply born to run. Taking the ball out of their hands is not on the table.
“I find it personally just to be the most enjoyable position to me. As long as I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I don’t really find the money to be too much of a factor or issue or anything,” Allen said earlier this year. “I just want to do what I love to do. Ever since I started playing running back, I’ve felt that it’s the most fun I’ve had really playing football.”
Next year, or in 2025 if he were to decide to use all his college eligibility, Allen will be one of the top NFL prospects at his position.
Rookie money is largely determined by draft order, but Allen is hopeful a market correction will occur sometime before he's up for that lucrative second contract.
“You don’t want to push people away from playing running back. Eventually there’s not going to be any. Then what do you do? Who fits in that role?” Allen said. "Something’s got to happen. It can’t keep going the way that it is.”
As evidenced by the unofficial fraternity that formed during the summer among the NFL's best running backs out of concern for the lack of financial commitments being made around the league to their peers, there's plenty of dismay within the ranks. That trickles down to players on their rookie deals and into college programs, too.
“We put our bodies on the line just as much, if not more, than most guys,” Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. "We feel like we should be valued just as much. We protect the quarterback just as much as the O-line. We are asked to do a lot of things in the offensive game plan regardless. We would appreciate if they appreciated us more.”
Minnesota Vikings running back Cam Akers laughed when asked what advice he'd give to college prospects about their NFL future.
“I’d probably tell them, ‘If you love it, do it, but you might want to think about playing something else, maybe a slot receiver or something,’” Akers said.
Jonathan Taylor, who preceded Allen in Wisconsin's backfield, was the runaway NFL rushing champion in 2021 for Indianapolis. Coming off an ankle injury-shortened 2022 season, Taylor's contract dispute with the Colts blew up into quite the soap opera in the summer, before he backed off his trade request and signed a three-year, $42 million extension that made him the league's third-highest-paid running back in terms of annual average value.
Several running backs interviewed by The Associated Press this season pointed to Taylor's deal as a sign there's still money to be made for the best of the ball-carrying bunch.
“You’re not thinking at 19 years old like, ’Oh, shoot, they’re not paying that specific position so let me switch my position,” Pittsburgh Steelers running back Qadree Ollison said. "It’s one of those things where it ebbs and flows. It’s like the stock market. It goes down. It goes back up.”
Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) and Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) are all playing on the franchise tag this season after failing to reach agreements on long-term deals with their clubs. Barkley, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, said Thursday he has no regrets about becoming a running back.
“I’m fifth all time rushing in this franchise. I plan to try to find a way to figure out how to be one. That’s a goal of mine,” Barkley said. “But with everything that happened with the contract, I know my value.”
Dallas Cowboys rookie Deuce Vaughn left Kansas State a year early despite only being a sixth-round draft pick, realizing his 5-foot-6 frame would only further downgrade his value.
“If I go back and have another 1,500-yard rushing year, it’s probably not going to boost my stock any more,” Vaughn said.
The key to maximizing that value is versatility, as Vaughn learned in college. That means not only establishing themselves as a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield but as a dangerous one. That means picking up blitzes with the best of them. That means comfort with lining up as a slot receiver or even returning kicks.
“That’s my biggest message to kids coming up, guys in college: ‘Man, just try to do everything that you can,” said Tennessee Titans rookie Tyjae Spears, who’s third on the team with 18 receptions. "When you get here, you never know how you can help the team win. And that’s what a team’s looking for.”
AP Pro Football Writers Schuyler Dixon and Teresa M. Walker and AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, Will Graves, Steve Megargee, John Wawrow and Stephen Whyno contributed.
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