In the weeks and months leading into the 2017 NFL draft, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton watched several running backs work out in person. He separated them into tiers, ranking them in order of preference. He inspected a small, jitterbug-quick back from North Carolina A&T, Tarik Cohen, and came away wanting to draft him. Just above Cohen, though, was another back Payton studied in a private workout. When the draft came and rolled into the third round, Payton seized the chance to trade up, into the 67th overall pick, and draft Alvin Kamara.
Kamara has erupted, becoming the most explosive player on one of the league's best teams and the clear favorite for rookie of the year. He has rushed for 606 yards, caught 60 passes for another 614 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns. The manner in which Kamara plays is instructive, a sign of where NFL offense is headed. Kamara is a running back comfortable taking on the duties of a wide receiver. Kamara may be the idealized version of a versatile back, but there are more like him on the way.
The Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey eighth overall as much for his receiving ability as his running ability, and they have attempted 90 passes to him, tying Devin Funchess as Cam Newton's most frequent target. The Chiefs' Kareem Hunt, despite slowing after a monstrous start to the year, has caught 39 balls for 347 yards. Dalvin Cook caught five passes for 72 yards in a game before being injured for the season. Cohen, the player Payton bypassed for Kamara, has been a key cog in Chicago's passing game.
And that is only a sampling of rookies from this season. While Ezekiel Elliott primarily succeeded by bruising behind the Cowboys' stellar offensive line last season, Dallas felt comfortable drafting him fourth overall because of his ability to run every route proficiently - head personnel executive Stephen Jones pointed out that Elliott had played slot receiver as a sophomore in high school.
Kamara leads a wave of young backs who have been developing receiving skills for years. The rise of offseason passing leagues and pass-heavy spread offenses in college have created a new breed of running back.
"Whatever you want to credit that to - seven-on-seven passing academies to just the style of offenses that they run in college, I'm not sure - but guys seem to come in even more prepared now than they ever have been," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "What they're able to do, I think their versatility is something that you see with so many of these young backs that come in. They can run the ball between the tackles, they can catch the ball out of the backfield, you can split them out and almost treat them as receivers sometimes. Just really talented players."
The traditional plow-horse running back is not extinct - the Jaguars took Leonard Fournette fourth overall and would probably do so again; he is a battering ram suited for their ball-control offense. But many running backs may be better viewed as skill players.
The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell might be the best running back in football, but he can also line up wide. He caught 75 passes in 12 games last year, and he has another 61 catches already this season. The usage actually led to a contract dispute - Bell held out all of training camp because he wanted to be paid like a receiver. It may not be the last time the issue arises.
In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors popularized the concept of positionless basketball, employing five players with skill-sets varied enough to capitalize on any opponent's weakness or mitigate any strength. This NFL season has seen some offenses attempting to play positionless football.
The New England Patriots are part of the vanguard. This offseason, they added Rex Burkhead, a powerful runner who had once played slot receiver for the Bengals, in free agency. They combined him with James White and Dion Lewis, and Tom Brady has targeted them a combined 111 times. The Patriots could motion any of White, Lewis or Burkhead out of the backfield, or just line them up as a receiver. The Patriots often employ two on the same play, bedeviling defenses that must decide which personnel to match them with.
"It depends how the defense wants to treat you," White said. "If they want to treat me like a receiver, maybe they'll put a [defensive back] on me. If they want to treat me like a running back, maybe they put a linebacker in. It all depends how the defense wants to match up against you. It's really up to the defense."
White has seen more pass attempts than any Patriot after Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski. In the Super Bowl last year, he caught 14 passes for 110 yards. Now in his fourth season, White came out of a run-heavy system at Wisconsin, but he said he played wide receiver in Pop Warner and other leagues growing up. Once in the NFL, he felt comfortable being used a variety of ways.
"More college teams started doing that, splitting the back out wide," White said. "It translates in the NFL."
The tide is not stopping. Saquan Barkley caught 47 passes for 594 yards this season at Penn State, and he will certainly be the first running back taken next April, likely among the top five picks. Coaches will be scouring workouts as Payton did last season, looking for the next Kamara. Those kind of running backs are out there, and they are taking over the NFL.