Something feels wrong about what’s happening for running backs in the NFL. As teams approach training camp later this month, four respected veteran rushers remain free agents, seemingly with little interest. Kareem Hunt wasn’t re-signed by the Browns after his contract expired, while Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook were released by their respective franchises to create salary cap space. None of the four has signed elsewhere.
Popular veterans getting cut toward the tail end of their careers is nothing new, but the age at which these players have become free agents stands out. Cook, Elliott and Hunt are 27. Fournette is 28. 27-year-old stars at other positions are years from being cut candidates. No team would dream of moving on from Myles Garrett, Deebo Samuel or Budda Baker, each of whom is 27. Those 27-year-olds who play other positions are in the primes of their careers. Meanwhile, 27-year-old running backs are being portrayed as fossils hanging on to any hope of a meaningful NFL career for dear life.
Players are getting squeezed on both sides. With the first round of April’s draft as an exception, draft capital used on running backs continues to fall. Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs became the first running back duo to be selected in the top half of Round 1 since Fournette and Christian McCaffrey in 2017, a feat that happened far more often in the past. In 2022, no back came off the board in the top 32 picks, something that didn’t happen even once over a nearly 50-year span between 1964 and 2012. Teams are using less draft capital on backs than ever before, and they appear to be more aggressive in moving on from their lead backs once they sign extensions.
A league that was once built around star backs dominating offensive workloads and competing for MVP awards now feels like something entirely different. When the Falcons and Lions drafted Robinson and Gibbs, they had to bring up the possibility of the backs as receivers around the formation to justify their choices. Backs who have received the franchise tag (such as Josh Jacobs this year) or who are approaching the time when they might earn their first extension (such as Najee Harris) are publicly wondering about whether running backs are getting a fair shake. It’s reasonable to wonder whether star high school and college players should even consider playing running back when other positions offer more professional upside and stability.
None of this is brand-new, but the stress on running backs to produce and get paid before they’re cast aside feels more acute than ever. Has there been an even more significant shift in recent years than what has been perceived? Is it a case of analytics run amok? Are teams being foolish in how they’re valuing even the best backs? And is there any way to break the cycle and get running backs paid more money in the decades to come?
There’s no single factor dictating the situation with running backs, but let’s establish the playing field for the position before we focus on the four backs left in free agency.
Jump to a topic:
Six reasons RBs have been devalued
Have teams actually gone too far?
Are star backs getting as much time?
Why are there four veterans still available?
What happens now with Barkley, Jacobs?
RBs do deserve to get paid, right?
How can the market change now?
When did the shift away from valuing star running backs happen?
Ask 10 people this question and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The most recent example was a person who is eminently qualified to answer it: former Chargers and Broncos back Melvin Gordon, who won a Super Bowl last season without ever playing a snap for the Chiefs. Gordon tied it to Rams coach Sean McVay and star back Todd Gurley, suggesting McVay had regretted paying Gurley and had decided to rotate his backs from that point forward.
I certainly think the Rams regret giving Gurley an extension in 2018, as we’ll discuss in a minute, but the tactic reared its head before Gurley’s downswing and hasn’t reflected how L.A. has used its backs since. McVay has been comfortable using Cam Akers as something close to an every-down back when the coach and his back are simpatico, with the 2021 postseason win over the Buccaneers (in a game in which Akers was the worst player on the field) and the final few weeks of last season as examples. Akers, a second-round pick in 2020, isn’t getting paid significant money on his rookie deal, and McVay isn’t rotating his backs for the sake of keeping their value down.
From my perspective, the running back value conversation dates back to McVay’s old boss and one of the league’s best offenses. Mike Shanahan’s Denver teams produced huge numbers with a series of unheralded rookies, undrafted free agents and journeymen rotating through at running back. The most famous and successful back of the bunch, Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, was a sixth-round pick in 1995.
Other backs weren’t able to fully reproduce Davis’ incredible numbers after he went down injured, but Olandis Gary (1999), Mike Anderson (2000) and Reuben Droughns (2004) all had big seasons with anonymous pedigrees and modest deals. Clinton Portis, a second-round pick in 2002, played well enough to inspire a swap for Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, with the Broncos even getting an extra pick in the process.
Shanahan eventually left Denver after the 2008 season, but it only created more opportunities for unknown backs elsewhere. When his son, Kyle, took over as the offensive coordinator in Houston in 2008, the Texans immediately got solid production out of rookie third-round pick Steve Slaton. Two years later, the offense thrived when undrafted free agent Arian Foster made the job his own and became arguably the league’s best back between 2010 and 2013. By then, the Shanahan family had moved on to Washington and begun to coax three straight 1,000-yard seasons out of sixth-round pick Alfred Morris.
This wasn’t a Shanahan exclusive. In Kansas City, Dick Vermeil’s Chiefs signed Ravens backup Priest Holmes in free agency to serve as the starter and saw the former undrafted free agent turn into a first-team All-Pro for three straight seasons. When Holmes got injured, the Chiefs turned over the role to first-round pick Larry Johnson, who ran for more than 3,500 yards and scored 40 touchdowns over a two-year span before breaking down in 2007. Holmes and Johnson weren’t anonymous players before breaking out, but Kansas City was able to find a star and then replace him without skipping much of a beat.
You could even go back all the way to the most famous running back in NFL history. Jim Brown was one of the best players at any position before he retired at age 29 after the 1965 season. Who took over for the legendary running back? Eighth-round pick Leroy Kelly, who had had just 43 carries over two seasons as Brown’s backup before that. Kelly proceeded to win first-team All-Pro honors in each of the next three seasons and made it to seven consecutive Pro Bowls; he too became a Hall of Famer.
These are anecdotes, of course, but the idea of a team landing a star back without much of a pedigree for much less than market value dates back a long time. The same with replacing a dominant back with someone untested or less notable and thriving anyway. Brown and Davis were truly incredible players, but it’s telling that their teams were able to replace them and continue to run the ball at a high level. It would be naive to pretend the offensive infrastructure surrounding those players didn’t have something to do with their success, even if it shouldn’t be used to explain away all of their success.
Other teams noticed. More offenses run the outside zone concepts the Shanahan offense used to break down opposing defenses, even as McVay, Shanahan and others have gotten away from their old calling card to build a more varied rushing attack. Different organizations value the impact of a top-end running back at varying levels, but is there anyone out there who believes you can’t find a useful running back in the later rounds nowadays? There are simply more good running backs than there are opportunities for those players to succeed.
Take the defending champs. The Chiefs’ lead back last season was seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco, who was given an opportunity after 2020 first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire struggled to start the season before suffering an ankle injury. If Edwards-Helaire lived up to expectations or if Pacheco had landed somewhere else, Pacheco might have been bouncing around practice squads and never been given an opportunity to prove he can be a bruising lead back. And naturally, it stands to reason he also benefits from playing in an offense with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback.
Let’s see whether we can better pinpoint when the shift actually happened. We don’t have financial data stretching back into the distant past, but we’ll consider how teams filled their lead-back role in the context of draft capital. I went back in five-year windows through 1981 and identified where players who led their team in carries were drafted. I split the players into four groups: backs who were drafted in Round 1, players drafted in Rounds 2 through 4, players who were drafted from Round 5 onward, and players who weren’t drafted at all. It’s not hard to see how the running back landscape has changed:
We actually saw a shift away from the first-round pick as the lead back early in the 1990s, but the most dramatic change has come over the past decade. As recently as the final few years of the first decade of the 21st century, nearly half of top backs on teams were Round 1 picks. That figure has nearly been cut in half, with those players replaced by middle-rounds selections.
That change puts more running backs who are starting their careers in vulnerable positions. First-round picks make far more money than players drafted in the later rounds, and their contracts typically are fully guaranteed. Najee Harris, whom the Steelers drafted in Round 1 in 2021, will earn about $3.3 million per year over his first four seasons, and all of the $13 million he signed for was fully guaranteed. Rhamondre Stevenson, selected in Round 4 of the same draft, was slotted for just over $1 million per season and was guaranteed only $750,000 when he signed his four-year deal with the Patriots.
Stevenson can earn proven performance bonus escalators if he becomes a star, but you can see the difference here. Harris hasn’t played well but gets all of his money through four years regardless. Stevenson has outplayed his deal but isn’t eligible to sign an extension until after his third season. Backs who aren’t drafted in the first round are at a huge disadvantage until they prove themselves.
So, what has caused the running back market to erode?
The league has moved toward the pass. I’ve written about how the 2007 Patriots changed the NFL, and while the league already was throwing the ball more often before that fateful season, New England drew a line between the past and the future of football.
Let’s use a simple (if imperfect) measure of what teams did in neutral situations on early downs. In the five-year window preceding that 2007 campaign, when a team was within 14 points of its opponent on first or second down, it threw the ball 50.4% of the time. Over the past five seasons, that figure is up to nearly 54%. Three-and-a-half percentage points might not sound like a lot, but that’s about two runs per game that have now become passes. It’s a starting point for the game getting away from lead backs.
Those backs can feature in the passing game — Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler garner plenty of catches at a high level — but most aren’t as effective or productive in the passing game as second or third wideouts, even if they or their representatives try to bill them as wideout-caliber playmakers in the passing attack. NFL wide receivers have averaged 1.5 yards per route run over the past five seasons. Over that same time frame, just 12 running backs with 100 targets or more have topped that figure, and most of those backs are players such as Nyheim Hines or J.D. McKissic, who have been limited to a receiving role. The only primary backs who have topped that 1.5-yard mark are McCaffrey, Ekeler, Alvin Kamara and Tony Pollard, who just moved into that role for the first time a year ago.
To some extent, that’s usage and location: Players attempting to catch out of the backfield average 6.1 yards per target, while players on the line of scrimmage average 8.2 yards per throw. The issue is that most running backs aren’t good when you put them on the line — they average 6.4 yards per target on throws at the line of scrimmage, while wideouts average 8.3 yards per target and tight ends generate 7.6.
Quarterbacks are more involved in the running game. What was once an anomaly has become something far more regular. Last season, there were five quarterbacks who threw the ball and ran it at least 100 times: Josh Allen, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Daniel Jones and Lamar Jackson. From 1951 to 2001 — a 50-year window in which running backs were treated as essential players to a team’s success — quarterbacks joined the 100-100 club a total of four times.
Even as recently as that 2006-10 window, there was only one quarterback who posted a 100-100 season: Michael Vick, who did it for the Falcons in 2006 and the Eagles in 2010. Eight signal-callers have 100-carry seasons over the past five seasons. The idea of a quarterback being a significant portion of the designed run game simply wasn’t a feasible idea in the pro game for most of the past 70 years. Now, with rookie first-rounder Anthony Richardson moving into the starting lineup for the Colts, nearly a quarter of the league will have a significant role for their quarterback as part of their rushing attack in 2023.
From 2006 to 2010, quarterbacks accounted for 9.6% of the league’s rush attempts, including kneel-downs and scrambles. Over the past five years, that mark has risen to 14.5%. That gap is even more pronounced near the goal line. Quarterbacks have gone from capturing just over 10% of all runs inside the 3-yard line from 2006 to 2010 to just under 18% over the past five seasons.
Perhaps more notably for the purposes of running backs racking up gaudy numbers, quarterbacks also score more often than they did before. They score nearly 20% of the rushing touchdowns on those plays inside the 3-yard-line, up from just under 12% in the 2006-10 range. We still see seasons in which running backs rack up plenty of touchdowns in short yardage, but quarterbacks are stealing a higher percentage of the scoring glory than they did 15 years ago, let alone further back into the past.
Teams also recognize that quarterbacks have an element of gravity in terms of creating efficiency for their running backs, which has depressed the value of those backs on the open market. Take Philadelphia, where the threat of Hurts as a runner creates numerical advantages in the box and freezes defenders whose responsibilities might otherwise be to target the running back.
During his time in Philadelphia from 2019 to 2022, Miles Sanders averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 3.7 yards before first contact with a defender with Hurts on the field. When Hurts was backing up Carson Wentz or on the sideline, though, Sanders averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 2.8 yards before first contact. Sanders didn’t turn into a bad player without Hurts, but teams didn’t value him in free agency as a runner who would generate 5.0 yards per carry in a vacuum, even if his career yards per carry mark starts with a five.
Teams have gone away from the lead back model. The magic number for star backs used to be 300. When the league moved to the 16-game schedule in 1978, it was routine to see top backs carry the ball at least 300 times. Leaving aside the strike-shortened seasons, between 1978 and 2010, each year delivered an average of 6.5 backs who toted the rock 300 or more times. As recently as 2006, 10 backs posted 300-carry seasons.
The 300-carry back is mostly gone. Between 2011 and 2020, we saw an average of just under two backs per season rack up 300 carries. Five have done so over the past two seasons, but that’s also been a product of the 17th game being added to the schedule; prorating the round number to 318 carries to account for that extra contest eliminates Harris’ 2021 season and Nick Chubb’s 2022 campaign.
To put it another way, the idea of the back who carries the ball 20 times per game has mostly gone out the window. From 1978 to 2010, 4.2 backs per season averaged 20 rushes per game over a full season. Since then, just 12 have hit that mark over the ensuing 12 seasons, and there have been only two instances of a runner pulling it off over the past five campaigns. (Unsurprisingly, those are both Derrick Henry seasons.)
This wouldn’t be a big deal if those lead backs were simply shifting toward receptions, but again, we’re not seeing huge totals from even the most oft-used backs. Let’s switch the round number to 350 scrimmage touches, which include both rushes and receptions. An average of 5.3 backs per season hit that mark between 1978 and 2010, excluding the strike seasons. Since then, the average has dropped to two.
The other issue is that backs haven’t consistently been able to keep up those totals. Sixteen different backs from 1978 onward racked up 350 touches across three consecutive seasons, but nobody has been able to do that since 2006. The only back to rack up 350 touches consecutively since 2014 is Ezekiel Elliott, who did it in 2018 and 2019. It’s difficult to separate each back’s ability to shoulder that workload versus their respective teams’ desires to keep them fresh, but it’s clear the league isn’t using its top backs as it did before 2010.
The timing isn’t in line with his suggestion, but Gordon is right to point out that teams are rotating their backs more than ever. That would be a bad idea if offenses were suffering as a result, but rushing attacks have mostly grown more efficient by spreading rushing responsibilities around to multiple players, not less efficient. Quarterbacks routinely rank among the league leaders in expected points added on the ground because their runs average more yards per carry and convert third downs with scrambles. Yards per carry can be a noisy metric, but the league has averaged 4.38 yards per carry over the past five seasons, up from 4.17 yards per carry between 2006 and 2010 and 4.11 yards per carry between 1980 and 2005.
Even if we limit the analysis to looking only at how each team’s lead rusher performed, those rushers have generally been more efficient with the league shifting toward rotations. Lead backs averaged 4.26 yards per carry between 2006 and 2010 and 4.42 yards per attempt between 2018 and 2022. (They averaged 4.09 yards per carry from 1980 to 2006.) Lead backs and rushing offenses on the whole have been more effective, at least in terms of yards per carry, by shifting away from the lead back model toward a rotation.
Lead backs carrying the ball less and running games getting more efficient in the process doesn’t make a strong case for valuing top backs as being worth significant money.
The 2011 CBA instituted a slotted draft system. One of the key outcomes of the negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA at the end of that 2006-10 window was a new draft paradigm. Before 2010, players drafted toward the top of the first round entered the league and became some of the highest-paid players at their respective positions. The final No. 1 pick under the old system was Sam Bradford, who took home $50 million in guaranteed money on his rookie deal, which was more than any other player — rookie or otherwise — in league history at the time.
The largest running back contract for a rookie was Reggie Bush’s six-year, $62 million pact as the No. 2 pick in 2007. Bush got $26.4 million guaranteed at signing, which has been topped only six times by veterans signing extensions since the 2011 CBA, even as the cap has more than doubled. Teams were assigned rookie pool allocations for cap purposes and generally negotiated off prior contracts at each draft slot, but the top of the first round became an undesirable place to land players at any position.
The slotting system in the 2011 CBA essentially eliminated negotiations for draft picks. Players received a slotted amount for where they landed, regardless of their position or pedigree. Cam Newton, the first No. 1 pick under the new CBA, signed a four-year deal for $22 million, less than half of Bradford’s guarantee. When Trent Richardson came off the board with the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, his four-year deal with the Browns was worth $20.5 million. While the guarantees were closer, Richardson’s average annual salary was about half of what Bush had inked with the Saints five years earlier, even under a more lucrative salary cap.
This might seem as if it made the landscape better for running backs, given that backs taken in the first round would be cheaper than they had been in years before. Instead, it made things worse because of where they ranked on the league’s financial spectrum. With a slotted system, players at more lucrative and difficult-to-fill positions became more valuable, given that they were worth more on the open market and their rookie deals became bigger bargains. The rise of the quarterback on a rookie deal, in particular, entirely changed the way teams built their rosters.
That gap has only continued to grow, as I documented in my pre-draft piece on Bijan Robinson, given that the running back market has stayed stagnant while other positions have grown along with (or faster than) the rise in the salary cap.
The drafts from 2006 to 2010 delivered a particularly brutal run of first-round running backs. Fourteen backs were drafted in Round 1 over this five-year span before the new CBA. Two were significant hits for their teams: Adrian Peterson won an MVP for the Vikings, while Chris Johnson posted a 2,000-yard season and made it to three Pro Bowls with the Titans. Marshawn Lynch developed into a superstar, but he did so for the Seahawks after the Bills gave up on him and shipped him off to Seattle in 2010.
Otherwise, these first rounds were mostly disappointing. The Panthers got solid stretches from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but Bush never lived up to expectations as a difference-maker in New Orleans. Darren McFadden failed to make a Pro Bowl after being taken as the No. 4 pick in one of the best drafts for backs in league history (2008). Felix Jones, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells and Laurence Maroney never turned into solid starters. It’s fair to wonder whether that frustrating stretch helped push teams away from considering backs as often in the first round.
Even after the first round and looking at more recent decisions, landing on the right backs in the draft is harder than you might think. Maybe you want to believe that some of the mistakes teams have made in the draft are just a product of foolish teams making subpar decisions. Well, who in the NFL is an authority on running the ball? Let’s go back to Kyle Shanahan, who has been able to build an effective rushing attack virtually everywhere he has gone. If anybody should know whom to target at running back, it’s the San Francisco coach, right?
While having a strong say in personnel with the 49ers, Shanahan has repeatedly prioritized backs who haven’t worked out. In 2017, he reportedly pounded the table to move up in the fourth round and draft Utah back Joe Williams, who never played an NFL snap. The Niners signed Jerick McKinnon to a massive deal in free agency in 2018, only for the former Vikings backup to tear his ACL.
Shanahan couldn’t have anticipated McKinnon’s injury, but he went back to the well the next season and signed away Tevin Coleman from the Falcons. Coleman averaged 3.5 yards per carry in San Francisco. In 2021, the 49ers used a third-round pick on Trey Sermon, who fell out of favor almost immediately and was waived after one season. Finally, last year, they used another third-round pick on Tyrion Davis-Price, who averaged 2.9 yards per carry as a rookie and was quickly usurped in the lineup by a trade for Christian McCaffrey.
Until the trade for McCaffrey, once Shanahan got his players on the field, he almost always ended up preferring a less notable option to the players he had prioritized in the draft or free agency. Matt Breida proved to be a home run hitter as an undrafted free agent addition in 2017. Later that year, the 49ers signed special teams journeyman Raheem Mostert; he averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry with the team and scored four touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game win over the Packers. Undrafted free agent Jeff Wilson and sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell also had stretches as an effective lead back in San Francisco.
McCaffrey helped spark the 49ers’ offense all the way to the NFC Championship Game last season, and he offered an element these other backs did not. (McKinnon, a solid receiver in Minnesota, might have played that role if he had stayed healthy.) Shanahan eventually landed on useful backs, but if one of the league’s sharpest offensive minds can’t tell the difference between talented runners and replacement-level backs until he gets them on the field, what hope does the rest of the league have?
More teams are incorporating analytics into their decision-making. This would be enough for another article altogether — and I’d argue the influence of analytics in football isn’t anywhere near as significant as it has been made out to be in many discussions about the league — but things are different than they were before 2010. Every team has some semblance of an analytics department, even if some of those teams don’t listen to what their numbers-crunchers find. Others do a better job of integrating data into their approach. Much of this data simply didn’t exist before.
The evidence provided from looking at data and history, like what we’ve seen here, strongly points toward not valuing all but the best running backs as being worth significant investments, with a first-round pick or with a large second contract. Since the league went to that 2011 CBA, running backs have been the position most likely to have their fifth-year option declined. Before that, they were the least likely positional group to deliver 50 points of approximate value over their careers, a trend dating back to 1980. (I’ll get to the contractual stuff shortly.)
On some level, this is simple. Passing plays have generated 6.3 yards per snap and 0.05 expected points added per play over the past five seasons. Runs have generated 4.4 yards per snap and an even 0.00 EPA per play. It would be foolish to see that data and assume you should throw the ball 100% of the time, but to the extent there’s a balance between the two concepts, teams should be throwing the ball more often than they run. We’ve actually seen a bit of a pushback in efficiency as throwing rates have risen higher and higher, but six is still more than four.
What’s really interesting, though, is that the teams that rely on data most heavily aren’t exactly tossing the ball all over the field. The first tier of analytics in the NFL — the organizations that use data most often on a day-to-day basis — is generally considered to be the Browns, Eagles and Ravens. Each relies heavily on its running game; the Browns pay Chubb a significant amount of money, while the Eagles and Ravens have made serious commitments to Hurts and Jackson this offseason, in part because of what they do as runners.
There are players who were seen as stars in the past who wouldn’t be given the same sorts of opportunities with more information. Take Eddie George, who made it to four straight Pro Bowls and served as the Titans’ top back between 1996 and 2003. George, a first-round pick, averaged 3.6 yards per carry. He posted a negative DVOA seven times across his nine seasons, suggesting the yards-per-carry mark wasn’t too far off. George was given the opportunity to absorb a ton of touches, but given his fumble issues and relative inefficiency, this sort of player just doesn’t exist in the NFL anymore. We know too much about what works and what doesn’t.
Teams also are less susceptible to being fooled by single-season breakouts that are unsustainable. Take Jamaal Williams’ 17-touchdown season. In a different era, we likely would have seen a handful of teams fall in love with the idea of Williams as a line-buster near the end zone and pay up to make him a RB1. Instead, when he hit free agency this offseason, teams valued him as a solid element of a rotation and the Saints gave him a three-year, $12 million deal.
Have teams gone too far in how they value the position?
I don’t believe so, because we haven’t seen a running back play at a truly high level on his rookie deal and then have his team let that player leave in free agency with no repercussions. The class of 2017 was the test case for whether teams would be willing to move on from a talented back at the end of his rookie deal, but every one of the star backs in that class — Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones and Joe Mixon — landed an extension. Outside of maybe Cook’s contract, did any of those deals age well?
You can make a case that teams should be willing to consider moving on from even the best backs at the end of their rookie deals. As I referenced here, virtually every one of those significant second contracts for running backs has failed to live up to expectations. NFL contracts are supposed to pay a player for what he’s going to do as opposed to what he has done, and time after time, we’ve seen teams pay backs for the latter and get something significantly less over the second deal.
As of yet, though, no team has been willing to make that sort of leap and trust it can replace its star back at the end of a rookie contract without handing him an extension. If the Colts do that with Jonathan Taylor, who is now eligible for an extension after a difficult campaign, it would be a major step and a real question about whether teams are going too far.
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The other side of this is: Should teams be drafting backs more often in Round 1 before simply letting them leave in free agency? While I’ve heard this often as a plan, I don’t believe it’s an ideal way to approach the issue, and I laid out why in my article on Bijan Robinson. There are two factors at hand. One is the success rate of those first-round picks; whether you use the 2011 post-CBA rules or go back further, into the 1980s, they haven’t been good bets in the first round relative to other positions.
Another argument is opportunity cost. It’s easier to find useful running backs in the later rounds of the draft than it is to find players at any other position. When you factor in the outsize value in landing a wide receiver, edge rusher or cornerback in the draft relative to what they make on veteran deals, the value in taking a running back in the first round simply isn’t there.
Are star backs not getting as much time as they did in previous years?
It certainly feels that way. Take the case of Todd Gurley, who was Offensive Player of the Year at age 23, third in that race at age 24, cut after his age-25 season and out of football after his age-26 campaign. The backs on the free agent market now would have been considered as players in the prime of their careers 20 or 30 years ago. This idea is worth testing.
It’s tough to have an empirical example of what qualifies as a star back and his run as a starter, so I had to come up with my own definition. For every decade going back through the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, I identified the running backs who made the Pro Bowl at least once among their first three seasons. (I excluded backs who earned their nod because of their special teams work, such as Tarik Cohen.) Then, with the help of Pro Football Reference, I tracked how many seasons they lasted as a primary back in the league from Year 4 onward.
The numbers in the past might not be as large as you think. In the 1970s, the backs averaged 3.7 seasons as a starter after Year 3. In the 1980s, that dropped to 3.3, but the number spiked to 5.7 seasons in the 1990s and stayed high at 4.7 during the first decade of the 21st century. The average over that four-decade span was 4.2 seasons.
If we get to the window between 2010 and 2019 and focus on the backs whose careers as starters are definitely over, the average is scary: It’s 1.8 seasons. Players who seemed as if they could be standouts for years to come have quickly fallen off of the mountaintop. Gurley’s knee hindered his explosiveness. Devonta Freeman and Alfred Morris fell off after offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for another city. David Johnson wasn’t able to stay healthy. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t the same after leaving Pittsburgh. DeMarco Murray wasn’t consistent. Melvin Gordon couldn’t protect the football.
Of course, that’s subject to some major selection bias, as it doesn’t include the backs whose careers are still going. In the case of Nick Chubb or Christian McCaffrey, they might have another half-decade to go as starters, which would dramatically improve those numbers. Josh Jacobs just had a career year. There’s a chance some of the backs from that decade — or Jonathan Taylor in the current one — could last for years to come.
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And yet, of those nine backs, it feels as if many are closer to the end than the beginning. It includes Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt, each of whom are free agents. Alvin Kamara hasn’t been the same since Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season. James Conner hasn’t completed a single full season and is playing for a tanking Cardinals team. McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley were healthy last season after missing most of the prior two seasons with injuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those backs broke through and lasted another seven or eight years as a starter, but unless a handful sustain their success, the 2010s are going to be an era in which promising young backs had shorter shelf lives than at any point since the AFL-NFL merger.
I’m not sure I can make a strong case that teams are giving up on those backs too quickly, either. When I looked at the 16 backs who are already finished as starters from the 2010s, it’s tough to find many who were playing well after leaving their initial teams. C.J. Anderson looked great in a late-season stint for the Rams in 2018 but got only 16 carries with the Lions afterward. Ryan Mathews had one solid season with the Eagles but retired after suffering a herniated disk in his neck. The only player from this group who left his first team and proceeded to make a Pro Bowl afterward was Murray, who made it with the Titans in 2016, dropped off the following season, then retired.
It’s also fair to point out that veterans at other positions don’t always return to form after they get off to hot starts. Ask the Rams about Allen Robinson. If we take wide receiver as an example, though, we’re not seeing the same sort of drop-off for players from that decade. Of the 30 wide receivers who made a Pro Bowl before Year 4, we’ve seen Tyreek Hill, Amari Cooper and DeAndre Hopkins excel after moving elsewhere.
On the whole, the NFL is getting younger. In terms of snap-weighted age — the average age for a player weighted by how many snaps each took during a given season — the league has been in a steady downswing toward youth. In 2007, the first year ESPN has snap data available, the average age of a player was 27.8 years old. That figure has declined in 13 of the 15 subsequent seasons, dropping all the way down to an even 27.0 last season.
But why are there four solid backs in the prime of their careers still left in free agency in mid-July?
Those four aren’t quite as impressive as their names might indicate. Kareem Hunt averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, was a situational back in Cleveland and is a no-go for some organizations after he shoved and kicked a woman in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott’s efficiency as a runner and receiver has dropped each of the past three seasons, and he has played through injuries since 2021 in Dallas. Leonard Fournette arguably was the league’s least productive starting back in Tampa Bay a year ago. And while Dalvin Cook stayed healthy for 17 games for the first time as a pro, he posted below-average rush yards over expectation (RYOE) marks and has battled myriad injuries throughout his career with the Vikings.
Each of those backs still has something to offer in the right situation, but it would be foolish to project them as the players they were at their peak. More important is the market into which they’ve landed. Teams have had all offseason to shore up their running back rotation in free agency and with draft picks. No team has had a key running back suffer a significant injury in minicamp or during offseason workouts to open up a starting job.
I say it a lot because it’s important: NFL contracts are about leverage as opposed to talent. Players need talent to have leverage, but talent alone doesn’t explain anything. Right now, there are four backs who are qualified for steady NFL work available in free agency. How many teams actually have an opening? In terms of starting work, it might only be the Buccaneers, who are in a difficult cap situation and like 2022 third-rounder Rachaad White.
Other teams could consider a rotation player — the Dolphins, Rams, Bengals or Ravens make sense — but there’s no team in desperate need of a starter. Even if they were, they would be able to play these four backs against one another, which would keep their potential earnings down. If Cook or Elliott wanted to sign tomorrow for the minimum and just wanted to be in a training camp, they would have no trouble landing a job. Given the landscape and the paucity of openings, it’s tough for them to land meaningful money.
The threat of being in that market is also squeezing backs on rosters. Aaron Jones took a pay cut earlier this summer to save his roster spot and avoid hitting this market. There are suggestions the Bengals might be willing to pressure Joe Mixon into taking a pay cut under the threat of replacing him with a free agent.
The best thing might actually be for them to wait. The ugly inevitability of football is that running backs will go down with injuries in training camp and during the preseason. When that opening comes, these players will have an opportunity to land a more meaningful opportunity from teams that will be more desperate.
The league’s two franchise-tagged backs have to negotiate long-term deals with their teams by next week to avoid playing 2023 on the tag. Anything can happen between now and the Monday deadline, but neither sounds particularly optimistic about his chances of landing the sort of contract he was hoping to land after an impressive 2022 campaign.
Neither player has a bulletproof résumé. Barkley missed nearly all of the 2020 season and struggled mightily in 2021 after tearing his ACL. Jacobs had his fifth-year option declined after two middling seasons before a breakout 2022, his first full season as a pro. Both backs contribute in the passing game, which helps, but it’s hard to make the case they’ve been top-tier backs consistently during their rookie deals.
The other problem is financial. The running back market has stayed relatively flat over the past several years, which has turned the franchise tag into a relative bargain for teams that don’t want to make serious commitments to a back. The franchise tag for backs in 2023 is $10.1 million, meaning that the Giants and Raiders can go year to year with Barkley and Jacobs over the next two seasons and pay them a total of $22.2 million over that time frame, or a little over $11 million per campaign.
Those numbers are nonstarters for players. Barkley reportedly turned down a deal worth $14 million per season from New York, and while we don’t know the structure of that contract, it would be a surprise if the team offered Barkley a deal without more guaranteed money than what he’ll get with the franchise tag.
Should organizations be willing to pay more than those two franchise tags to keep a star player happy and reward them for a successful campaign? Sure, but that can go horribly wrong, too. When the Rams extended Gurley after his stellar third season, they already had him under contract for two seasons at a total of just under $12 million.
The Rams instead paid Gurley $34.5 million for those two seasons before releasing him, which damaged their chances of winning a Super Bowl over that two-year run. (They did win a title in 2021, with Gurley costing them $8.4 million in dead cap, but that lack of cap space pushed them to send more draft capital to the Broncos that year to acquire Von Miller and have Denver pay virtually all of Miller’s salary.) Again, this happens with other positions, but there isn’t any other position outside of special teams in which the franchise tag actually represents a meaningful discount on what players would ask for with a multiyear deal.
So, if either of these players does sign a long-term deal before the deadline, one side will have to give in. The players will have to take less than they want because of the leverage of the tag, or the organizations will have to ignore their financial position to try to placate a potential star player. You can understand why both sides are struggling to find common ground on a new deal.
But running backs deserve to get paid, right?
They do — it’s an extremely hard job. All football players deserve to get paid more. I don’t like a system in which players enter the league and are slotted into a below-market salary for three seasons without any recourse to earn a significant raise until their fourth season, but that’s the deal the NFLPA has negotiated. The players have negotiated raises for those who are making the minimum, which helps, but it’s not fair that a back such as Taylor can produce a dominant season in Year 2 without the opportunity to make significantly more money the following campaign.
At the same time, though, the NFL is a zero-sum proposition. There’s a pool of money to go around. If you think running backs should be paid more, that’s fine. Which position are you paying less to get running backs a bigger piece of the pie? Which spot on the field is getting paid too much? Safety? Guard? Defensive tackle? Wide receiver? I would argue extensions at those positions have been more successful than similar deals for running backs and that it’s been harder to find starters at those spots in the later rounds than it has been at halfback.
There’s also the question of what deserving to get paid means. Are Barkley and Jacobs not getting paid if they land deals for $13 million per season? Is it unfair if they get $10 million on the franchise tag while secondary backs such as Jamaal Williams, Samaje Perine and Raheem Mostert land deals in the $4 million range? Is it not fun to see backs like Ekeler break out into larger roles and earn life-changing money because teams are more open to giving opportunities to unheralded players than they were before? It seems reasonable to argue that a league in which more backs make seven-figure salaries while fewer backs make eight-figure salaries might be more realistic and fairer to the broader player pool, if anything.
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This is an issue that only seems to come up in conversation around running backs. I’ve never heard anyone argue that safeties or centers or gunners on special teams don’t make enough money, even though they train just as hard and are also putting their bodies on the line. Of course, those positions never held a position of outsize significance and competed for MVP awards, so we don’t think of them as misvalued or the product of an unwanted change in the same way that the running back landscape has changed over the last decade.
The reality is we have a soft spot for players who touch the football. It’s fine! Running backs are more fun than offensive linemen or safeties. I understand. The outsize importance of running backs in fantasy football is always going to make them a bigger piece of the puzzle than those players impact actual wins and losses. It’s not just a fan thing, though. Players routinely placed as many or more running backs on their top 100 list than they did offensive linemen, even given that there are five linemen and just one or two backs on the field at all times. The number of backs voted into the Hall of Fame over the past 25 years isn’t far off from the number of offensive linemen, either.
How can the market change so more running backs do get paid?
We’re not about to reverse to the universe in which backs are consistently competing for MVP awards and ranking as the highest-paid non-quarterbacks. I’m also not sure whether there’s a back who will push the top of the market past Christian McCaffrey’s $16 million annual average, either. Jonathan Taylor has a shot if he returns to his 2021 form, but after him, the next in line for that sort of massive contract might be Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, neither of whom has taken a single NFL snap. (For more on this, CBS Sports’ Joel Corry recently wrote at length about the stagnation of the top of the market.)
Calls for more fanciful solutions aren’t realistic. Running backs aren’t going to be able to form their own union. Players aren’t going to hold out en masse. A player such as Jacobs refusing to sign a long-term deal is more likely to hurt Jacobs than it is move the line forward for the backs to come. The economic reality for backs, at least at the pro level, isn’t going anywhere.
What about college, though? With backs still producing Heisman-caliber season at the amateur level, it’s fair to expect the best in the nation to accrue more NIL money during their college careers. One estimate suggested Robinson was worth $1.5 million in NIL money during his final season at Texas through deals with various companies. That’s more than most rookie backs at the NFL level made a year ago.
With the NFL pushing all but the truly elite college backs out of the first round of the draft, college players are going to be facing scenarios in which they can stay in school and earn more money than they would by moving to the pros. Everyone dreams of playing in the NFL, but players might not be as aggressive about declaring for the draft if they can stay on campus and get paid even more in the process.
The CBA isn’t going to change soon — it runs until 2030 — but when the players sit down with the league during their next set of negotiations, I’d like to see them push for a path to playing one’s way out of a rookie deal. Owners aren’t going to want to pay players earlier than they have in years past, which will make this a tough sell, but it’s the only realistic way for running backs to make more money.
The easiest way to do this would be some kind of statistical threshold, where a running back immediately becomes eligible for an extension if he puts up some round number (let’s say 1,500 yards from scrimmage) in his first two seasons. Given that other positions don’t rack up statistics, though, applying a statistical benchmark for certain spots might not be realistic. One simpler way to do it would be to use year-end awards: If a player is voted to the Pro Bowl in either of his first two campaigns, he would become eligible for an extension after his second season as opposed to his third.
It’s a fanciful idea, but one that’s years away from even being considered, let alone actually coming into play. Given the extent of how the league has changed and the way the running back market has stagnated, though, it’s going to take something creative to return backs to their prior position of glory as one of the most celebrated positions in football.
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