Running Backs Are Hosed
11:34 AM EDT on July 18, 2023
Monday was the deadline for three of the NFL's most productive running backs to sign multi-year contract extensions with their teams. That deadline came and went without Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, or Tony Pollard signing new deals, and so all three will play next season under the franchise tag, earning just over $10 million. This wasn't surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the NFL over the last decade and seen how the running back position has steadily dropped down the list of things NFL teams are willing to spend on, but it reignited an ongoing conversation about the value of NFL running backs all the same.
Several current running backs took the opportunity to vent their frustrations about how running backs are valued in the modern NFL.
These guys have good reason to be angry. It wasn't so long ago that star running backs were some of the most well-compensated players in the league, but now they live in a world in which Christian McCaffrey—precisely the kind of dual rushing-receiving threat that was once considered a crown jewel of any NFL organization—owns the richest running back contract while still having a smaller average annual salary than the likes of Elgton Jenkins and Tyler Lockett. Running back is the only position to have seen the value of its franchise tag decrease over the last eight years, even as the salary cap has ballooned. Nick Chubb was the last running back to sign a contract worth $10 million or more per year, and that happened in 2021.
The word "value" comes up a lot in debates about running backs and what their proper compensation level should be. On one side, you have people like Austin Ekeler arguing that running backs have had their value artificially decreased by owners and GMs who have specifically targeted the position with austerity measures. On the other side, you have GMs, scouts, and other front-office executives arguing that this is just what supply and demand looks like, baby. In a hard-capped league like the NFL, player compensation is always going to be a zero-sum game. As more and more teams have decided that edge rushers, quarterbacks, and offensive linemen are the keys to success, those positions' increased earning power demands that someone else's value be diminished. Add to this the fact that there is at all times a deep pool of rookie and free-agent running backs to be drawn from, and the environment for ball carriers couldn't be more hostile. A cold, calculating observer would tell you that if running back value is trending towards long-snapper territory and away from franchise-quarterback territory, then that's just the reality of the market and the schematics of modern football making themselves felt.
Ekeler has a point, though. The reason that there is so much angst over how little running backs are being paid is because they are still tremendously valuable on the field; no one is out here complaining about long-snapper salaries. The problem isn't that running backs no longer have an important role in modern NFL offenses. The problem is that the time period in which running backs are able to most effectively provide all that valuable running, blocking, and catching directly coincides with the portion of their careers in which their earnings are most strictly suppressed.
The draft and the rookie wage scale hamstrings the earning power of every rookie entering the league, but it is particularly harsh on running backs, who have both a shorter shelf life and an earlier peak relative to other positions. This puts running backs on an inverted career path. Future stars at other positions can arrive in the league undeveloped, spend the years on their rookie contract getting up to speed and proving themselves as valuable NFL players, and then cash in with a big contract just as they enter their prime. Rookie running backs arrive more or less at the peak of their abilities and productivity, give all of their best years while on a cost-controlled contract, and then are cast out into the wilderness just as soon as their production starts to slow down. Guys like Saquon Barkley aren't getting squeezed because teams can grab any bozo out of the draft and turn him into Saquon Barkley, but because teams can find two-thirds of Barkley's production for half of his asking price.
It wasn't always this way. The rookie wage scale didn't exist until the 2011 CBA was signed, and before that players entering the league could negotiate big paydays before ever playing a down in the NFL. We all remember Sam Bradford's six-year, $78 million rookie contract, but nobody should feel more wistful about those days than running backs. In 1999, Edgerrin James was drafted with the fourth overall pick and entered the league on a seven-year, $49 million contract that saw him earn $14.8 million during his first season. Barkley, who was drafted No. 2 overall 19 years after James, will earn $10 million for the first time this season. Everyone was happy to institute the rookie wage scale in 2011 because it meant, within the strictures of a hard-capped league, more money would be freed up to spend on contracts for veteran players. That's worked out well for a lot veteran players at a lot of different positions, but veteran running backs are the ones paying the price.