Is it worth giving running backs the big bucks in today’s NFL? by Owen Widdowson

Is it worth giving running backs the big bucks in today’s NFL? by Owen Widdowson
Reading Time: 6 minutes.

There is a growing belief league-wide that the running back position is less valuable than ever. The Chiefs and 49ers headlined this year’s Super Bowl with two undrafted free agents at the position whilst high-end players Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffery, Le’veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliot all missed the playoffs.

Despite this reality, Adam Schefter announced on Monday that the Panthers will be making McCaffery the highest paid running back of all-time with an annual salary of $16,000,000.

Last season the 23-year-old joined Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the third player in NFL history to total over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Despite this, Carolina finished fourth in the NFC South with a 5-11 record.

This begs the question, will they come to regret the move? I looked at some of the biggest non-rookie signings over the last couple of years to see how successful each franchise has been since.

  • 2019 Dallas Cowboys – Ezekiel Elliott

Contract: 6 years, $90,000,000 ($15,000,000/year)

Regular season record since: 8-8

Playoff record since: No playoff berths (0-0)

Before the 2019 season the Cowboys chose Elliott to be the face of their franchise over quarterback Dak Prescott despite them both having one more season left on their rookie contracts. Since then ‘America’s Team’ have won eight and lost eight as they finished their 2019 campaign second in the NFC East and missed the playoffs.

Am I saying that the Cowboys would have performed better if they handled business the other way round? No. But signing a huge six year deal to a running back in today’s league can have repercussions further down the line.

Running backs have the shortest shelf life out of any NFL position so signing one to a big deal and centreing an offence around them puts too much weight on their shoulders. Elliott had 301 carries in 2019 and he’s averaging a whopping 292 carries over the first four years of his career. Despite this, he only averaged 84.8 yards per game last season which is the lowest of his career thus far.

Not to mention that if I were Prescott, I wouldn’t be too pleased about being franchise tagged a year after my fellow 2016 draftee signed a big contract; despite us both having equal responsibility for the team’s success.

If the Cowboys aren’t careful they may find themselves with a displeased franchise quarterback, a less productive overpaid running back and nowhere to turn. All of that mess just to go 8-8… I don’t think it’s worth it.

  • 2018 Los Angeles Rams – Todd Gurley

Contract: 4 years, $57,500,000 (14,375,000/year)

Regular season record since: 22-10

Playoff record since: One playoff berth (2-1)

On paper the Rams were extremely successful in the first season of Gurley’s four year contract, finishing with a 13-3 record and making it all the way to the Super Bowl. However the good times were short lived as they soon found themselves in contract hell. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley took up 45% of the Rams’ total cap space at the start of the 2019 season and they had no Lombardi to show for it.

To make matters worse for the Rams, Gurley underperformed in 2019. Their franchise running back averaged 32.3 less yards per game than he did in 2018 and totalled five fewer touchdowns too. He went from back-to-back all-pro and pro bowl seasons to no accolades at all.

On top of this, their division also improved massively in 2019. The 4-12 San Francisco 49ers bounced back to a 13-3 2019 campaign and the Seahawks improved from 10-6 to 11-5.

All of this, combined with the need to pay all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey at the end of the 2020 season, forced the Rams to cut Gurley and trade Cooks in order to give themselves some breathing space as far as draft capital and cap space is concerned.

Their Super Bowl window closed as quickly as it opened and it was time for them to pay the price. I’m not wholly blaming Gurley for the collapse of the Rams but his contract and drop in production in 2019 certainly didn’t help.

  • 2019 New York Jets – Le’veon Bell

Contract – 4 years, $52,500,000 ($13,125,000/year)

Regular season record since: 7-9

Playoff record since: No playoff berths (0-0)

The Jets had a lackluster 7-9 record in the first season with new running back Le’Veon Bell. As disappointing as this was, it’s not as bad as the Cowboys and Rams who were in a position to have deep playoff runs. An incomplete roster meant it would’ve been hard for the Jets to have a successful season regardless of Bell’s performance.

New York didn’t have the best of luck in 2019. Sam Darnold missed three games due to illness, their defence allowed over 22 points per game and they were also the first team in NFL history to lose twice to teams with a 0-7 record or worse in a single season.

But that’s not to say that Bell carried their offence, because he underperformed too. He finished with 3.2 yards per carry, the lowest of his career, and the same amount of touchdowns as he had in 2015 (when he only played six games).

Jets fans shouldn’t completely lose hope though because with a young, hopeful quarterback as well as favourable cap space and good draft capital, they should be able to make improvements to their roster before the 2020 season rolls around.

There’s no question that Bell was an upgrade from the tandem of Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire that the Jets put forward in 2018.

Having said that, the 28-year-old Bell will need to have a strong 2020 campaign to make the money they gave him worthwhile. Otherwise the Jets probably would have been better off putting their money into a different positional need.

  • 2018 Arizona Cardinals – David Johnson

Contract – 3 years, $39,000,000 (13,000,000/year)

Regular season record since: 8-23-1

Playoff record since: No playoff berths (0-0)

After 2016 saw David Johnson have one of the most impressive single seasons for a running back in recent history, he went on to miss 15 games in 2017 because of a wrist injury he sustained in week one.

Despite the health concerns Arizona believed that he could become one of the NFL’s premiere running backs once again, signing him to a three-year $39 million deal. However since the signing he hasn’t been able to return to his 2016 form, as he totalled just over 44 yards per game in 2018 and 2019 combined. It became apparent to the Cardinals that the value just wasn’t there for Johnson anymore.

One thing I do admire Arizona for is their ability to realise their mistakes and make up for them. They managed to offload the overpriced running back onto the Houston Texans shoulders in return for arguably the best receiver in the league, DeAndre Hopkins.

It still bewilders me how Arizona managed to pull that trade off, all things considered. Despite putting themselves in a very sticky situation with the contract they offered Johnson back in 2018, they still came out the other side better off.

NFL franchises are starting to realise how big money running back contracts may not be a good thing; well at least some franchises are.

  • 2019 Baltimore Ravens – Mark Ingram

Contract – 3 years, $15,000,000 ($5,000,000/year)

Regular season record since: 14-2

Playoff record since: One playoff berth (0-1)

The Ravens were the only team on this list to negotiate their running back contract well. They perfectly balanced Ingram’s salary with his value to the team and it yielded excellent results.

Baltimore earned the number one seed in the AFC in 2019 and it was largely thanks to the combination of MVP Lamar Jackson and the ex-Saints running back. Ingram averaged 67.9 yards per game which was the third most of his nine year career and also had the most touchdowns of his career with 15.

Although they didn’t make it all the way to the big game they’ve put themselves in a position to have similar success in 2020.

Ingram’s on a reasonably high deal that reflects his value to the team whilst simultaneously allowing the Ravens to focus their budget on more important positions.

So where does that leave us?

Now I know that there are countless other factors to take into consideration such as the performance of the rest of the team, schedule strength and the general unpredictable nature of the league but it’s still important to highlight the direction these teams have gone since agreeing to big running back contracts.

Christian McCaffery is an exceptional player and nothing can take that away from him. He’s equally deadly catching out the backfield as he is when running the rock and he’s only gotten better over the first three years of his career.

Having said that the Panthers are taking a risk by signing him to a $64 million contract. The past couple of years have proven how much more useful the air game is to the modern day NFL offence. For this reason I worry that the Panthers won’t be able to put together a competitive enough roster despite impressive production from McCaffery. Their only option might be to throw everything they have into a small window like the 2018-20 Rams.

NFL franchises are starting to learn that the running back position’s value isn’t what it used to be. The franchise tag is becoming more commonplace at the position with teams like Tennessee leading the way. I know that I initially bashed the Titans for their decision to tag star running back Derrick Henry and sign Ryan Tannehill, but I’ve come to love the strategy.

Henry is still the fifth highest paid back in the league and Tennessee isn’t tied down to a long-term unpredictable contract. When it’s all said and done, this decision has given their franchise a better opportunity to win. It won’t be long before this is the reality for all but the most exceptional NFL running backs.

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