NFL running backs are frustrated, with harmonious resolution seeming distant

With the increasing dominance of passing in the game, the value of running backs has been diminishing. As a result, some players believe they are not receiving the recognition they deserve.

On Tuesday, the running back market hit a plateau when Saquon Barkley settled for a new one-year $11m deal with the New York Giants, effectively putting an end to potential training camp absences.

Despite Barkley’s return to New York, his signing only momentarily resolves the ongoing dispute over running back compensation. His new contract fails to include a clause that would block the Giants from applying the franchise tag to him next season, a safeguard many quarterbacks have incorporated in their contracts. Without a clear promise of a long-term contract, Barkley could find himself in the same predicament next summer. The same is true for Jonathan Taylor, who is due for a contract extension next year, and Nick Chubb, whose long-term contract situation is uncertain, and who will be 30 years old when his next contract opportunity arises.

As the salary cap has risen, running back contracts have declined. The situation is doubly challenging for them: the average yearly salary of contracts has dropped, as has the one-year franchise tag. The franchise tag for running backs has fallen from $10.9m in 2015 to $10m this season. Contrast this with the significant increase for quarterbacks ($18.5m to $32.4m) and wide receivers ($12.8m to $19.7m) over the same period, giving even more bargaining power to teams in long-term negotiations with their running backs.

Running backs are feeling the heat. Some former players are advocating for young athletes to change positions for a better financial future. Several top NFL running backs – including Barkley, Chubb, Austin Ekeler, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, and Josh Jacobs – recently convened a conference call to discuss the decrease in running back pay and potential strategies for improvement.

“There’s virtually nothing we can do at the moment,” Chubb expressed on Sunday. “We’re trapped in a complex situation. Our position is unique in that our productivity works against us. If we run 2,000 yards in one season, the following year they’ll claim we’re likely worn out. It’s a difficult predicament.”

Few positions endure as much physical toll as a running back, and it is precisely because of this that teams have become more reluctant to offer significant contracts. The average career span of a running back, according to data, is around four years before they start to decline in performance due to physical deterioration. However, under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, their wages can be controlled by franchises for seven seasons: five years of a rookie contract (if they’re selected in the first round), with two additional tag years. Consequently, teams have adopted one of two strategies: either they scout the middle rounds of the draft for cost-effective talent at the position or select a running back in the first round, using their services for six to seven years before moving on to a fresher player.

Exceptions do exist – Derrick Henry, for example, is entering his eighth year with the Tennessee Titans. He has consistently performed at an elite level and will have earned $56m by the end of his contract this season. However, for every Henry, there are players like Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley who showed promise early in their careers only to underperform shortly after signing long-term contracts. Teams have become more cautious about taking such risks. By the time the current generation of players become free agents, the league will likely be prepared to transition to a new, more affordable generation.

Ego and finances both play a role. Extracting $5m worth of performance from a player earning $800,000 is not just economically wise; it’s also a symbol of competence for a team’s management, proving their ability to identify inefficiencies in a market crowded with savvy competitors. The Kansas City Chiefs demonstrated this by winning the Super Bowl with Isiah Pacheco, the 251st pick in the draft, as their primary running back (having Patrick Mahomes as your quarterback certainly doesn’t hurt). Teams have learned that a robust offensive line, a well-designed scheme, and a capable quarterback can drive the running game just as effectively as the individual running back. A stellar running back with a poor offensive line yields a weak running game; an average running back behind a solid offensive line could lead the league in efficiency.

Overcoming the financial disparity is challenging. Running backs participate in fewer snaps on average than other positions – even top-tier running backs only participate in approximately 70% of their teams’ offensive plays. Furthermore, the difference between the third-best running back in the league and the 16th or 20th is less significant than the difference between a top-ranked offensive tackle and an average pass protector. And those offensive linemen play every single snap.

The most disheartening reality for players is that there’s no clear solution to this cycle. The NFL has evolved into a league that heavily favors passing. While running the ball is still essential, in a sport with a hard salary cap that is increasingly favoring passing, teams are unwilling to invest heavily in a running back.

One potential remedy for players is to evolve from being a ‘running back’ to an ‘offensive weapon’. Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, both drafted in the first round of the latest draft, are as effective as receivers as they are runners. They offer the kind of versatility in positioning that every offense desires. Replacing someone like McCaffrey – a true receiver regardless of where he lines up on the field rather than a back pretending to be a receiver – is harder than finding another traditional running back. McCaffrey positively impacts his offense, bringing his on-field value closer to that of a star receiver or top tight ends. With an average salary of $16m, McCaffrey would rank as the 19th highest-paid wide receiver and the second-highest-paid tight end.

The only real solution for running backs may be to shift their positional designation, emerging as receivers who occasionally line up in the backfield. Deebo Samuel, who is set to earn $20m starting next season, tops the receiver market because of his dominance as a receiver and ability to function as a running back.

This situation will eventually balance out. For instance, in the NBA, the center position was undervalued for several years. Now, players like Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis have ushered in a new era of dominant big men, redefining expectations for a nominal ‘center’. Similar to their basketball counterparts, Robinson and Gibbs have the potential to redefine the role and value of NFL running backs.

However, this will be a long-term transition: by the time the league adapts, many current running backs will have retired. Swift solutions are scarce. It’s unlikely that the NFL Players Association will be able to negotiate an exemption for a single position. To give up the franchise tag, a provision that affects only a few players each season, the association would need to make a substantial concession to the owners.

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