Over the past few NFL seasons, many people have begun wondering and debating on whether or not paying running backs a fairly immense amount of money was even a good idea anymore. Last season, rushing attempts per game were at an all-time low, and this trend is only due to get worse for running backs.
Running the ball is becoming less and less efficient, and the NFL is most definitely a passers league, and it’s safe to say that won’t be changing for quite a long time. If you ask me, paying running backs is moronic, and that’s what I’m here to break down today.
The Supply And Demand
The supply at running back is very, very high. It is a proven fact at this point that you can pick up almost any running back up off the street and they can be successful with a good scheme and solid offense around them. With the run game typically not the main priority for defenses, plus advanced analytics, many teams have effective schemes, and most running backs can serve as serviceable running backs in those schemes.
Of course, there are always exceptions, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars run scheme, but that’s not the point. There are so many effective schemes, and so many running backs in the league that can be serviceable starters, which ultimately leaves us with a high supply.
Then, we get to the demand. The NFL is a full fledged passers league in 2020. Passing the football is near an all-time high in terms of attempts and efficiency, while running the football is just the opposite. So, the demand is towards an all-time low.
The running back position is looked at as one of the least valuable positions in the NFL at this point, and with teams running the ball less and the run game becoming more and more inefficient, the demand for running backs continues to decrease, especially considering there is a surplus of serviceable starters in the league.
Running Backs Are Fairly Interchangeable
Being a successful running back really comes down to opportunity. If you’re a running back and you go to a team with the proper scheme, role, and skill around you, almost every single running back in the NFL can be a serviceable starter at very least. Take a look at the San Francisco 49ers.
Kyle Shannahan implemented his offensive zone sun scheme, and it worked like a charm. The 49ers committee of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman all had productive seasons and pitched in their fair share of touches each game. Their scheme and skill on offense gives them the ability to plug almost any running back in and be successful. It made the Niners tough to gameplan for, and the 49ers were able to finish 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards and 8th in yards per attempt.
The best part about it was, Mostert, Bredia, and Coleman had a combined salary of $6,198,751, only 2.68% of the 49ers cap space. For 3 running backs that all contributed big things to a very successful run game, that type of money is highway robbery. Now, let’s take a look at those 3 as a committee compared to CMC who just came off one of the best seasons by a running back of all-time.
|Christian McCaffrey||49ers Committee|
|Rush Att||287 attempts||397 attempts|
|Rush Yds||1,387 rushing yards||1,939 rushing yards|
|Y/A||4.8 Y/A||4.9 Y/A|
|Rush TDs||15 TDs||15 TDs|
|Receptions||116 receptions||54 receptions|
|REC Yds||1,005 receiving yards||480 receiving yards|
|Y/R||8.7 Y/R||8.9 Y/R|
|REC TDs||4 TDs||4 TDs|
Now I think it’s safe to say Christian McCaffrey had a worse offense and scheme around him, so put in the 49ers system, his rushing stats probably get better, or at least more efficient, although his receiving stats may have seen a bit of a dip. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say CMC was better than the 49ers running committee, although the distance wasn’t too bad. The Niners committee was a little better in the run game, but CMC was much better in the pass catching game, and that’s what took the cake.
So you’re probably wondering, “What’s this guy’s point?”
My points, the 49ers running back committee was able to give 80-90% of the production 2019-2020 Christian McCaffrey had (one of the best seasons from a running back ever), for just under $10 million dollars cheaper at a position of low value (the 49ers committee’s 2019 salary vs CMC’s 2020 salary).
If I were building a team, I’m taking the 49ers committee all day! That’s no shot at CMC, but I’d much rather save over $9 million dollars and take a 10-20% production cut. The running back position is of low value, and those $9 million dollars are much better off being spent on another, more important position.
Rookie Contracts Hold Great Value, But 2nd Contracts Typically Fail
As everyone knows, rookie contracts are very cheap. The 1st overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, Joe Burrow, signed a 4 year deal worth just over $36 million dollars, and that’s in full guarantees. Obviously, the money gets cheaper the lower you get picked, but rookie deals in general are great value because they’re cheap. Even if a player completely busts, his rookie contract isn’t really going to kill you.
For teams that draft running backs, those rookie contracts are gold mines. In each draft class, you at the very least get a handful of solid running backs, and sometimes just a surplus of talent, such as the loaded 2017 draft class. Two points I’m really trying to get across is you shouldn’t pay running backs big bucks, and a majority of running backs that are successful early in their careers fade off relatively early.
When a player is drafted, they have a mandatory 4 year contract, and if you’re a first round pick, you get a 5th year team option tagged onto that as well. If you’re an undrafted free agent, you get a mandatory 3 year deal. And of course, once you played 2 years in the NFL, you are eligible to sign an extension if there is a deal in place. Keep in mind, these are relatively cheap rookie deals towards the beginning of these running backs’ careers when there isn’t much tread on their tires.
In 2018, FiveThirtyEight reported that the average age of a first round pick in the 2018 NFL draft was 21.7 years old. I decided to take a look at the average age of the running backs from the 2020 draft class (not including months, just their straight up age. Also, no undrafted free agents) and I found out that the average age of a running back drafted in the 2020 NFL draft was 21.6, so it’s safe to say the average age of a draftee is 21 and a half, which means rookies are typically just under age 22 by the time week 1 of their rookie seasons kickoff.
Now, let’s take a look into this graph and why 2nd contracts typically fail for big name running backs.
This graph shows us the average NFL running back spends less than 2 and a half years in the NFL, which is the shortest career span at any position in the NFL. I think you see where this is going, but just for further evidence to take a more direct look at these guys that will actually be in the running for these big contracts, I decided to calculate the average age of a Pro Bowl running back over the past few seasons.
|2020 Pro Bowl RBs||2019 Pro Bowl RBs|
|Mark Ingram 30 Y/O||Melvin Gordon 25 Y/O|
|Derrick Henry 25 Y/O||Todd Gurley 24 Y/O|
|Nick Chubb 24 Y/O||Phillip Lindsay 24 Y/O|
|Dalvin Cook 24 Y/O||James Connor 23 Y/O|
|Ezekiel Elliott 24 Y/O||Ezekiel Elliott 24 Y/O|
|Christian McCaffrey 23 Y/O||Saquon Barkley 21 Y/O|
|Average Age = 25 Y/O||Average Age = 23.3 Y/O|
|2018 Pro Bowl RBs||2017 Pro Bowl RBs|
|LeSean McCoy 29 Y/O||DeMarco Murray 28 Y/O|
|Mark Ingram 28 Y/O||LeSean McCoy 28 Y/O|
|Le’Veon Bell 25 Y/O||David Johnson 25 Y/O|
|Todd Gurley 23 Y/O||Le’Veon Bell 24 Y/O|
|Kareem Hunt 22 Y/O||Devonta Freeman 24 Y/O|
|Alvin Kamara 22 Y/O||Ezekiel Elliott 21 Y/O|
|Average Age = 24.8 Y/O||Average Age = 25 Y/O|
Average Age Of A Pro Bowler Over The Past 4 Seasons: 24.5 Y/O
That’s right, the average age of a Pro Bowler over the past 4 seasons is a little over 24 years old! This young age is mind boggling, but it’s more proof that running backs, even many elite ones don’t last very long, and many hit their peaks during the very beginning of their careers. The main reason for this is, running backs take on a lot of hits, big workloads that lead to tread on the tires, and it all leads to their bodies wearing down at a much faster rate than other positions.
It’s sad to say, but it’s reality, and this all ties into why 2nd contracts usually don’t pan out. Some young running backs sign extensions after their first 2 seasons, while other elite running backs strike big, long term deals when their rookie contracts expire, and ironically, this is usually when they begin to fade out. The typical drop off of an elite running back is around age 26-27. Again, there are definitely a handful of outliers, but this is the typical drop off period for many elite, and even just starting running backs.
They strike a big deal, and within the next 2 years they lose their burst and explosiveness, they start suffering injuries, and it leads to their value decreasing and their ability to take on the hefty workload they once could manage, that ability fades.
Don’t believe me? Well, just take a look at the 12 highest paid running backs in the NFL.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Age 24
Now Christian McCaffrey is one of the unknowns on this list. CMC just had one of the greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history last season, and that struck the 24 year old a deal that would give him the largest contract received by a running back in NFL history.
McCaffrey is the face of the franchise in Carolina, and contributes so much not only as a runner, but also as a receiver, as McCaffrey had 116 receptions last season with 1,005 receiving yards to pair with it. I feel like that’s a big element with McCaffrey, he’s so valuable in the pass game as well.
McCaffrey also just turned 24, so he’s still got at least a season or two before he starts to really hit the burners. This season, you’ve got Matt Rhule taking over at head coach, and from the New Orleans Saints, new starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and new offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
With Brady coming over from New Orleans and taking Bridgewater with him, the plan sounds like Brady and his offense will be running Sean Payton’s scheme, which makes sense because not only is it effective, but it’s a scheme your offensive coordinator and quarterback are both very used to.
If you know anything about this scheme, it’s that the pass catching ability of your running back is a massive factor to the success of the scheme, just watch Alvin Kamara and the Saints. Just because he’s the face of the franchise, and he really benefits in the pass game, plus the Panthers have money to spare, this deal won’t be bad for the first season or two, but Carolina could be biting their tongues towards the end of this deal.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, Age 25
Although Zeke has proven he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL, this deal is a back breaker for Dallas. Zeke is still elite, but he saw a slight drop in his statistics and explosive ability, mostly due to the fact that his heavy workloads in past seasons are beginning to creep up on him. Elliott has been productive, but as I said, he’s starting to slightly decline already, and it gets worse.
The Cowboys were only going 8-8 this season, and largely in part to his large contract, Dallas is now having trouble signing their franchise quarterback Dak Prescott to a new contract. Not too mention, with the Cowboys O-Line and improving pass attack, I have complete confidence they could still establish a successful run game with a lesser, but cheaper running back.
3. Le’Veon Bell, Age 28
Although Bell is 28 years old and he’s still a solid running back, he most definitely hit the decline last season. After sitting out the ‘18-’19 season, Bell signed a big deal with the New York Jets, and this past season was most definitely his worst. He had career lows in RUSH TDs, Y/A, and A/G.
Although I do believe part of that is he stepped into a much worse scheme with a big downgrade at O-Line in New York compared to Pittsburgh, but it’s also clear, Bell just isn’t the same player he used to be, and the Jets finished under .500 last season. It’s safe to say, Bell shouldn’t be making this type of money.
4. David Johnson, Age 28
Despite already being 28, Johnson has only been in the NFL for 5 seasons, and he started hitting the brakes at year 3. After a very good rookie campaign, Johnson had a monster 2016-2017 campaign, and the hype was as high as ever for Johnson. After that, Arizona gets in extension talks with him, and sure enough, he gets hurt week 1 the next year and misses the entire season.
After his season ending injury, he was able to play the entire 2018-2019 season, but he wasn’t the same player. Last season, Johnson got off to a solid start, but eventually got hurt and saw very few touches when he came back.
5. Derrick Henry, Age 26
So far, Henry has been worth his contract. In his first 2 seasons, Henry was more or less just a backup, but in ‘18-’19, Henry stepped up as the starter, and after a breakout 2nd half to his season, Henry finished with over 1,000 rushing yards. Last season, Henry took that end of the year heat and carried it over to last season. He led the league in RUSH ATT, RUSH YDs, RUSH TDs, and Y/G last season, and he really helped Tennessee get all the way to the AFC Championship.
However, I will bet a lot, and I mean a lot of money on the fact that last season will be his best season, and Henry is due for a decline this year. So far the contract has been worth it, but that may not be true for too much longer.
6. Joe Mixon, Age 24
So far, Mixon has had a pretty good career in terms of production. Last season, Mixon got off to a slow start, but he was able to heat things up towards the end of the season. To be fair, however, Mixon was playing behind a terrible O-Line, he had a banged up receiving core, and poor quarterback play, and the Bengals were the worst team in the NFL last season.
This season, the O-Line will get better, the receiving core is healthy again, and Joe Burrow is in at quarterback. Pair that with Mixon’s hot streak to end last season, I believe Mixon may very well break out this season, but I’m not sure it will translate into much winning.
7. Kenyan Drake, Age 26
After spending the first 3 and a half seasons in a split backfield with the Miami Dolphins, Kenyan Drake was traded at last season’s trade deadline to the Arizona Cardinals. In his 8 games with Arizona, he started all 8 games and played the best football of his career. Drake recorded 8 RUSH TDs and 5.2 Y/A.
If Drake can carry over that hot streak to this season, that would be great, but the problem is, Drake is currently in a boot, and although he’s expected to play week 1, it could be a setback.
Even if Drake does manage to carry over that hot streak, which will be tough enough, the Cardinals have already proven they have a great scheme for running backs, and they could easily be saving themselves a lot of money by plugging in a much cheaper option that they’d get very similar production from. Plus, I’m still waiting for Drake’s play to actually translate into wins.
8. Melvin Gordon, Age 27
When you look at Gordon’s 5 year career so far, he’s been very consistent on a year to year basis, and he may just be one of those durable running backs that sustains a long-ish career. Gordon just got this deal and he hasn’t played in Denver yet, so we can’t really do to much judging.
It’s safe to say there are much worse deals on this list, but even if Gordon can carry over his recent production into this season, I would much rather take that money he’s getting and use it to upgrade the O-Line or something like that and grab a cheaper back to pair with Lindsay if I were Denver.
9. Saquon Barkley, Age 23
Coming out of college, people were raving about Barkley, and rightfully so. Barkley is a special, special talent, and in his rookie season, he already put himself in the discussion for best running back in the NFL. Last season, however, Barkley suffered an injury early on in the season, and he wasn’t as dominant when he did play.
At the end of the day, I do expect Barkley to bounce back. When you look at it, he is the face of the franchise, and he’s guy that affects both the run and pass game, similar to CMC.
Plus, the Giants really don’t have guys they need to pay at the moment, so although this is living proof running backs don’t really translate into wins, which we’ll talk about in a bit, I can live with this contract, although I think pushing $8 million dollars for a running back is pretty funny.
10. Austin Ekeler, Age 25
If you know me, I love Austin Ekeler. I just think he’s a great guy, I love his style of play, and of course, I called his breakout season last year. As a runner, Ekeler is solid, but nothing special. However, Ekeler really makes his money as a pass catcher.
For a running back, Ekeler is as good as it gets for a receiving back, and he’s a beast in the open field, with his speed, shifty twitch, vision, and ability to break tackles, Ekeler is an elite receiving back. As I mentioned before, that value in the pass game is what really gives a running back value.
With that being said, as much as I love Ekeler, and as much as I don’t think this is an awful deal for Los Angeles by any means, Anthony Lynn is a former running back coach, and frankly an expert when it comes to running backs. He develops these running backs, builds a great scheme for them, and utilizes them so well.
I believe the Chargers could get a cheaper running back and get close to the same total production Ekeler gives you, and you could use that extra $5 million dollars or so to upgrade other spots on the roster.
11. Todd Gurley, Age 26
This is a great example of 2nd contracts failing. After a great start to his career, the Rams decided to give Gurley a big, long term deal. Unfortunately, nearly as soon as Gurley signed the deal, it was discovered Gurley had arthritis in his knees, and it’s led to durability problems ever since.
The Rams are now up against the cap, largely due to that contract, and the best part is, the Rams had to cut him and they’re now paying Gurley over $5 million dollars to run the ball for the Atlanta Falcons.
12. Duke Johnson, Age 26
Duke Johnson is an underrated backup, but that’s the key word there, backup. I like Duke Johnson, and he’s a solid receiving back, but he’s a backup. I’m reluctant to pay top tier running back $5 million dollar deals, so you could only imagine what I think about a backup making this type of money.
Out of these top 12 paid running backs, only 1 of them made the Playoffs last season. When you pay these running backs big 2nd contracts, they hardly ever live up to it, and even if they do, your spending a ton of money on a position of very little value, and it handcuffs you from building an elite team as you don’t have the money to pay other players at more valuable positions.
Now, the reason these 2nd contracts typically fail is if a running back is getting a significant 2nd contract, that means they were productive to start their careers, which means a lot of touches. As we said before, running back is a very short lived position, in fact, it has the shortest average career span in the NFL, so running backs’ primes don’t last for long, and as I pointed out earlier, the average Pro Bowl age for a running back is 24.5.
So, by the time they get their 2nd contract, that running back is about to hit the decline, or they’ve actually already started to. This leaves teams with wasted cap space on running backs that are a shell of themselves by the time they get a year or two into the deal.
Running Backs Don’t Impact Very Much To Winning
As previously stated, it’s a passers league. Passing the football is much more effective and efficient than running the football, and it’s why every team throws the football more than they run it. The value of the running back position is very, very low, and it’s one of, if not the least valuable position in football.
Let’s take a look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I know this isn’t a perfect metric, but I still think it holds some relevance in this instance.
From 2006 to 2018, 11 quarterbacks and 2 running backs won the MVP award. On average, the 11 quarterbacks had a WAR of 4.01. The 2 running backs, which were LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson, who keep in mind, won MVP and just had two of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a running back, they averaged a WAR of 0.32 and were the two lowest on the list in terms of WAR.
This essentially means they didn’t even add a win to their teams. I do think this stat has its flaws, but it makes sense considering running back isn’t very valuable to winning in today’s era, even if your elite.
To take an even closer look, Cam Newton ranked 10/13 on this list, which makes sense considering he did a lot of his damage running the football. People try saying this metric is biased towards passing stats, but it’s job is to value a players impact to winning football games, and running the football doesn’t play nearly as big of a factor in success compared to throwing the football. Now, let’s take a look at the Super Bowl winners starting running back.
‘19-’20: Damien Williams
‘18-’19: Sony Michel
‘17-’18: LeGarrette Blount
‘16-’17: LeGarrette Blount
‘15-’16: Ronnie Hillman
I mean, this is just getting too obvious. These are all the starting running backs for the past 5 Super Bowl winning teams. None of these running backs here made over $2.4 million dollars. These teams were smart with their money, saving it to utilize that money on more valuable positions.
When you pay a running back the big bucks, you’re basically throwing money away, and that handcuffs your ability to build a Super Bowl roster. Running back by committee full of cheap running backs is the way to go folks!
The evidence is just stacked up against running backs here. Paying running backs just makes no sense. You can go with a running back by committee which only costs a couple million dollars, and you can get near the same production you would get from some top dollar running back. Running backs hardly translate to many wins, and it’s arguably the least valuable position in the league. It’s so easy to pick up cheap running backs and still have a successful run game. By paying 1 running back big money, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket that’s about to break down. By paying them all that money, it handcuffs your ability to build a Super Bowl winning team. Paying running backs just makes no sense. You don’t get results, and the logic just isn’t there. All in all though, I think I’ve said everything I need to say, so I rest my case. If there’s one thing you learned today, I hope you learned that you should not pay running backs!