Running Backs De-Valued in NFL

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jamaal Charles revived his career under head coach Andy Reid, as he led the Kansas City Chiefs in both rushing and receiving. At times, he single-handedly carried the offense, including erupting for FIVE touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders. He had 1000 more rushing yards than the team’s backup RB Knile Davis, 200 yards receiving more than Dwyane Bowe, and 13 more receptions than the Bowe, the team’s leading wide receiver. Charles has rushed for at least 1100 yards in four of the past five seasons – the lone exception in 2011 when he tore his ACL – and he accounted for 35% of Kansas City’s offense last season. Yet, Charles signed a well below market value contract, a recurring theme for running backs in this new era of pass-happy offenses.

Charles will now earn $8.3 million this season, which more than doubles the $3.9 million he was scheduled to earn, and increases the total value of his original contract by $18 million. The total value of his contract now goes from $28 million to $46 million. Sounds like a lot right? WRONG. Bowe, who has completely underperformed compared to Charles, received a 5-year, $56 million contract from the Chiefs with $26 million guaranteed. And the Chiefs until a week ago paid Charles HALF the amount they paid Bowe with Charles giving 10 times the production as Bowe.

While Bowe makes 10 figures annually, Charles becomes the NFL’s second-highest paid running back behind Adrian Peterson’s $11.75 million. Over 10 wide receivers will earn more money in 2014 than Charles, even though Charles is arguably the best playmaker in the league. Roddy White, possibly the second best receiver on his own TEAM, just signed a 4-year/$30 million extension through 2018, when he will turn 37 years old.

Jamaal Charles led the team in rushing and receiving yards and TD's yet made considerably less money than Dwayne Bowe (Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports)

Jamaal Charles led the team in rushing and receiving yards and TD’s yet made considerably less money than Dwayne Bowe (Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports)

 

Tight ends, once a heavily underpaid position, continue to make more money than ever before. In the past five years alone, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, and now Jimmy Graham have now signed the richest annual deals for tight ends in league history. Graham has signed the first contract with an APY of 10 figures at $10 million annually (total 4 years, $40 million), after Gronkowski just signed a 6-year/$54 million less than two years ago. Kyle Rudolph, probably the 4th weapon on Minnesota’s team behind AP, Greg Jennings, and Cordarelle Patterson, just signed a $40 million deal. Like wide receivers, the value of tight ends has trended upwards.

Running backs cannot buy the same level of assuredness with their security. Look no further than Marshawn Lynch, who is currently holding out in fear the team will cut him after this season due to a high 2015 cap number. Lynch will become a likely cap casualty next season since he will count $9 million against the cap. He will only earn $5 million in base salary next season and $5.5 million next season, still WELL below market value. He has averaged over four yards per carry, scored double-digit rush TD’s, and rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of the past four seasons. He has carried the ball at least 300 times each of the past two years. He has tremendous value both in short yardage and open field situations.

Lynch led the league with 750 yards AFTER contact and had broke 75 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. In comparison, Adrian Peterson finished second with only 58 broken tackles. He delivered a clutch 40-yard touchdown run, has scored six touchdowns in the past two postseasons, and had arguably the greatest run in NFL History. Now, due to durability concerns with running backs, the Seahawks have tried to shortchange Lynch and get ready for his successor. Lynch is not the only quality running back becoming devalued.

This offseason alone, several quality running backs have received deals with an APY of under $3 million per year. Each contract also has a short length. Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart received the two largest running back contracts this offseason at 3 years/$10.5 million. Knowshon Moreno, who stood alongside Peyton Manning in the backfield of the greatest statistical offense in NFL history, only signed a one-year/$3 million deal with the Miami Dolphins at 27 years old. LeGarrette Blount, coming off a season for New England averaging 5 yards per carry and scoring four touchdowns in the divisional game against the Colts, only received a 2-year/$3.85 million deal with the Steelers, averaging UNDER two million a season.

Despite the salary cap soaring $10 million this year – rising from $123 million to $133 million – contracts handed out to running backs have vastly diminished. The TV deals and overall growth of the NFL will almost assuredly increase the salary cap number in the immediate future yet teams have committed less percentage of their cap to running backs. Adrian Peterson’s 7-year/$96 million contract may end up as one of the final running back contracts approaching $100 million.

Teams have cautioned against paying running backs due to the high wear and tear associated with the position. The Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans have received disastrous returns for dishing out large contracts to their star running backs Chris Johnson and Arian Foster. The Titans released Johnson just one year into his 4-year/$53.975 million contract, while Foster had his worst season of his career in 2013 after signing his 5-year/$43.5 million contract.

Chris Johnson was released one season into his $53.75 million contract (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Chris Johnson was released one season into his $53.75 million contract (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The Dallas Cowboys entered this season with the worst cap situation in the entire league largely due to overpaying running backs. They handed out large contracts to Julius Jones, Marion Barber, and Felix Jones and each player performed horribly after signing their big deals. The Seahawks signed Shaun Alexander to an EIGHT-year/$62 million deal after rushing for 1880 yards in 2005. He did not combine to rush for that yardage the remainder of his career. Rashard Mendenhall just called it quits in the NFL after just turning 26 without any lingering injuries.

Despite a current pass-happy NFL, running backs averaged the most touches per game out of all position players, according to Football Outsiders. Every good team needs a good running back but will not break the bank to get a good one. Since running backs typically last an average of three years in the league, teams usually try to recycle college running backs as much as possible before replacing them with younger options.

Another significant issue facing running backs is the LACK of young talent in the position. Out of the 13 running backs who rushed for over 1,000 yards, only TWO – Alfred Morris (25) and Eddie Lacy (24) – were 25 or under. Either teams have increasingly abandoned the rushing attack or have yet to find a quality running back to carry the load. ZERO teams drafted a running back in the first round of this year’s draft, while six different WR’s or TE’s were taken in the first 32 picks. Tennessee took the first running back in the draft with the FIFTY-FOURTH pick.

Yet, the lack of talent at this position should place a higher premium at this position. If elite players like Charles, Lynch, AP, and LeSean McCoy are scarce in the league, why should they make less money when they make such a huge impact on the game? Out of the bottom 10 teams in rushing offense, only New Orleans made the playoffs in 2013. The top four rushing teams in the league made the playoffs in 2012, and the Baltimore Ravens dropped from 11th in 2012 to 30th in 2013 in team rushing. That was the difference between winning the Super Bowl and watching the playoffs at home.

Elite wideouts and tight ends usually touch the ball an average of eight times per game and as Larry Fitzgerald has found out, an elite quarterback is required for these players to succeed. Randy Moss went from having the worst season in his professional career playing in Oakland in 2006 to having the one of the greatest seasons in NFL History by a receiver playing with Tom Brady in 2007. On the other hand, Adrian Peterson’s 2,097-yard season playing with CHRISTIAN PONDER at quarterback led the Vikings to the playoffs in 2012.

Great running backs can single-handedly put teams in position to win a game. Yes, running backs need an adequate offensive line to maximize their running abilities, but they do not need a decent throw to make plays like tight ends or wide receivers. Like Giovanni Bernard’s run in Miami last season, running backs can make something out of nothing. Teams should start paying more respect to the best running backs and pay them fair value before they start to wear down. It’s an absolute joke that Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald can receive $100 million contracts, while no running back can crack that figure even though they have an extremely significant impact on the games.