The running back position’s prestige peak occurred decades ago in the NFL. Most teams have steadily devoted fewer resources to acquiring starters at the position, leading to the job’s plummeting value, but major recent investments have thrust running backs into a strange place.
From July 2018-September 2019, contracts given to Todd Gurley (Rams), David Johnson (Cardinals), Le’Veon Bell (Jets) and Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) transformed a stagnant running back market. Those deals, for the most part, have not benefited the teams. Injuries altered the trajectories of Gurley and Johnson, and Bell has predictably struggled behind a terrible offensive line.
But the next wave of impact talents took the baton; many of this season’s premier backs came from the 2017 draft class. Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) and Dalvin Cook (Vikings) are surging toward All-Pro status, and Aaron Jones (Packers) is not far behind. Pro Bowl rosters will include them and Leonard Fournette (Jaguars), with Alvin Kamara (Saints), Marlon Mack (Colts) and former undrafted free agent Austin Ekeler (Chargers) vying for invites. Add Chris Carson (Seahawks), Joe Mixon (Bengals) and former rushing champion Kareem Hunt (Browns), and that 2017 running back class looks like one of the deepest in the common-draft era (1967-present).
That group has produced this season’s top three in yards from scrimmage, four of the top six touchdown scorers and five of the top seven in rushing yards per game. Despite some previous big-ticket backs’ stocks dropping, the position remains in good hands.
With Bell and Elliott waging memorable contract standoffs, next year promises to be one of the most interesting offseasons involving a single position in modern NFL history. All 2017 draftees become extension-eligible in January. The flood of re-up candidates set the stage for a macro reassessment of the modern running back, following a grim decade for the position. But it wasn’t always like that.
In the 1990s, 35 running backs became first-round picks. Teams’ thinking did not change much in the 2000s, when 32 backs were first-rounders. This decade’s final tally? 16, with none going in the 2013 or ’14 first rounds. Despite the impressive work the 2017 draft class has shown this season, the contract-seeking backs’ signing windows will open in the worst era for such investments.
Elite running backs’ salaries once comprised bigger chunks of teams’ payrolls. Terrell Davis signed for $7.8 million per year with Denver in July 1998, when the salary cap was barely $52 million. That salary would have ranked top five among running backs in July 2018, when the cap stood at $177 million. The needle did not move too far until the summer of 2011, when Chris Johnson signed a $13.5 million-per-year deal with Tennessee, and Adrian Peterson broke through with a $14.2 million-AAV pact with Minnesota. Those contracts soon became relics.
Peterson’s six-year, $85.3 million contract topped the market for years. Teams stopped rewarding ball-carriers on that level, as prices for other positions — including offensive linemen, who have longer shelf lives than the players they block for -– steadily rose. When Peterson’s contract came off the Vikings’ books, the highest-paid running back salary stood at barely $8 million.
Select franchises have taken renewed interest in the position, with Elliott, Fournette and Saquon Barkley (Giants) going in the top five from 2016-18. But the injuries to Gurley and David Johnson, and Bell’s $13.25 million-per-year Jets deal generating 3.1 yards per carry through nine games surely have franchises reevaluating running backs’ worth. How they proceed in 2020 will be telling.
The Panthers and Saints, respectively, rely on the versatility McCaffrey and Kamara provide. They are the modern prototypes, working as premier aerial weapons as well as between-the-tackles runners. McCaffrey is on pace to threaten Chris Johnson’s season scrimmage yards record (2,509); Kamara has made two Pro Bowls and joins Michael Thomas in a dual-engine Saints offense. Although Fournette has a throwback skill set, he drives the Jaguars’ offense.
Expect extension talks to commence between these three and their respective South division teams next year, with McCaffrey and Kamara possessing intriguing leverage for big-money deals. The others’ negotiating positions — including that of Cook, who plays in a system notorious for running back turnover — are not as powerful.
Elliott holding out after three years and landing a record $15 million-per-year extension should provide a blueprint for McCaffrey and Kamara. Although McCaffrey can be controlled through 2021 via the fifth-year option, he should strongly consider holding out in 2020 rather than risk greater mileage and/or an injury decreasing his value. Fournette’s deal also has a fifth-year option, but because he has not demonstrated McCaffrey-like value, the Jaguars should have more time to consider their options.
The Cook-Kamara-Jones-Mack-Mixon-Carson contingent will enter 2020 on expiring contracts, forcing their teams to make decisions. The uncharted territory between the top tier (north of $13 million annually) and the stratum of Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (approximately $8 million AAV) figures to be explored. It would behoove teams seeking to retain their backs long term to strike early, with the prospect of the next CBA changing the landscape.
As the cap keeps spiking by around $10 million each year, the gulf between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 running back salary spectrum will represent better value than it did during the mid-2010s. However, organizations may play hardball with their backs because of the position’s replaceability, short lifespan and the fallout from the mistakes of the Rams, Cardinals and Jets. Some of these players will then advance to free agency in 2021, making that market unusually interesting.
On the field, this class is on track to push that of 2008 — which produced Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Jonathan Stewart and Ray Rice — as the 21st century’s best. With nearly a third of next year’s depth charts likely to have a 2017 draftee or UDFA in first-string running back slots, the 15 months between January 2020 and March 2021 will bring major developments for one of the NFL’s most recognizable positions.
And the latest rising talents will play pivotal roles in how the NFL views the running back position in the 2020s.
By: Sam Robinson