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Why running backs are so devalued in the NFL now

Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants celebrates his second quarter touchdown against the Washington Commanders at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 4, 2022. Credit: Jim McIsaac

An old song has been rattling around Joel Corry’s head recently. Just about every day the twangy ditty pops up in his thoughts — with, of course, a minor change to the lyrics. Sometimes the former NFL agent even sings the line aloud: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs.

Mark Dominik is a former NFL general manager. While he doesn’t rely on the musical version of the advice, he does share a similar sentiment with just about everyone he encounters.

“Teach your kids to throw and catch,” he said. “But run the ball? No.”

Welcome to the NFL in 2023, where many of the most productive and popular players in the league play a position for which hardly any team is willing to pay the big bucks that superstars generally garner. While the salary cap keeps going up and quarterback contracts keep exploding and edge rushers and offensive tackles are raking in the dough, richly rewarded running backs are becoming an endangered species. Of the top 100 highest-paid players in the NFL based on 2023 average annual salary, none is a running back.

We see this phenomenon playing out here as the Giants and Saquon Barkley enter the final month of their staring contest over a (somewhat) long-term extension. The two sides have been trying to hammer out a contract for almost eight months, with the Giants’ offers on and off the table at various times. And yet, barring a deal before the July 17 deadline, Barkley almost certainly will play the 2023 season under the franchise tag. Yes, he will get a guaranteed salary of $10.091 million, but he will not have the long-term security afforded to his friend and teammate, Daniel Jones, who recently signed a four year, $160 million contract.

Barkley is the best and most visible player on the team, the most important piece in what the Giants are building and the epitome of the culture the still-new front office and coaching staff are trying to develop. If he is as healthy and productive as he was last year, Barkley is sure to be among the top 20 players in the league in 2023. Yet there will be almost 200 NFL players who will earn more than he does.

It’s not just Barkley. Two other top running backs in the NFL — Josh Jacobs of the Raiders and Tony Pollard of the Cowboys — are facing a season on the franchise tag. Dalvin Cook, a running back who posted four straight seasons with at least 1,100 rushing yards, was released by the Vikings on June 9 and is a free agent. And Jonathan Taylor, entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Colts, knows the frustration that potentially is coming his way.

“You see why guys request trades,” Taylor said this past week. “They just want to feel valued by not only their coaches, their teammates, but the organization as well.”

Downsizing dollars

As Corry pointed out, the number of running backs making at least $12 million per year has dwindled. There were eight at the end of the 2022 season. Thanks to the tag on the three would-be free agents, Cook’s release (he was due to make $12.6 million) and a pay cut accepted by the Packers’ Aaron Jones, five currently remain in that tier heading into 2023.

Barring a change in philosophy by 2024, Corry said there probably will be only three left, with the Titans’ Derrick Henry and the Bengals’ Joe Mixon likely falling out of the club. If Christian McCaffrey’s salary- cap number becomes untenable for the 49ers (it will nearly quintuple from 2023 to 2024), there could be only two left: Alvin Kamara of the Saints and Nick Chubb of the Browns.

This isn’t a blip on the fiduciary radar, either. A look at the top career earners in NFL history at the position shows only one active player — current free agent Ezekiel Elliott — in the top nine. Reggie Bush, Frank Gore and Edgerrin James are all long retired but in the top 10. Emmitt Smith ranks seventh.

“Try to find a player who played three decades ago who is still top 10 in earnings at any other position,” Dominik said. “It shows you that this position just continues to not get paid.”

So how did we get here? How did one of the sport’s most important positions become one of its least valued?

At one point last week, when asked about Barkley’s value, assistant general manager Brandon Brown shrugged as if to indicate there is nothing the Giants can do about it.

“I just think precedent sets the market,” Brown said. “That’s something that we don’t control. We don’t. What we do is we try to forecast and react. So that’s what we’ve done. The market is the market, but I think precedent dictates where it sits.”

In the case of running backs, it isn’t so much precedent as the mounting volume of cautionary tales.

Most of the big deals that have gone to the position in the past decade have flopped. In 2018, Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million deal with the Rams and David Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Cardinals. In 2019, Le’Veon Bell, who sat out the previous season rather than play a second year on the tag, signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets. Elliott, who held out after his third season, got a six-year extension worth $90 million with Dallas. Not one of them was ever as productive as they had been before their huge paydays.

Asked if there have been any big second contracts for running backs in the past decade that have worked out for the team, Corry could only laugh.

“Teams go, ‘Eh, is it really worth it to pay a guy?” he said. “You can find a guy who can be ‘productive enough’ for a lot less money than the high-priced running back.”

Even the current benchmark at the position, the four-year, $64 million deal McCaffrey signed with the Panthers in 2020, hasn’t always looked great. He missed 23 of 33 games because of injury in 2020 and 2021. He was traded to the 49ers, and while he was a key piece in their playoff run last season and figures to play a big role in their success in 2023, his contract was restructured so his cap hit this season will be only $3.4 million. Will the 49ers keep him around when that number balloons to more than $14 million in both 2024 and 2025? Unlikely.

Corry noted that running back is the only positional market that hasn’t been reset in the three years since McCaffrey signed. McCaffrey’s average annual salary of $16.015 million, currently tops among running backs, ranks 103rd overall in the NFL.

‘Somewhat replaceable’

There are other issues at play in the devaluation of the position, too.

Dominik pointed to demand. Whereas teams generally need two or three wide receivers and five linemen, they really need only one top running back. The same is true of quarterbacks, of course, but in that case, supply comes into play. There are not 32 players out there who are legitimate starting quarterbacks, so the teams lucky enough to have one pay to keep him. It’s why the top 14 highest-paid players for 2023 are all quarterbacks and why the Giants prioritized signing Jones ahead of Barkley this offseason, even though Barkley is an objectively better player.

“They are somewhat replaceable,” Dominik said of running backs. “As you build your team . . . in terms of handing the ball off, you say, ‘As long as a guy can catch the ball and he can get downhill, maybe I don’t need that special player.’ At some point when you are talking $14-, $15-, $16 million a year at that position, you are trying to justify that versus being able to go in the draft in the second or third round and get a guy for a million.”

Kamara was the NFL’s 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year as a third-round pick. Kansas City won Super Bowl LVII with seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco as its primary ballcarrier.

Dominik, now an analyst for SiriusXM’s NFL Radio, said another calculation teams perform has to do with the wear and tear of the position. If a running back carries the ball 20 times a game and catches five passes, he probably gets hit two or three times on each of those touches. That adds up to 60 or so hits per game. A wide receiver, on the other hand, will catch 10 passes in a great game. Of those, a handful will be on the sideline or in the end zone or diving grabs where no hit takes place. Most of the tackles are one-on-one in space, so he may get popped five or eight times a game. And when he does, it’s generally by a player who weighs about 200 pounds, not the 300-pounders a running back routinely encounters.

“You look at it from that perspective and you say at some point the running back is going to have to break down,” Dominik said. “He’s just taking too big of a pounding.”

Production trumps payroll

Running backs aren’t going anywhere. They remain a valuable part of every offense. They are the rare position that is asked to run, catch and block at various points in a game, and despite the proliferation of passing in recent years, most coaches still rely on a strong running back to give balance to their offense. We still gasp at their abilities, draft them early in fantasy football and, in recent months, have mourned the passing of two all-time greats in Jim Brown and Franco Harris.

Running back remains a glamour position.

The current generation of running backs, however, probably will never see the kinds of contracts that are commensurate with that value.

“It’s the position that has the most amount of production by far,” Dominik said, “but has the least amount of money going to it.”

That includes Barkley, who, according to reports, hopes to land a deal that will pay him about $14 million per season. That’s what Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson were making when they signed their contracts . . . more than a decade ago in 2011.

There are other parts of Barkley’s negotiations in play, most notably the guaranteed money. The Giants can control him this year and next under the tag for a combined total of about $22 million. So, on paper, they have little incentive to go any higher than that with their offer.

Barkley will be a 28-year-old running back when he hits actual free agency, but the Giants also need to consider his status as a popular player in the locker room and with the fan base as well as the optics of a prolonged war with one of their keystones.

One of the biggest elements in these specific negotiations already has been settled, however.

It was established way back when Barkley was a little kid and started playing the game. He was very good at eluding tacklers with the football in his hands.

So he became a running back.

A lifetime later, that position choice may have been his biggest miscalculation.

BIG BUCKS BACKS

Top 10 highest-paid running backs in 2023 (based on average annual salary) and where they rank overall among the highest-paid players in the NFL:

Avg. salary       Player, team                            NFL salary rank

$16,015,853      Christian McCaffrey, 49ers       103

$15,000,000      Alvin Kamara, Saints                113

$12,500,000      Derrick Henry, Titans                160

$12,200,000      Nick Chubb, Browns                 169

$12,000,000      Joe Mixon, Bengals                   171

$11,500,000       Aaron Jones, Packers               179

$10,091,000*     SAQUON BARKLEY, Giants   199

$10,091,000*     Josh Jacobs, Raiders                199

$10,091,000*     Tony Pollards, Cowboys            199

$7,000,000        James Conner, Cardinals           286

*Based on franchise tag

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