“The NFL is a passing league.” “Running backs don’t matter. “ “I wouldn’t take a running back in the first round, ever.” “Signing backs to big extensions is always a bad idea.”
These, and more, have been said over the last decade as things change in football. Despite the fact that running backs are keys to the game in high school and college, they have been mostly used and discarded at the pro level.
The Cleveland Browns went against what many expected from an “analytics” led front office to do with RB Nick Chubb. Chubb’s three-year extension for over $36 million is the fourth-highest total contract at his position.
Comparing positions, Chubb’s contract wouldn’t crack the top 20 for quarterbacks or wide receivers.
Monday was the deadline for franchise-tagged players to reach long-term deals with their teams. TE Evan Engram was able to come to an agreement but three running backs did not: Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard.
The failure for the three franchised tagged running backs failing to get extensions has reignited the conversation about running back value.
Christian McCaffrey, the highest paid per year back, didn’t mince words:
This is Criminal. Three of the best PLAYERS in the entire league, regardless of position. https://t.co/zDXRS5cGdu— Christian McCaffrey (@CMC_22) July 17, 2023
While McCaffrey responded to the news, three other top running backs responded to ESPN’s Matt Miller’s take on running back:
At this point , just take the RB position out the game then . The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization , just seems like it don’t even matter . I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve . https://t.co/OgvBWZCKvn— Derrick Henry (@KingHenry_2) July 17, 2023
1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.— Jonathan Taylor (@JayT23) July 17, 2023
2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed.
…If you succeed…
3. You boost the Organization
Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB https://t.co/mG6In1ATGg
This is the kind of trash that has artificially devalued one of the most important positions in the game. Everyone knows it’s tough to win without a top RB and yet they act like we are discardable widgets. I support any RB doing whatever it takes to get his bag. https://t.co/sRYfAKwrpQ— Austin Ekeler (@AustinEkeler) July 17, 2023
While Derrick Henry is already one of the top paid at his position, Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler are known to be looking for big deals coming their way.
Unlike the Browns with Chubb, most teams are showing what they think of running backs with their contract decisions. The New York Giants paid QB Daniel Jones a big deal despite continued questions about his ability to play at a high level. Instead of paying Pollard, the Dallas Cowboys traded for Brandin Cooks despite having Michael Gallup already making over $50 million and CeeDee Lamb up for a big new deal soon at wide receiver.
The Los Angeles Chargers, Ekeler’s team, refused his request for a contract extension this offseason having invested $60 million in Mike Williams last season and having Keenan Allen making $20 million a year.
Joe Mixon just took a pay cut to stick with the Cincinnati Bengals before they look to pay an overwhelming amount of money to Joe Burrow, JaMarr Chase and Tee Higgins.
One of the many reasons that running backs have struggled to get a big deal is the value of the franchise tag. The only tag that costs less is for a kicker or punter. Not only that but the value of the tag has actually gone down as the salary cap has risen:
The cost to franchise tag top running backs is just so low for teams to pass up. Consider:— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) July 17, 2023
QB tag in 2015 was $18.5m. Now $32.4m.
WR tag in 2015 was $12.8m. Now $19.7m.
RB tag in 2015 cost $10.9m. Now $10.1m!!!
While all other tag prices have risen… the RB tag has gone DOWN.
While the NFL can be cyclical in nature, Chubb’s extension could be the last one for running backs in the near future. If Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard can’t get multi-year contracts, it will be tough for Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Taylor and others when their free agency hits. Instead, expect teams to place the franchise tag on their back for a year or two before moving on to a cheap draft pick as Miller suggested.
Are you surprised by how quickly running back contracts have fallen? Surprised that the Browns and Chubb worked out a deal?