For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, an NFL running back is getting paid. On Tuesday, the Rams and Todd Gurley agreed to a four-year contract extension with $45 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal ultimately could be worth up to $60 million, and would keep the AP Offensive Player of the Year in Los Angeles through the 2023 season.
Gurley’s new deal doesn’t just reset the going rate in the running back market—it obliterates it.
For years now, running backs have failed to ink large-money contracts. Before Tuesday, the three running backs with the most money guaranteed at signing were all on rookie deals. Rookie-contract players also made up six of the top 10 by that metric, and as Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner pointed out in April, based on the average of the top-10 cap hits at a given position, only kickers and punters have a lower cap hit than running backs.
(This is the part where we need to take a breather and soak in the fact Saquon Barkley, who has never set foot on an NFL field, had the highest guaranteed money for a running back before Tuesday. There is no better representation of how much the value of running backs has—had?— cratered than that.)
Since roughly 2011, when the Vikings gave Adrian Peterson a $100 million deal with $36 million guaranteed, there just hasn’t been a market for veteran backs. Their relatively short careers ensure that they play out many of their best years on rookie deals, and by the time they come up for an extension, teams are hesitant to make big, long-term offers to backs who are now aging. Gurley will be just 24 this season, so age isn’t an issue yet, but this deal is surprising because the Rams still had two years of team control left on his rookie contract. Gurley’s new contract value is nearly $20 million higher than the next-highest-paid rusher (Devonta Freeman, at $41.25 million) and his guaranteed money is nearly $15 million higher than the next-highest (Barkley, at $31.2 million).
This is a huge boon for the running back market, and it has a massive, immediate impact on other top running backs with negotiations either happening now or coming up—that includes Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Melvin Gordon. For Bell in particular, this deal is huge: He wasn’t able to come to terms on a larger deal with the Steelers this offseason after the franchise offered him a deal with only $10 million guaranteed and $33 million in a “rolling guaranteed” structure that … doesn’t sound like it’s actually guaranteed. This season he’ll play on the franchise tag for a second consecutive year, and Gurley’s deal will serve as a benchmark for him in 2019. This fact has not been lost on Bell:
lol and ppl thought I was trippin?...— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 24, 2018
Though this improves the earning power of top running backs, it still doesn’t catch the position up with the rest of the league’s skill positions. Just look at Gurley’s teammate Brandin Cooks: The Rams re-signed Cooks last week to a $16 million-per-year deal, while Gurley just got $15 million per year. Yet Gurley should be more valuable than Cooks by almost any metric: He’s a year younger, he’s a better player at his position, he actually played with L.A. last season, and he had nearly double the yards from scrimmage last year than Cooks did. And Gurley isn’t strictly a runner—his 788 receiving yards last season ranked second to Alvin Kamara among running backs—which helps explain why he got such an earth-shattering deal. But he’s still a rusher by trade, and even with this deal, it’s clear that NFL teams value pass catching above rushing.
Earlier in July, Gurley suggested that NFL players should receive fully guaranteed contracts (like NBA players) and that the NFLPA should consider a “lockout” in a couple of years when the current CBA ends. A few days after suggesting that, he clarified his meaning with the Los Angeles Times:
“Us NFL players, we’re just mad about NBA contracts right now, that’s all,” he said. “I just want like $80 million. Those guys are getting like $150 [million]. It’s crazy. It’s insane.”
He didn’t quite get $150 million or even $80 million, but Gurley did do enough to earn himself the richest deal ever for a running back, and his contract may earn his colleagues a decent pay day as well.