“People don’t know what they want, bro,” Rams running back Todd Gurley told me last week, when I asked him about the current conversation around the declining value of running backs, a popular topic in NFL front offices these days.
“You draft a running back in the first round, he does it all,” Gurley said at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles honoring the Gatorade National High School Players of the Year. “But it’s ‘Oh, you’re paying him all this money, he needs to learn how to catch.’ Or ‘He needs to learn how to run.’ If he’s not a first-round pick, people say, ‘Oh, we got him so cheap. I’m so glad we have him.’ And then when he does something wrong, it’s ‘Get rid of him. No wonder he wasn’t a first-round pick.’” Gurley sounded, well, frustrated, so I asked him if that was indeed the case. “I don’t care,” he shot back. “I just score touchdowns.”
Gurley, of course, is not wrong. He has scored 46 touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2015 and has been, perhaps, the league’s premier back. What that means in 2019 is a matter of discussion inside NFL facilities and on the internet. Running backs still take as many snaps as they used to, and in many ways, they’re thriving, but according to nearly every metric, they are, with few exceptions, replaceable. Determining their value has become one of the most pressing debates in the sport. This is not another meditation on the value of the running back—this is about what happens next.
Last week, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon said he would hold out of training camp or demand a trade if he was not given a new contract; this week, there are rumblings that Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is also considering holding out. ProFootballTalk reported that Elliott has privately said he’ll hold out if he doesn’t get a new deal. Yahoo’s Charles Robinson thinks Elliott’s extension talks “could go sideways fast” and that this is a pivotal week in the negotiations. Elliott’s negotiation may end up being an outlier—Dallas owner Jerry Jones generally really likes to pay his star players—but we’re likely seeing the end of the seemingly automatic big-money extension that previous generations of running backs received. It seems impossible to think that any running back will match the $99 million Adrian Peterson has made in his career, or even Frank Gore’s $60 million. Emmitt Smith, who’s been retired for 15 years, made more money in his career than all but one active back despite a salary cap that’s about $100 million higher than it was in Smith’s last season in the sport. The best days of the running back market are in the past. This evolution is probably smart for efficient team-building, but it also deeply sucks if you are currently an NFL running back.
Gordon acknowledged this summer that running backs have become devalued and that he’s trying to resuscitate their worth. This comes in the aftermath of Le’Veon Bell’s contentious negotiations with the Steelers last year, when one of the most dynamic backs in the game skipped an entire season because he was not offered the extension he desired. In March, Bell signed with the Jets for similar terms that were offered to him by the Steelers, further evidence that there is very little running backs can do to stem the depreciating value of their position. The four-year, cost-controlled rookie deals that the NFL instituted in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement don’t help in this regard.
It’s essentially an unsolvable problem: No other position in sports features so little chance for future earnings. Running backs are affected by this most acutely, but at some point it will become a problem for teams as well. First, there must be some talent-pool problems on the horizon, though those might take a generation to reveal themselves. More immediately, if running backs feel as though they will not be rewarded for their prime seasons, they might hold out earlier in their rookie contracts in hopes of getting an extension sooner. It could affect negotiations for the new CBA. We might see pass-catching running backs change positions to become wide receivers. We might see many drastic effects if an entire position is left behind.
What makes this problem so strange is that it’s not as though running backs are being cycled out of the modern game, even as their earning potential dwindles. Running backs will always have jobs; they just won’t be compensated for them as well as they have been in the past. Passing to a running back is more important than ever. Play-action, which by definition requires the presence of someone calling themselves a running back, is more important to the passing game than ever before. NFL teams mostly think the running part is less important than ever, and so, too, is paying the players who do it.
Even more strangely, the NFL currently has a golden generation of talented running backs. Gurley, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, and the Giants’ Saquon Barkley are as talented as any in recent memory. What’s changed is how much we’ve learned about the position and how ruthlessly teams monitor spending. The 2011 CBA, which introduced a rookie wage scale, as well as analytics-fueled studies of running back worth (or lack thereof) made it so all but the best running backs would be traded after their rookie deals were up, or sooner. The running back position will be the epicenter of the most contentious negotiations in a league full of them. The future is not pretty.
The NFL has a lot of money to spend—the cap has risen by about $60 million in seven years—and running backs are lagging far behind. In 2018, the position’s franchise tag number—the average of the top 10 salaries—was lower than it was five years earlier. Gordon and Elliott are not the first running backs to be upset at their lack of value—and they won’t be the last—but they are part of the new normal.
Seemingly every week, there’s new evidence that passing efficiency is more important to an offense’s success than running the ball. The passing game has become much more efficient to the point it’s becoming even more valuable than the run used to be. FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer, in a shocking study earlier this year, found that “96 percent of yards-per-carry totals are explained by the offense’s field position and the number of men the opponent has in the box.” In The Athletic this week, an NBA general manager took a stray shot at drafting a running back, saying investing a high pick at the position is a “wasting your time,” much like with an NBA center. Cowboys analyst Marcus Mosher pointed out that Elliott’s success is not unlike former Dallas running back DeMarco Murray’s. The Cowboys ran Murray 392 times in 2014, then let him leave in free agency instead of signing him to a meaty extension.
The challenge Gordon faces is almost stunning: According to Pro Football Focus’s Kevin Cole, Gordon’s most similar player comparisons are Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, and Maurice Jones-Drew, who combined to make about $140 million despite all entering the league during the George W. Bush administration. Gordon and Elliott face an uphill battle to make as much as the generations before them despite similar levels of production. The four-year, $58 million deal Gurley signed last year didn’t reset the market: It might even become an albatross with Gurley battling a knee injury. The Rams have responded by investing a third-round pick in Darrell Henderson and matching an offer sheet for Gurley’s backup, Malcolm Brown.
The future for the vast majority of running backs includes holdouts and trade demands. Gordon and Elliott may get their deals, or they may have to go Bell’s route to get a sizable chunk of money. In a sport dedicated to making sure that players have no leverage, the running back may have the least by a wide margin.
The next few years will tell us a lot about how low the running back market will fall. Kamara, Barkley, Gordon, Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey are versatile backs who will be looking for big deals, and there are a decent chunk of teams that don’t want to hand them out. For now, the only thing they can do is what Gurley said he’ll do: just keep scoring touchdowns.