June 24, 2024
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NFL running backs are angry – and peace seems a long way off | NFL

The running back market has flatlined. On Tuesday, Saquon Barkley agreed to a fresh one-year $11m contract with the New York Giants, ending any talk of a training camp holdout.

Barkley is back in New York. But his signing represents a thaw around the issue of running back pay rather than a final resolution. Barkley’s new deal did not include a clause that would prevent the Giants from using the franchise tag – which teams can use to keep hold of players due to become free agents – on him for next season, a provision a number of quarterbacks have included in their deals. Unless there’s a wink-wink deal over a long-term contract, it’s likely he will find himself in the same situation again next summer. Likewise for Jonathan Taylor, who is due a contract extension next offseason. Ditto for Nick Chubb, whose long-term contract options are also uncertain and will be 30 by the time he’s due for a new deal.

As the salary cap has risen, contracts for running backs have fallen. Backs have been hit with a double whammy: the per-year average of contracts has fallen, and with it the one-year franchise tag. The tag for backs decreased from $10.9m in 2015 to $10m this season. Compare that to the surges at quarterback ($18.5m to $32.4m) and wide receiver ($12.8m to $19.7m) over the same span – handing even more leverage to teams in long-term negotiations with their running backs.

Running backs are angry. Former players have lobbied for youngsters to switch positions in search of a better deal. Some of the best running backs in the NFL – Barkley, Chubb, Austin Ekeler, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey and Josh Jacobs – were part of a conference call to discuss the position’s declining pay and to chart ways forward.

“Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” Chubb said on Sunday. “We’re kind of handcuffed with the situation. We’re the only position that our production hurts us the most. If we go out there and run 2,000 yards with so many carries, the next year they’re going to say, you’re probably worn down. It’s tough.”

Few positions on the field take as much punishment as a back, and it’s precisely because of that that teams have pulled back on big-money deals. A back’s shelf life, the data says, is four years before their body starts to crumble and their production nosedives. But under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, their wages can be controlled by franchises for seven seasons: five years of a rookie contract (if they’re selected in the first round), with two additional tag years. As a practical team-building measure, teams have settled into two camps, either mining through the middle rounds of the draft to find cheap production at the position, or selecting a back in the first round, cycling through the six-to-seven-year run, and then moving on to someone else.

There are outliers – Derrick Henry is entering his eighth year with the Tennessee Titans. He has been consistently brilliant, and will have earned $56m when his contract expires at the end of the season. But for every Henry, you can point to Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley, stars who shone early and then faded as soon as they inked a long-term deal. Teams are no longer willing to take that risk. By the time the current crop of players hit their free-agent years, the league will be ready to move on to a new (cheaper) generation.

There’s ego at play as well as finances. Getting $5m of production from a player earning $800,000 doesn’t just make fiscal sense. It’s also a badge of honor for a front office, a sign you are smart enough to spot inefficiencies in a market filled with other smart people. The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl with Isiah Pacheco, the 251st pick in the draft, as their main running back (it helps if Patrick Mahomes is your quarterback). Teams have become wise to the idea that a good offensive line, scheme and quarterback fuel the running game as much as the individual back: A great back with a bad offensive line equals a poor run game; a great offensive line with an average back can lead the league in efficiency.

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Offensive snaps

Getting around the numbers is tough. Backs play fewer snaps, on average than other positions – even the top ones only take part in 70% of their teams’ offensive plays. And the gulf between the third-best back in the league and the 16th or 20th is slimmer than the distinction between a top tackle and a league-average pass protector. And those protectors are playing every single snap.

Most dispiriting for the players: there’s no obvious way out of the cycle. The NFL has evolved into a pass-oriented league. Running the ball in the NFL still matters, but in a hard-capped sport that’s becoming increasingly pass-centric, teams won’t pay a fortune for a rusher.

Turning from a ‘running back’ into an ‘offensive weapon’ is one way for players to level the field. Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, both backs selected in the first round of the latest draft, are as potent as receivers as they are runners. They will shuffle around the formation, providing the sort of matchup flexibility every offense craves. Replacing the skills of McCaffrey – a true receiver wherever he lines up in the formation rather than a back masquerading as a receiver – is tougher than finding another old school running back. McCaffrey has a force-multiplying effect on his offense, something that brings his on-field value closer in line with a star receiver or the great tight ends. McCaffrey has an average salary of $16m, a figure that would make him the 19th highest-paid wide receiver and the second-highest-paid tight end.

The only real solution for running backs is to switch designations. To rise through the ranks as a receiver who sometimes moves into the backfield. Deebo Samuel is set to be paid $20m starting next season, right at the top of the receiver market, because he’s dominant as a receiver and can line-up at running back.

This situation will right itself. In the NBA, the center position was devalued for years. But now there’s a new era of dominant big men in the NBA. Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis, have redefined what’s expected from a nominal ‘center’. As those three have done for basketball’s big men, Robinson and Gibbs can do the same for NFL running backs.

But that’s a long-term transition: by the time the league changes many current running backs will have retired. Quick solutions are tricky. There is little chance that the NFL Players Association will be able to agree on a carve-out for one position. The association would have to cough up a heavy concession for owners to forfeit the franchise tag, a provision that hurts only a handful of players each season.

The most logical immediate solution is one advanced by Domonique Foxworth, an ESPN analyst and a former president of the NFLPA. The NFL has an annual bonus pool for players who outperform their contracts, typically late-round picks who wind up playing a majority of their team’s snaps. “As a rookie, I ended up playing so much I earned more from the performance pool than I did with my salary,” Foxworth said on his podcast.

Tilting some of the $350m pool in favor of performance benchmarks instead of an individual’s snap count could ease some of the tensions simmering between teams and running backs. More of the bonus pool could be allocated to running backs alone, on the understanding that the two to three years in which they shine are likely to be their prime earning years, unlike other positions. The backs would earn good money, the team’s salary caps would stay intact, and there would be more transparency about how the bonus pool is rewarded.

Barkley proved on Tuesday that any notion of a mass training camp boycott by running backs is unworkable – someone is always likely to cave and take a deal. Legislating will be the way forward, and that’s unlikely to arrive in time for the current stars to cash in. But the NFL and NFLPA can act early to stop the last month of headlines from becoming an annual saga.

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