The Devaluation of the NFL Running Back


It was not that long ago that the NFL Running Back was considered one of the premier pay positions in the league.  The runners were the star of the team and were considered to go hand in hand with the QB position. For a pretty long period of time the great teams in the NFL were a partnership of quarterback and running back and the running back was a premier pay and draft position. But a number of factors ranging from rules changes to injuries to advances in analytics used in roster management the running back has become one of the lesser valued spots in the NFL. As free agency now draws to a close I think we can say that the position may have hit rock bottom.

The amount of money being spent this year on running backs is next to nothing. Going into free agency there was talk of the Texans’ Ben Tate earning up to $7 million a season and the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno getting in the $5 million a year range. The two ended up signing short term contracts worth about $3 million a season and a total of $3.75 million in full guarantees between the two of them. In fact things have become so bad for the position that since last season we can now compare the running back market with that of the kicker.

To compare the two I wanted to look at the top 10 contracts by annual value signed for both positions, according to my records, since the start of 2013 training camp (I don’t have terms for Maurice Jones Drew to include). The top running back contract I believe was signed by Marcel Reece, who is actually a fullback, who earned $3.67 million a year. The highest full guarantee belonged to Darren Sproles who received $5.5 million from the Eagles in his recent two year extension.  The bottom of the list is Bruce Miller, also a fullback, who earned a $1.8 million a year contract extension from the 49ers. The full list of runners that I am using are Reece, Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart, Sproles, Tate, Joique Bell, Moreno, Rashad Jennings, Pierre Thomas, Bruce Miller, and McFadden.

The high end contract for kickers was Sebastian Janikowski’s $3.775 million a year extension that was given by the Raiders last August. It also had the highest guarantee of anyone with an $8 million guarantee.  The low end deal would be Josh Brown’s new deal with the Giants which averages $1.25 million a season and just has $100,000 in guarantees. My top 10 kicker deals are Janikowski, Robbie Gould, Dan Bailey, Graham Gano, Phil Dawson, Nick Folk, Steven Hauschka, Adam Vinatieri, Dan Carpenter, and Brown.

Here is the graphical breakdown of how the positions fared since 2013 training camp:

running back vs kicker

In basically every financial metric the running back is now running alongside the kicker. The lone category where the running back is doing considerably better is the percentage of guarantee. Their full guarantee represents about 44% of the total contract value compared to 30% for kickers. That is due to the short contract terms of the runners, who average 2.8 years, compared to the kickers, who average 3.6.

The question runners will need to ask themselves is if free agency the last two years is indicative of where the position is now headed and how fast the market will get down to this spot. The top of the running back market is still much higher than that of kickers as the new deals signed by kickers represent some of the highest deals for the position, while no new running back contracts are near the top of the position.

The problem for star runners who could be hitting free agency soon, such as CJ Spiller and Ryan Mathews, is the lack of players that will remain active who earn a reasonable salary for them to use as a point of comparison. There are currently 10 players on veteran contracts who earn more than $5 million a season. How many will last by the start of 2015’s free agency period is certainly open for debate.

Chris Johnson’s $13.4 million contract represents one of the last terrible decision “old era” type contracts. Johnson has been a disappointment since signing his contract extension, never showing the same abilities as he did in the first two years of his career when he earned the nickname CJ2K. The Titans will likely release him this season if he will not agree to a massive reduction in salary. He still has tremendous “name value” but how far that takes him will probably signal if the market in the future will have any legs for growth.

The Eagles LeSean McCoy averages $9 million a year, but with a $10.25 million cash number in 2015 and the new presence of Sproles it likely signals that that, long term, McCoy’s usefulness is in doubt. Arian Foster’s $8.7 million a year contract may already be in jeopardy as his body is breaking down after five seasons in the NFL.  The Seahawks have likely already drafted the replacement for workhorse back Marshawn Lynch, who has two years remaining on his contract. He’ll survive 2014 but 2015 could be a different story as he is set to earn $2 million more than he does this season.

Jonathan Stewart, the other really “bad decision” running back along with Johnson, is only on the Panthers because of the salary cap consequences of cutting him. Ray Rice was in danger of being a June 1 cut for being ineffective and now his off the field issues make it almost a certainty that his contract will not exist come March of 2015. Finally Frank Gore, in the last year of his contract, may not make it to the fall under his current terms. San Francisco could use cap room, has younger players on the roster, and is smart enough to not allow an aging player at a lower cost position take up this much room.

Odds are the veteran running back market in 2015 will be Adrian Peterson ($14.38 million per year), Matt Forte ($7.5 million per year), Stewart ($7.3 million a year) and Jamaal Charles ($5.4 million per year). The next highest should be Reggie Bush, assuming he does not lose his job to Bell, at $4 million per season.  Nobody will compare to Peterson, who is a once in a generation talent, while Stewart is just going to be looked at as an outlier by a bad General Manager.

Moving forward we are going to be looking at a position that at best may end up no higher than $5 million and year and could be capped closer to $4 million. When you think of all the great running backs who have played in the NFL and the one time importance that had to the team it’s pretty shocking to see the devaluation to a throw away position in the NFL.  But we are almost there and it sure seems to be just a matter of months before the market for Kickers, Punters, and Running Backs will be within just a few dollars of each other.