The Devaluation of the Running Back Continues

Devonta Freeman signed a new contract today that will make him the highest paid running back in the NFL at $8.125 million per year. I mentioned on Twitter today how every time a running back signs these days its just a reminder of how much the position has been devalued in today’s game. I mentioned LaDainian Tomlinson just as a well known benchmark for the market and figured I’d expand on that here.

Running backs used to be the staple of the offense for many teams for a pretty long period of time. Most long time fantasy players certainly remember how much stock was put into that position and in turn many of those players gained following that they may not have had otherwise outside their own fanbase. So I wanted to go back in time, and I’m sure I am missing plenty of names here, just to illustrate what the market looked like during that time period.

The following table has some of the annual contract values of the bigger name backs of the era and what that annual value would be in today’s cap dollars of $167 million.

PlayerYear SignedAPYCap LimitInflated Value
Portis2004$8,200,000$80,582,000$16,993,870
Tomlinson2004$8,000,000$80,582,000$16,579,385
Holmes2003$6,900,000$75,000,000$15,364,000
J. Lewis2006$8,700,000$102,000,000$14,244,118
L. Johnson2007$8,600,000$109,134,000$13,159,968
McAllister2005$6,700,000$85,500,000$13,086,550
Alexander2006$7,700,000$102,000,000$12,606,863
S. Jackson2008$8,700,000$116,729,000$12,446,778
James2006$7,500,000$102,000,000$12,279,412
F. Taylor2006$6,600,000$102,000,000$10,805,882
Westbrook2007$7,000,000$109,134,000$10,711,602
F. Gore2007$6,900,000$109,134,000$10,558,579

The numbers are pretty staggering. Each of these players would be the equivalent of a player earning at least $10.5 million a year today. The only running back who earns that much is Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers who plays on a 1 year franchise tag. The next closest is Freeman who just signed for the $8 million number.

Now I understand that some will say that Freeman simply isn’t a true top player (I doubt the same argument would be there for LeSean McCoy who earns $8 million), but I think most would agree he is pretty good. He’s a nice versatile player that is a perfect fit for the Falcons offense. But we can also go backwards with this and see what his $8.125M per year would be worth in that timeframe, which is anywhere from $3.7 to $5.7 million a year. Some players who would have been in that range are players like Rudi Johnson, Lamont Jordan, and Travis Henry.  It’s less than Marion Barber received in Dallas.

The change in the position really started when many of these big contracts were regretted after a season of being signed. I’d say that was around 2007 or 2008 when the one back approach was being eliminated and more focus was paid on receivers in the passing game.

Still Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson were able to land massive contracts in 2011 that were more or less on par with the top contracts of the earlier era. The difference was that the Arian Foster’s, McCoy’s, and Matt Forte’s were not really able to build on that. They still signed outstanding contracts but there were closer to the lower names on this list. Back then there was still a game of leapfrog on top deals being played or at the least coming very close to the market leader.

The final burst to me came when the Panthers shockingly signing Jonathan Stewart to a $7.3 million a year deal in 2012. That was one of those contracts where everyone has to take note and say there is something not right here. I think that caused teams to get stronger in their stance against the running back. There hasn’t been a contract that silly at the position until the Jaguars signed Chris Ivory last season to a $6.4 million a year contract.

This is really the only position in the NFL to see this level of long term stagnation. Even if Bell signs a long term contract for $11 million a year, which is still low, he’s going to be the only guy with everyone else $2 million or more behind. He’ll become the outlier like Peterson and Johnson became.

You can’t make separate rules for different positions, but the RB position is one where they would really benefit from only having to sign 2 year contracts if drafted or maybe a max of 3 years with the ability to renegotiate after 2 years. Players would still be looked at as very valuable if signing at 24 or 25 rather than 26 or 27, but barring any rules change it doesn’t look like the market dynamics will change anytime soon.

  • Uncle Rico.

    Wouldn’t new money yearly average be a better way of looking at these deals? If Freeman played out this year at his scheduled $1.8 million, then hit the open market next year getting nearly $40 million over 4 years, he’d make exactly the same amount of money over the same 5 year period. Yet the deal that starts paying Freeman now looks like a bargain at $8m/y, while the other that delays his big payday looks like a more encouraging market correction at $10m/y. In new money, Freeman is averaging roughly $10 million per year either way, and in my opinion makes a better comparison tool and more accurate market reflection.

    • Ghoston

      that is what Jason did. He calculated new money as with the other contracts he was consistent. Freeman signed a 5 year extension and is signed through the 2022 season. Meaning if you added this year it is a 6 year 43.05 mil deal.