New Contract Tracker: Running Backs – Week 4

This new weekly feature will analyse the progress of the running backs that signed new contracts in the 2016 offseason. Each week I will select two players of interest, discuss their production, and analyse it with respect to the contract that they signed.

Matt Forte – Jets

The Jets signed Matt Forte as a replacement for Chris Ivory in this past offseason. Ivory did have a successful 2015 season with the Jets, but his value was likely to be too high for the cap-strapped Jets. Ivory would eventually sign a five-year deal with Jacksonville at $6.4 million APY, and the Jets opted for Forte on a three-year deal at $4 million APY. While Forte’s deal has a significantly higher proportion of guarantees, the swap saved the Jets around $2 million per year in cap space on their starting running back position for the near future. That move, along with the Damon Harrison-Steve McClendon swap, cleared up some much needed space for the Jets.

At age 30, Forte is certainly on the home straight of his career, but the value was still there particularly with his ability to contribute on all downs on the ground and in the air. Forte has largely proven that through four weeks, as he is 5th in the NFL in rushing attempts (81), 11th in rushing yards (288), and is the only player in the league to rush at least 75 times and be targeted at least 15 times (17 targets). Forte has also contributed in the red zone with 3 TDs, and is 8th in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA metric, which essentially shows that his effectiveness has not merely been a result of the offense.

However, there are some developing negatives. Firstly, Forte’s role in the passing game has decreased week-to-week. Bilal Powell saw over double Forte’s targets in Weeks 3 and 4, and has run the ball more efficiently than Forte, with an impressive 7.6 yards per attempt rate. This role reduction may be a product of Forte’s age and his significant workload in the first two games. Secondly, and speaking of his workload, Forte is also experiencing some injury troubles at the moment, with reports of separate knee and rib injuries limiting his practice time. An injury-plagued season, with the sorts of guarantees tied to him, and the fact that he is not getting any younger, would be a real disappointment for the Jets.

Overall, through the first three weeks, Forte was excellent and showing exactly why Mike Maccagnan and the Jets brought him in. Week Four was a tough outing against the Seahawks, and his injury situation is still not entirely clear. Forte is the 16th highest running back by APY, and he is being paid as a low-end starter. If the injuries can clear up, and he can get back to his early-season form, this deal would begin to look outstanding for the Jets. However, there is still much more to monitor.

Grade after four weeks: B

Giovani Bernard – Bengals

First, I will look at this contract from the time-of-signing perspective. Giovani Bernard is one of the most dynamic dual-threat running backs in the NFL, and at 24 years of age, the Cincinnati Bengals were never going to let him walk. The Bengals proceeded to strike what I believe is an excellent deal for their future. Not only has Bernard proven to be an excellent second-round pick in his first three seasons, but this 2nd contract is well-structured and pragmatic. The structure of the contract clearly reflects the presence of Jeremy Hill, a promising back still on his rookie deal in Cincinnati. This is shown in Bernard’s relatively low guarantee percentage, the 2nd lowest out of the 13 running backs between $6.4 million and $4 million APY. Bernard’s guarantees are also rather front-loaded, with low dead-money costs in his final two years. This shows that the Bengals recognise the possibility that Hill may prove himself even more valuable, and could affect Bernard’s role on the team down the line. At this point, however, the two backs are an ideal (and affordable) one-two punch for the NFL.

Now, in light of Bernard’s progress through four weeks, it’s fair to say that not everything has clicked. There have been some positives, namely that his snap count is almost identical to last season (53% this year to 54% last year), and his receiving performance has been superb, as we have come to expect from him. Bernard’s 165 receiving yards are fourth out of all running backs, and he is ranked 2nd in Football Outsiders’ receiving DYAR metric for running backs. He is on pace for 660 receiving yards which would be his career-best by some distance.

However, the problems have mainly been in the running game. Bernard’s role has essentially decreased in the Bengals ground attack. He has only had 30% of the Bengals running back carries this season, as opposed to 40% last year. While this may appear insignificant, it shows that the Bengals’ trust in handing it off to Jeremy Hill is increasing. In 2015, Bernard averaged 45.6 rushing yards per game, while in 2016 he is averaging a measly 17 rushing yards per game. Bernard’s efficiency on the ground is also particularly low, as he is currently averaging just 2.7 yards per attempt. He is on pace for 8 first downs this season, while his lowest career number is 32. There are many statistics to throw around, but they are all clear in saying that Bernard’s running game has been below expectations.

There are some external factors that must be considered. Firstly, potentially explaining Bernard’s lower rushing numbers, the entire Bengals offense has struggled in 2016. The Bengals have been without 44% of their 2015 receiving yards production, with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert all either moved on or injured. This has reduced the threat of the aerial game, and allowed teams to zero in on their run game. Also, Eifert’s absence in the red zone has had obvious negative effect on their rushing touchdown threat, with teams more committed to stopping the run inside the 10.

One external factor, addressing his increased receiving numbers, has been the fact that the Bengals have been playing from behind much more than in previous seasons. In their recent winning seasons, ahead late in more games, the run game would be called upon to chew clock, with lesser need for Bernard and his receiving threat. This season, his receiving numbers may be inflated by the need for the Bengals to air it out late in games. For example, in the game against the Steelers, with the Bengals down 24-9 with 6:54 to go in the 4th quarter. The next drive saw Bernard take catches of 7, 12, 9 and a 25 yard touchdown. This isn’t so much of a negative, as Bernard still has to make the plays and provide the threat. However, it goes to suggesting that, even though his receiving stats have increased, Bernard hasn’t necessarily become more of a purposeful receiving weapon for Cincinnati. He may have merely profited from the situation in early games.

To summarise Bernard’s season thus far, it is clear that his running game has been far weaker than recent seasons, however he has provided the typical threat and execution catching out of the backfield. Bernard has more work to do to justify his contract, but it is far from a bad deal for the Bengals at this stage.

Grade after four weeks: C+

Here is the full list of running backs that signed new contracts this past year.

NameTeamAPYAttemptsYardsTouchdownsYd/ADYAR rank (min. 32 rushes)Rec.R.YdsR.TDSEASON GRADE
Doug MartinBuccaneers$7,150,000258503.4n/a5340C (inj.)
Lamar MillerTexans$6,500,0009335103.829th13780B-
Chris IvoryJaguars$6,400,000204302.2n/a190C-
Giovani BernardBengals$5,166,667256802.7n/a191651C+
Darren SprolesEagles$4,500,000195102.7n/a101601B
C.J. AndersonBroncos$4,500,0007325233.522nd9731B
Matt ForteJets$4,000,0008128833.68th11830B
Theo RiddickLions$3,850,0003912213.124th201571B-
Bilal PowellJets$3,750,000139907.6n/a151030B-
James StarksPackers$3,000,00012900.8n/a3310D
Alfred MorrisCowboys$1,750,000249524.0n/a120B
Mike TolbertPanthers$1,650,000143702.6n/a4130B-
Arian FosterDolphins$1,500,000164702.9n/a3620C
Reggie BushBills$1,500,0003-40-1.3n/a000D
Chris JohnsonCardinals$1,500,000259513.8n/a000B
Lance DunbarCowboys$1,250,0005911.8n/a5560C
LeGarrette BlountPatriots$1,000,0008835244.021st340A

Will Eddowes is a 20 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his second year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing conjoint degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting.