I have been actively tracking the running backs that signed new deals in the 2016 offseason, and it is fair to say that most teams’ investments have seen disappointing return. Nowhere is this more evident than in the top end of the group. Doug Martin and Chris Ivory both signed deals in the top 7 range for running back contracts, but lengthy injuries and generally inefficient running have impacted any early justification of their paydays. Lamar Miller and Giovani Bernard have been about as expected, with Miller getting plenty of usage but perhaps brought down by the Texans’ lack of passing threat.
When trying to find the best contracts this year, it has been the intended backups or cheap veteran options that stand out most. This perhaps speaks to a sentiment that is becoming obvious around the league: the decline of value in the running back position. This is seen not only in lower salaries relative to the rest of the league, but also in the growing attitude that investing early draft capital in backs can be futile, as starters can be found in the mid-to-late rounds.
Here are, in my opinion, the best value contracts from the 2016 offseason (so far).
1. LeGarrette Blount – Patriots
1 year, $1 million. $100,000 in full guarantees.
Retaining LeGarrette Blount has proven to be outstanding business for the Pats. Out of all the newly signed running backs for 2016 that have seen at least minimal game time, Blount has the cheapest deal at 1 year, $1 million with just $100,000 in guarantees. It should also be noted that there is up to $1 million in incentives also included in the contract, and Blount is likely to receive these. Essentially, the Patriots paid Blount 3rd string money, and he has given them Pro Bowl production as a starter.
The Patriots have leant more on the run game in 2016 than recent seasons under Belichick. They have run the football 28.8 times per game this season, as opposed to 23.9 last season. That increase is partly due to Tom Brady’s four week suspension, and also must be credited to the effectiveness of the run blocking and the stable of backs that the Patriots have acquired. Blount leads that stable as the lead back, with great support from James White and now Dion Lewis back from injury. Blount is 4th in the NFL in rushing attempts (248), and leads the league in touchdowns with 14. He has run the ball at a reasonable efficiency of 4.1 yards per attempt, and is 8th in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ metric DYAR, which measures a player’s impact on the offense. This is incredible production for a $5 million veteran, let alone $1 million.
The Patriots will have a real decision on their hands at the end of this season, though. Blount’s one year deal comes to an end, and the 30-year-old back has certainly earned himself a significant pay rise for 2017 and beyond. Dion Lewis and James White are both under contract until the 2018 offseason, and could prove to be a sufficient tandem. Lewis has returned with some solid performances this season, with 19 carries for 88 yards at 4.6 yards per carry. Lewis proved his effectiveness with a good 2015, and it may be a wise business decision for the Patriots to let Blount walk if his demands are high. Belichick has already shown a willingness to ship off effective talent for cap flexibility, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this happen with Blount. Furthermore, the running back class for the 2017 draft will likely be packed with NFL starters, and the Patriots may invest some draft capital if Lewis and White are not considered the answer at RB.
Nevertheless, in terms of this season and his contract, Blount has provided everything the Patriots could want from a bruising lead back, and for a very low price.
2. Darren Sproles – Eagles
1 year extension, $4.5 million. $500,000 in full guarantees.
Sproles’ deal was a low-risk, high-reward situation for the Eagles. While the $4.5 million price tag is around or above market price for a player like Sproles, the extension had minimal guarantees of just 500,000 (11%) all in 2016, and so for 2017, the Eagles can part ways with Sproles for no penalty. Considering Sproles’ plus production and efficiency this season, and the fact that the deal balances talent with cap flexibility, I consider this an excellent contract for the Eagles.
As I discussed in my article on Sproles last month, the 12th-year veteran has provided great production for the Eagles in the run game, pass game, and in special teams. The Eagles planned for somewhat of a committee in the backfield, and Sproles has been the standout performer. He has run the ball very efficiently at 4.7 yards per carry, and is 10th in the league amongst running backs in receiving yards per game with 30.8 (min. 20 receptions). Sproles has given a real boost to the Eagles young offense this season. He is currently in concussion protocol after being on the wrong end of a brutal hit against the Redskins in Week 14.
The contract for Sproles balances talent and “production now” with cap flexibility for the future, so that feature really strengthens this extension in my books. Just as with Blount and the Patriots, it will be interesting to see which way the Eagles go with Sproles. The Eagles have a lot of guaranteed money locked down in the future, and removing Sproles’ 4.5m cap hit for next year could prove an important step in rebuilding the offense around Carson Wentz.
3. Theo Riddick – Lions
3 years, $3.85 million. $3.85 million in full guarantees.
The Lions paid Riddick to be one of the best receiving backs in the league, and that is exactly what he has done in 2016. Riddick’s APY of $3.85 million is around market value for backs that specialise in catching the ball, below the APY’s of Giovani Bernard ($5.1 million), Darren Sproles ($4.5 million) and Shane Vereen ($4.1 million). Riddick’s deal also has relatively low guarantees at 33%.
With Ameer Abdullah out all year, Riddick’s role has expanded this season, and he has performed sufficiently as a runner when called upon, while maintaining his excellent receiving production. Riddick is currently 3rd in the NFL in receptions among running backs, 3rd in receiving yards per game with 37.1 (min. 5 receptions), and has the most receiving touchdowns with 5. Riddick’s ball security has also been exceptional, with zero fumbles at all this season.
This deal was necessary business for Detroit, with Riddick being one of the best receiving backs in the league since he was drafted. As a young and valuable weapon, Riddick was worth the investment and the contract is well set up considering the presence of another promising young back in the Lions backfield, in the form of Ameer Abdullah. Riddick should continue to be an important weapon for Matthew Stafford for the rest of 2016 and beyond.
Here is the full list of running backs that signed new contracts this past year.
|Name||Team||APY||Attempts||Yards||Touchdowns||Yd/A||DYAR rank (min. 100 rushes)||Rec.||R.Yds||R.TD||SEASON GRADE|
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. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL