Tread on the Tire: Why RBs are Losing Their Traction
For no other position in professional sports does early success devalue future worth, but that's exactly the case for NFL running backs. Shelf lives are short, and their prime comes when they play the game for free. Is there any hope?
The business of NFL running backs is in decline. The value of the position—both in free agency and the draft—has undergone a transformational shift to reflect an increasing devaluation of the role.
Although many have theorized the cause to be an ever-increasing emphasis on the passing game, my sense is the reasons are much more data-driven. Keenly aware of the short shelf life of the position, NFL front offices now almost universally subscribe to the “tread on the tire” approach to running backs. Virtually all teams are hesitant to consider a third contract for a ballcarrier, with some reluctant to pay backs even a second contract of any significant value. Although the mileage theory has been around for years, it has become unwritten code for evaluating and, more importantly, compensating running backs.
In no other position in football—or perhaps in all of sports—is there such a reverse value proposition: proven performance early in a running back’s career may be harmful to future market value. Imagine a quarterback or wide receiver with impressive numbers being hindered by that performance and denied a lucrative contract later in his career. This is happening with running backs, leading to a legitimate question of whether the position is in a downward spiral, with no end in sight.
The running back market made a seismic shift in 2004 when LaDanian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis set a new standard, with each getting $21 million guaranteed. Portis’ deal was especially impressive, as he went from a team that would not pay him (Denver) to one that would (Washington), and handsomely.
After those two game-changing deals, the market stagnated until the summer of 2011, when Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson—within a week of each other—set a new standard with roughly $30 million guaranteed. While Peterson was in the last year of his contract at a high number, Johnson’s deal was striking: he had two remaining years on his rookie contract worth a total of $2 million.
A year later, the elite running back market reverted to form with a stellar group—Arian Foster, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy—negotiating contracts all under the 2004 level of $21 million guaranteed. Two seasons later, it is now legitimate to ask if any of these players will play out their deals. (Forte and Lynch’s contracts run through 2015; Rice and Foster through 2016; and McCoy through 2017.) As I point out often in this space, when the guaranteed money expires (only McCoy has a remaining guarantee, for this year only) the contract leverage shifts heavily to the team.
Looking ahead, what running backs will be in line for earnings rivaling even that of Foster/McCoy/Rice? It is hard to find candidates. Doug Martin? Injuries are already a concern. Alfred Morris? Heavy production early in his career might not be helping. Jamaal Charles? He had one “big” contract; it would be surprising if he received two. Eddie Lacy? The CBA doesn’t even allow the thought of renegotiation until three years into a player’s career, and Lacy just finished his first.
The 2014 market
With Chris Johnson’s becoming a Jet last week for $4 million—half of what he was scheduled to receive with the Titans before they cut him—the 2014 free agent market now settles in.
Players with high mileage in recent years such as Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Knowshown Moreno were unable to successfully leverage that production into greater wealth. Moreno’s case is especially interesting: he was the feature back for the NFL’s best offense and he’s still in his prime, at 26, yet he could only muster a one-year deal after facing a soft market.
Conversely, players with early careers as secondary backs had a more fruitful foray into free agency—2013 backups Rashad Jennings ($3 million), Ben Tate ($3.25 million), Donald Brown ($4 million) and Toby Gerhart ($4.5 million) will earn the same or more in 2014 than Moreno ($3 million) and Jones-Drew ($1.3 million).
The earnings of Gerhart, the winner of the 2014 free agent running back sweepstakes, is a true sign of the times: he had 36 carries in 2013; Moreno had 242.
Speaking of rookies, the running back marketplace might be even bleaker. Since 2011 there have been four running backs taken in the first round. (None was taken last year for the first time since 1963). The highest one selected in 2012, third-pick Trent Richardson, was traded early in his second season.
The data on running backs being selected in the top four rounds is dramatic. In 2011, there were 14 backs drafted in the first four rounds—58% of the number drafted overall. Last year, there were seven—30% of all the backs drafted.
Other than Richardson, there has been no running back drafted higher than 27th in the last four seasons. Last year, the first running back drafted didn’t come off the board until pick No. 37. (Giovanni Bernard to Cincinnati). And according to the mega-analysis of this year’s draft, that trend will continue.
NFL teams are approaching running backs with less and less urgency, as it has become a position—save a few precious outliers—where “you can get a guy.”
It’s really nothing new
I vividly remember during my time in the Packers’ front office having the opportunity to extend and secure our top running back, Ahman Green. I lobbied against doing so despite having a genuine friendship with the player.
A year after acquiring him in a trade with Seattle, where he was rarely used, I approached Green and his agent, David Dunn, and signed him to a five-year contract. Ahman actually played out the entirety of that contract—a rarity in the NFL—despite constant low rumblings of discontent from Dunn about the level of compensation, especially after Portis hit the jackpot in Washington.
Ahman and I were friends, and he also had an especially close relationship with our head coach and general manager, Mike Sherman; teammates actually referred to Green as “Ahman Sherman.” As hard as it was personally, I argued against rewarding Ahman with the inflated contract he was seeking. Although a workhorse back with great production—something his agent harped on—that so-called asset wasn’t a positive indicator in forecasting his longevity as a feature back.
As the negotiator and cap manager for the Packers, I always felt like I was working for a public trust, thinking first of the interests of the shareholders. And extending Ahman at the level Dunn sought wasn’t, in my opinion, in their best interest.
My resistance was not only external with Dunn, but also internal with Sherman, who truly valued Ahman. It made for tough conversations with the GM/coach. I referred to the graveyard of contracts given to running backs over a certain age—Shaun Alexander, Eddie George, Jamal Anderson, and Corey Dillon, for example—that were emotional reactions by clubs that represented negotiations for past production rather than future performance.
We never extended Ahman. He became a free agent and was heavily courted by the Texans, for whom Sherman became the offensive coordinator following his time in Green Bay. I will never forget the day—March 7, 2007—when I spent the entire time of my son’s 10th birthday party (at Lambeau Field, of course) trying to convince Ahman and his agents to consider legacy and familiarity before signing with Houston. Ultimately, my lobbying could not make up for the financial difference and Ahman became a Texan. He was injured for a large part of his two years there, and he ended up taking a pay cut before eventually being released. I truly lamented losing Ahman, but in the end, his negotiation represented one of the golden rules of business in the NFL: some of the best deals are the ones that aren’t made.
As a former agent, I feel for running backs. There is no position in football that absorbs so much pounding and punishment. And, because of what they put their bodies through, they clearly have the shortest shelf life of any positional group. Indeed, their prime years may well be before they even enter the NFL while playing for free in high school and college.
If there were a group of players that has a strong case for eliminating the three-year rule for entry into the NFL draft—to say nothing of college players forming a union and seeking long-term health benefits—it’s running backs. A “running backs union” is a nice thought, but it’s unrealistic that a singular positional group would ever be treated differently in the eyes of labor law. Grist to consider, though.
I’ve often said in this space that the business of football always wins, but that truth is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than with players who are financially devalued due to doing their job well: NFL running backs.