Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB
Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB

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?

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

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.

Historical perspective

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.

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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 exactly one 100-yard game in his four-year career, Toby Gerhart still signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Jags. (Mike McGinnis/AP)
With exactly one 100-yard game in his four-year career, Toby Gerhart still signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Jags. (Mike McGinnis/AP)

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.

Rookie redux

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.

 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. 

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.

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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.

Tough business

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.

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16 comments
zassassin69
zassassin69

All good points. The one thing missing from the conversation is  .. "so what do you do if you are a RB". If you know a team will work you to the bone during your rookie deal (through the 1st 3 years) then you need to adjust YOUR strategy.  

1) Take fewer hits (Think Emmitt Smith dancing out of bounds. LeSean McCoy has started to do this with the Eagles now) by not going for that extra yard.

2) Don't play through pain.  Take a big hit, bruised, dinged. Come out of the game for a few plays or until you can get treated.  You don't get rewarded for being a hero.  See Moreno dragging himself out there last year and then being disposed of.

3) After year 3 start negotiating your new deal.  Especially if there is not another back who can take over your production. Look at year 4 like Jarius Byrd did in his franchise tender year. Why play in a game when you are not 100%? No reason to. Why play in a game (year 4) when your team has been eliminated from the playoffs. Only risk is getting injured.

4) Don't teach your understudy. The NFL culture has always been you  help the rookie/young player to improve the teams chances of winning. Of course, back then players oftrn got most of their money at the tail end of their careers as opposed to the middle of their careers now.

5) Teams have no problem treating it as a business without coming out and saying it (best interest of the team) and players (RB) should be doing the same.


Just my thoughts.

Coctostan
Coctostan

Which would you rather have, two or three mediocre running backs that share carries or Adrian Peterson?

An elite RB like AP will cost 3-4x as much as a RB committee approach. AP likely has a higher potential but he also becomes a large point of failure that is arguably not worth it. You can protect a QB, but being reliant upon a single elite RB is far riskier.

I think there is evidence that even elite QBs show lesser performance as their carries exceed thresholds in multiple time frames. In the game, there is an optimal number of carries and beyond that the RB becomes less effective. The same goes for in season and over a career.

I'd rather have 2 guys getting 10-15 carries a game than one guy getting 20-30. By playoff time, the committee RBs will be much fresher and less likely to be injured.

Which would you rather have, an elite offensive line with mediocre RBs or an elite RB running behind a bad O line?

To me this is an easy answer. The elite O line works in running AND passing. If nothing else that breaks a tie. I still don't think it is a tie though. Even the greatest RBs need running lanes... And mediocre RBs can be very effective behind a great line.

Not only have RBs dropped radically in value, at the same time, offensive tackles have gone up radically in value. The top tackles are now considered automatic

TiredOfCliches
TiredOfCliches

Part of the problem for RB's is that very few teams use them the way they were often used 'back in the day'.  Running the ball used to be more important than passing was for generating offense and points.  Now, with the possible exception of Seattle, teams use the run for three reasons:


1.  To take time off the clock/gain time of possession - early in the game this is to ensure their defense is fresh the next time they come on the field, and late in the game to preserve a win.

2.  To keep the opposing D's pass rush in check by making them determine whether or a play is pass or run before going all out after the QB.

3.  Short yardage TD's/first downs


Having a home-run hitter like Adrian Peterson is great, but teams can accomplish all of the goals listed above with a back (or backs in some cases) who is far less talented.


So many teams struggle to find solid QB play (Oakland, Cleveland, Arizona, to name a few recent examples)...yet they all try and do the same things offensively as all the other teams with established QB's.


I hope that the success of Seattle will open some eyes on other teams...if you don't have the QB, you can still win in this league...by playing top notch defense and running the ball.


Seattle fans have a right to be proud of their team, and proud of their QB as well.  But Seattle really isn't doing anything "new"...they're the only ones out there right now who've realized that something "old" still works in this game...as long as you commit to it 100%.


One could argue that other teams have recently tried to do what Seattle is doing...but the truth is that while there have been some other teams (Tennessee with Chris Johnson in his prime comes to mind) who have had a run-first mentality, they've done it as a stop-gap because they just didn't feel they had the QB to play any other way.  The result is that they're pretty good at running the ball compared to a lot of other pass-happy teams, but not really that good overall because they're still trying, from a personnel perspective, to be a pass-first team.  They're really just running the ball until they reach the point where they have the players to pass a lot more.  Seattle is COMMITTED to playing the way they play, and consequently they go all-out personnel-wise to be as good at it as possible.  That's the difference.


I'm no Seattle fan, but I hope other teams take notice of their success and realize there is still more than one way to get the job done.  There are a limited number of 'great' QB's out there, for teams that don't have one, concentrate on defense and running the ball instead.  There's room for both types of offense in this league.  Seattle is proof of that.

rskins09
rskins09

I, too couldn't agree more with what was said about RB's ... Earl Campbell  was best FB to come out since Jim Brown and was unstoppable for three, four years with Houston ..He was a thrill to watch every week  but the pounding he took was unbelieveable ... When he was traded to New Orleans (with Bum Phillips) he was a shell of his former self...Kinda sad to me for he was such a great NFL  fullback  and used to make the highlight reels every week when playing for the Oilers ..He was just plane awesome  when playing with Houston .... 

m f
m f

I couldn't agree more with this article. One major point that saddens me is the fact that RB's are always at the mercy of the teams after they've been destroyed for over-usage.  I don't blame the star RBs for holding out for more money at all.

dt
dt

Oh come on.  Why is the RB position devalued?  Because of supply vs. demand.  There is so much talent out there at the position that there aren't enough teams to play them all.  It's not rocket science.  It's simple economics.

Dennis10
Dennis10

I didn't get too far into this article when I stopped and thought to myself, that the best players get paid the most money.  Sure qb's are getting paid the most, even if they aren't the best players, but by and large, the best players, no matter the position, get paid the most.  The point of this article is mistaken.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

Excellent article and readers'comments so far. I hope these running backs are being careful with their spending with these numbers and future outlook. They are not the guys who should be picking up checks and buying gifts for their linemen, let alone fancy cars.

stevesturm1
stevesturm1

Running backs going so relatively low in the draft: implies that the differences between backs are so slim that they're seen as practically interchangeable - why pick one back in the first round if there are ten more just as good backs you can get in the third round?


Are there other positions for which this assessment holds true?


And on the flip side, it suggests that a player like Clowney or Mack are not only so much better than anyone else at their positions but that these differences will significantly improve a team's chance of winning that a team can't afford to pass on drafting them at the top of the draft.  Does this make sense?  I can see quarterbacks falling into this category but defensive linemen and linebackers?  Are these players really light years ahead of their competition and will that difference really amount to that much over the course of a game?

Coctostan
Coctostan

(accidentally hit reply before I was done)

Meant to say that the top tackles are now automatic top 10 picks. Offensive lineman have always been highly valued but I think smart GMs now see that an elite O line can mean offensive success for a long period of time and, along with QB and D line are the cornerstones of winning in the NFL.

My view is that there is a hierarchy of positions in the NFL:

1st tier: QB, Tackle, Edge rusher

2nd tier: CB, WR/TE, guard, DT

3rd tier: LB, RB, S, C

You have to have the clear potential at one of the lower tiers to jump to higher draft or pay scale tier. For instance, for a WR or CB to be worth a top 5 pick, they need to have the potential to be a top 3 player at the position. I'd rather have a top 10 QB or tackle than then the 5th best WR.

Bongo
Bongo

@rskins09 :  Earl Campbell was awesome to watch.  Just unbelievable.  Remember Christian Okoye?  He was similar but only lasted a couple of years before injuries stopped him.


It's amazing that Bettis was as effective for as long as he was.

Bearsclone
Bearsclone

@Dennis10  JJ Watt is the best defensive player in football, and there are about 300 defensive players who make more than him.  So much for the "best players get paid the most money" argument.  


Here's the Cliff Notes version:


1) Football players don't get paid what they're worth in their rookie contract.   


2) They make up for this by being "over paid" in later contracts.  Teams inevitably pay too much for veterans because they're a known quantity and because there's more demand for proven players than there is supply.


3) The more successful and productive a running back is, the more he gets used as a young player, which in turn lowers his value in a way that doesn't happen for other positions.


4) Which means that RBs never "make up" for the fact that they're under paid as rookies.

Bongo
Bongo

@stevesturm1:  Interesting points.  The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that RBs are mostly the product of a system, and less a unique talent.  So yes, they are "interchangeable", but of course that's not true because there are obviously elite RBs and then there are "guys" who are brought in to hit the hole at the right time and hopefully earn positive yards.

To your second point - QBs are much more of a risk.  It's harder to guess (and it's all a big guess, isn't it?) how they'll adapt at the next level.  Andrew Luck was seen as a "sure thing" and he's proven to be successful, but a big part of that is because of where he went.  Would he have been successful if the Browns had drafted him? (and I say that as a Browns fan).  I think defensive players seem easier to grade or project to the next level.  Of course so much of a player's success depends on work and desire.  Cleveland has had a string of players on both sides of the ball in the last 10 years who just didn't seem that interested in working hard at the NFL level.

So, I don't know that Clowney and Mack are so far ahead of everyone else, it's just that they're among the handful of guys who are seen as "safe" picks to produce in the NFL.  Of course plenty of "sure things" have been busts.  It's all a guessing game.

OilCan
OilCan

@stevesturm1  

Great work Steve..  Look no further than Willie Parker, He couldn't crack the line up at North Carolina a subpar college team at the time. 

Jason1988
Jason1988

I agree with your analysis, but with one exception. I think the positional hierarchy is dependent upon which team is being discussed. For example, in Pittsburgh, an ILB would be considered a 1st tier position due to the defensive scheme. 


Just the one minor qualm. I like what you had to say, though. 

Otto-Gee
Otto-Gee

@Bearsclone @Dennis10

Signing a contract does not equal paid.  Those 300 d players may have signed bigger contracts, but in reality:

The Best Players get paid.

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