Photo Credit: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s just not a great time to be a running back in the NFL. Of course, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking assessment. For years, the league has been slowly and surely devaluing the position. Passing has become the engine of most NFL offenses. The running game exists merely to keep defenses honest. The days of the Earl Campbells and Emmitt Smiths and Eric Dickersons are long gone. Marketing yourself as an “offensive weapon” should be the new preferred nomenclature.
It’s a fascinating, but not surprising, new reality of the modern NFL. Passing is king. Unfortunately for running backs, they appear to be somewhat of a relic rather than an essential component of an NFL offense. As such, their pay has not only stagnated, in some cases, it’s even declined.
The NFL media has turned this into a massive story. Talking heads from across the country have joined in solidarity with running backs to bemoan the current state of affairs. But sadly, this will amount to exactly nothing. Running backs aren’t underpaid; they are paid exactly what the market demands. Economics is economics. The supply of quality and qualified running backs far, far exceeds the demand.
This is not a popular opinion. It’s in vogue right now to sympathize with these perceived-to-be marginalized athletes, while ignoring the realities of the NFL. This example has been beaten into the ground, but it’s worth repeating: the Kansas City Chiefs just won the Super Bowl, and their leading rusher was a seventh-round rookie. If there’s a better indicator that overpaying or over drafting a running back is bad business, I haven’t seen it yet.
But to be fair to running backs, while they may not have near the on-field impact they did a decade or two (or three) ago, they’re still massively popular players who generate plenty of buzz for the NFL. While off-field popularity contributes nothing to winning, it does contribute significantly to the NFL’s revenue stream. A running back might not be as valuable as, say, a quarterback or pass rusher to a team’s success, but they’re at least as valuable as, say, a nose tackle to the team’s profitability.
And herein lies the rub: running backs are not underpaid, but they are definitely being screwed by the current financial system. As it currently stands, drafted NFL prospects are assigned contracts based on their draft position according to the rookie wage scale. This was implemented in 2011 during the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association to balance some of the truly gargantuan contracts rookie quarterbacks were being handed without proving anything at the NFL level.
For example, Sam Bradford, when drafted #1 by the St. Louis Rams in 2010, received a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million in guarantees before he ever stepped foot onto an NFL football field. At an average annual value of $13 million per year, Bradford was just barely being compensated less than Peyton Manning (played on a $15 million contract in 2010), who was coming off of an MVP season and a Super Bowl appearance. You don’t have to be a CPA to understand that those figures don’t add up.
And so, now we have the rookie wage scale, and it’s done a tremendous job of diverting money away from unproven rookies and towards proven veterans. For many players, the rookie wage scale has been an unmitigated success. But for running backs, it’s been an abject disaster.
Unlike most other NFL positions, running backs don’t require significant development time. For the most part, being an NFL running back is pretty much identical to being a college football running back: you take the ball from the quarterback, and you run like hell. Some NFL running backs are at their absolute physical peak during their rookie year, and the rest of their career they’re in decline. The rookie wage scale not only locks in players to a predetermined salary but locks them into a predetermined contract too.
This, more than anything else, is what’s really hurting these players. It’s not that NFL running backs are underpaid, it’s that they’re not being paid quickly enough. This is a position that suffers from serious attrition. Give a running back 300 touches in a season, and that’s roughly 300 hits taken from defenders cosplaying as heat-seeking missiles. It’s really no wonder that running backs have the shortest careers of any position. It’s not the amount of money that’s necessarily the issue: it’s the timing of that money.
So, how can we fix the problem? I have a solution: the NFL Players Association, in the next collective bargaining agreement, should push to implement position designations for drafted players and adjust the salary and contract length accordingly.
With this idea, a player drafted with the top pick would not only be assigned a contract and salary based on their draft spot, but also their position designation. For example, because running back is a position that’s injury-prone and has a short career expectancy, all players drafted with the “running back” designation could be given contracts lasting a maximum of three years with no team option.
By using this new draft position designation, players (especially those highly drafted) will have the opportunity to reach free agency much sooner, and thus capitalize on their true market value while they still have healthy and productive years remaining. If we look at this process through the lens of Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, his career would have gone something like this:
2018: Barkley is drafted with the #2 overall pick
2021: Having completed three seasons with the Giants, Barkley is now a free agent and is franchise tagged
2022: Having completed a season on the franchise tag, Barkley is once again a free agent, and the Giants tag him again at 120% of his salary from the previous season
2023: Having completed his second consecutive season under the franchise tag, the Giants are now faced with a difficult decision: tag Barkley again at 144% of his salary from the previous season, sign Barkley to the long-term deal he wants, or allow him to sign with another team
Now, compare that to Barkley’s current situation with the Giants: Barkley has completed five seasons in the NFL (all with the Giants) and has now been franchised tagged for the first time going into his sixth season. In this new scenario, Barkley would have already been on the franchise tag twice before reaching his sixth season. Again, it’s not that Barkley is being paid more, it’s that he’s being paid sooner.
The NFL already has position designations for things like the franchise tag, why not extrapolate that to the NFL Draft? You could even use the same monetary scale the franchise tag uses to differentiate between the positions for the draft. In this new model, a player selected with a “running back” designation would likely be paid less than another player at the same spot who played quarterback, but the running backs would at least reach free agency earlier.
An unintended consequence of this new arrangement is that draft-eligible players might do anything and everything in their power to avoid an undesirable position designation. The new system solves the problem of running backs losing half of their careers before they reach free agency for the first time, but it doesn’t necessarily make running back a more appealing career choice. Maybe players who carry the ball more than they caught it in college are automatically slapped with the running back designation, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be happy about it.
Unfortunately for NFL running backs, this just isn’t an era where the running game is all that valuable. Position designation for draftees is a solution that allows these players to see life-changing money before they’re on the back end of their careers, but it won’t address the fact that this position is losing prominence year after year. If collegiate running backs want to really get paid during their NFL careers, the solution is simple: switch to wide receiver.