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Why NFL Teams Aren't Paying Enough For Their Running Backs
Understanding the Realities of Being the Most Underpaid Position in the League
The NFL season has officially started with teams already showing new changes to their roster. With fans waiting for their favorite players to shine on the field, there’s a group of players who are not-so-happy with the current landscape of their contracts, the running backs. Today we’re looking at how the running back position has become the most underpaid positions in the league.
The Off-Season Table
This year’s NFL off-season was full of blockbuster trades and contract signings that were bigger than any other season. Teams like the New York Jets and Detroit Lions had major changes to their roster, putting them up as Super Bowl Contenders while teams like the San Francisco 49ers has had struggles to meet the right deal to keep their DPOY Nick Bosa. As the season started, it all paid off. The Lions pull off a big opening night game against the defending champions, the Kansas City Chiefs and the 49ers once again prove that they’re the No.1 defense team in the league.
It all seems like everyone is happy. Except for a group of players who hasn’t had the luck of receiving contract extensions or even joining a team, specifically the running backs. While players like Joe Burrow and Nick Bosa puts their name up as the highest paid players in history, running backs are having struggles to extend their contract for even just 1-year.
Top 10 2023 NFL Off-Season Signings/Extensions
1.QB Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals): $275,000,000/5 Years
2.QB Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers): $262,500,000/5 Years
3.QB Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens): $260,000,000/5 Years
4.QB Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles): $255,000,000/5 Years
5.Edge Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers): $170,000,000/5 Years
6.QB Daniel Jones (New York Giants): $160,000,000/4 Years
7.QB Derek Carr (New Orleans Saints): $150,000,000/4 Years
8.Tackle Andrew Thomas (New York Giants): $117,500,000/5 Years
9.Guard Chris Lindstrom (Atlanta Falcons): $102,500,000/5 Years
10.LB Roquan Smith (Baltimore Ravens): $100,000,000/5 Years
RB Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders): $12,000,000/ 1 Year
In fact, running backs are one of the most underpaid positions in the league at the moment behind Long Snappers, Punters and Fullbacks (Not to say that these positions aren’t as valuable).
Average Salary by NFL Positions 2023
1.Left Tackle: $8,608,636
3.Right Tackle: $5,606,221
16.Running Back: $2,265,780
19.Long Snapper: $1,113,077
It’s crazy to think this when we had major contract signings in the last 5 years like Christian McCaffrey’s $64,000,000/4 Year contract with the Carolina Panthers or Ezekiel Elliot’s $90,000,000/6 Year contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Not only are running backs getting paid less, they’re also having a hard time staying with a team.
And it’s not like the running back position plays a minor role in the game anymore. We still have teams that revolve around a big run game like the Tennessee Titans or the San Francisco 49ers, and part of their success comes from big names like Derrick Henry and CMC. Last year, teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants has had more rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns. This means that the rushing game is still valid in the NFL.
Top Rushing TD % 2022
1.Philadelphia Eagles: 58.33%
2.Pittsburgh Steelers: 55.17%
3.New York Giants: 53.33%
32.Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 14.71%
Running Backs Are Becoming Less Valuable
So what’s actually causing this disparity? As the NFL evolves, so does its priorities in team-building. Just like in any other business, past failures have led to teams being more cautious about where they allocate their funds. The hesitation to pay running backs in the modern era, unfortunately, is a byproduct of these considerations. The position itself is one of the most physically demanding in football. Running backs frequently endure hits, tackles, and carries in every game, increasing the risk of injury and shortening their careers. Their shelf-life in the league is significantly less than that of a quarterback, wide receiver, or offensive lineman.
Furthermore, the success of teams that employ a running back-by-committee approach has highlighted the possibility that one doesn’t need a singular star back to have a successful rushing offense. The logic is simple for many front offices: why spend a significant portion of the cap on a position that has multiple cheaper and fresher replacements available in the draft every year?
However, this approach also raises ethical considerations. Many believe it's unfair for running backs to be unable to maximize their earnings during their prime years, considering the wear and tear they endure for the team's success. Players like Barkley, Jacobs, and Taylor exemplify the paradox of being vital to their teams' successes yet are undervalued in contract negotiations.
Such contractual disparities highlight a glaring issue within the NFL landscape. While other positions see their value soar with the evolving game, running backs seem to face a financial glass ceiling that is especially pronounced given the brutal physical demands of their role.
The Break-Through for These Players
A potential solution for running backs is to adapt to the multifaceted roles in the modern NFL and to become indispensable in all phases of the game. This means not just excelling in rushing, but also becoming more reliable in pass protection, a better receiver out of the backfield, and even occasionally lining up as a slot or outside receiver. The more versatile a running back is, the more valuable he becomes to the team's overall game plan.
Running Backs w the Most Receiving Yards 2022
1.Christian McCaffrey (Sanfrancisco 49ers): 1,139 Rushing / 741 Receiving
2.Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers): 915 Rushing / 722 Receiving
3.Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): 668 Rushing / 523 Receiving
4.Jerick McKinnon (Kansas City Chiefs): 291 Rushing / 512 Receiving
5.Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints): 897 Rushing / 490 Receiving
Furthermore, in terms of contracts, players and agents might consider pushing for performance-based incentives rather than just large guaranteed sums. Such contracts would reward running backs for reaching certain milestones or maintaining high levels of performance. This could be a win-win situation, as teams would feel more secure in investing in a player's potential, while running backs would have the opportunity to earn top dollar when they perform at their peak.
The NFL Players Association could also play a crucial role in this shift by advocating for better rookie contract structures or pushing for guarantees that reflect a running back's overall contribution to the team. By emphasizing the collective importance of running backs and their unique challenges, the union could potentially drive a change in how contracts are structured and negotiated.
In essence, the running back position isn't dying; it's evolving. For running backs to maintain and even enhance their worth in the current NFL landscape, they need to transform into Swiss Army knives on the field, displaying a range of skills while also being smart about contract negotiations off the field. The modern NFL is about adaptability and versatility, and those who can master this will likely find themselves in a more favorable position.
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