Running Back contracts have been stuck in amber for the past decade

Deebo Samuel had to request a trade to get paid.

Deebo Samuel had to request a trade to get paid.
Image: Getty Images

We used to be a country. A proper country, where the running back position was the focal point of any NFL offense. Today, they’re the coal miners of the NFL landscape. It’s no secret that as the salary cap has ballooned and the market has blessed the quarterback-receiver connection, the running back position has been left behind. Last week, Chris Carson retired just one season into his two-year $10 million contract.

This summer Deebo Samuel raised a stink about being compensated as a receiver and not a running back. On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers threw him a significant raise that pays him like an elite running back, not a receiver. Samuels was so adamant about not getting another 60 carries in the backfield that he requested a trade.

Samuels’ three-year deal contains more guaranteed money than the $50 million guaranteed in the Brinks truck Dallas threw at Ezekiel Elliott in 2019 to make him the NFL’s highest-paid back. Here’s how badly the running back market has stagnated in the last decade. Adrian Peterson’s seven-year $100 million extension he signed in 2011 would make him the NFL’s fourth-highest paid feature back today.

When you adjust for the 73 percent inflation of 2011’s $120 million salary cap to the current $208 million ceiling, the 2011 Adrian Peterson Contract would balloon to $173 million over seven years and possess an average annual value of $24.7 million per year. If you think Peterson was an outlier, take a gander at Chris Johnson’s four-year $53.3 million contract extension. When you adjust Johnson’s, a proportional deal in 2022 money would be $92.4 million and annual pay of $22.25 million. Johnson and Peterson were the league’s last 2,000 yard rushers, but the cracks were beginning to show in the running back market when Peterson and Jonhson-led offenses failed to produce winning seasons.

The six-year, $90 million extension Elliott agreed to with Jerry Jones equates to approximately $15 million annually. Christian McCaffrey’s contract is the benchmark for running backs in total money, but his deal barely edges out Zeke’s at $16 million annually. The Cincinnati Bengals are the rare exception for a Super Bowl team that is auxiliary-powered by a premier backfield runner. Mixon’s 1,205 yards were the most by a running back in over a decade. Yet, he’s making peanuts compared to what Ja’marr Chase and Joe Burrow will command in a few years. The Rams learned their lesson after throwing a bag at Todd Gurley right before his left knee began deteriorating.

In 2005, elite running backs were second to quarterbacks when the percentage of the top five players’ cap hits at each position were considered. By 2021, running backs had dipped to the sixth-lowest positional value ahead of only long snappers, fullbacks, punters, kicks and tight ends. With extensions still being meted out, it’s too soon to tell where running backs stand in the 2022 league year as extensions are still being negotiated around the league at every position except running back. Saquon Barkley is the biggest name eligible for an extension, but the post-Dave Gettleman (the man who drafted Barkley) Giants will likely pass on that, too.

Modern football common strategy and analytics have buried the hatchet in the play-calling tendencies which emphasized running on first downs and second downs. The revelation that a subpar passing attack is superior to a top-flight rushing offense hasn’t helped. The Steelers and Titans were the only playoff teams last season who were predominantly built on the run.

As defenses design schemes to defend the pass, a running back renaissance could re-emerge, spearheaded by dual threat backs in the mold of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, but until then, the prospects are dim. Kamara’s five-year, $75 million deal has an average annual value of $15 million while Derrick Henry, the NFL’s best running back, is playing on an average salary of $12.25 million. The most highly compensated running backs are essentially hybrids, which shows that even among elite running backs, the pass is key. The moral of the story is that it’s better to be a gadget receiver than a hybrid running back. 

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