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  • Peter Schaffer

NFL running backs are getting stiff-armed on pay. There's no easy fix for the problem.






Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs.


Instead, let ‘em become quarterbacks, defensive ends, linebackers, cornerbacks – anything but a running back – if value and appreciation is in the equation.


That’s a reality-check takeaway from the developments this week, when franchise-tagged running backs Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard were unable to strike long-term contracts before a Monday deadline, left to roll the dice with their financial futures.


Sure, they can collect $10.091 million this season by playing on the franchise tag. But in the context of NFL "Moneyball," $10 million for an elite playmaker is relative chump change.


Jacobs, 25, only led the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards (4.9 per carry) and 2,053 yards from scrimmage last season while amassing a league-high 393 touches for the Las Vegas Raiders. Barkley, 26, accounted for nearly 30% of the New York Giants' offense in 2022 with his 1,650 yards from scrimmage. And Pollard, 26, is an emerging star who supplanted now out-of-work Ezekiel Elliott as the top threat in the Dallas Cowboys' backfield.


Never mind their production. Their franchise tags – lowest for any position besides kickers and punters – would have them rank 201st in the league for average salaries, according to Spotrac.com.


They apparently play the wrong position for the best paydays, with the typically shortened career span of running backs fueling the devaluation of the position – for years now, as the NFL morphed into a passing circus – despite the still-obvious need for teams to bank on their production.


“The issue is not the value of the running back to the team on Sundays,” agent Peter Schaffer told USA TODAY Sports. “Every team understands the football value.”


No, the issue is much deeper than that, with running backs – even the best of the best – disrespected by a business model that suggests they are a dime a dozen.


Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Some Hall of Famers – hello Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James – had some classic contract episodes on their way to Canton.


“Everyone knows it’s tough to win without a top running back and yet they act like we are discardable widgets,” Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler wrote Monday on Twitter. “I support any running back doing whatever it takes to get his bag.”


The outrage expressed on social media by several running backs was pretty much unanimous in its sense of victimization. Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers, whose average salary of $16 million tops the running back market, called it “criminal” that the franchise-tagged ball carriers didn’t net long-term contracts. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris maintained, “This notion that we deserve less is a joke.”


Derrick Henry, who is undeniably the centerpiece of the Tennessee Titans offense at $12.5 million per year (while quarterback Ryan Tannehill averages $29.5 million), was drastic with his frustration.


“At this point, just take the running back position out of the game then,” Henry tweeted. “The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization, (it) just seems like it don’t even matter. I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve.”


Remember when it was cool to be a running back? That’s when the tykes playing Pop Warner football were typically the best athletes on the field and couldn’t tote the rock enough.

Now it’s just one diss after another, with the players who arguably absorb the worst physical toll of any position respected so much more during the playoff drives in January than they are when contracts are negotiated from March to September.


According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, Jacobs was sitting in a car at Raiders headquarters with defensive end Maxx Crosby, positioned to sign a contract on Monday as the deadline approached. No deal.


Dalvin Cook, meanwhile, is still without a team, released by the Minnesota Vikings in June despite rushing for more than 1,100 yards in each of the past four seasons. There’s a market for Cook, but at what price? He had three years left on his contract, averaging $12.6 million, before he was released.


Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon worked through a dilemma by reducing his salary from $9.4 million to less than $6 million, with incentives potentially allowing him to collect $8 million. Schaffer, who represents Mixon, reiterated what he expressed in a statement that emphasized the running back’s desire to remain with a Super Bowl contender.

Yet it’s also true that hitting a depressed running back market was not an attractive alternative.


Ekeler can relate. Amid a stalemate in negotiations with one year left on his contract, the Chargers granted his request to seek a trade. Yet there were apparently no takers, despite Ekeler, 27, leading the NFL over the past two years with 38 touchdowns. In lieu of a long-term deal, the Chargers reworked his contract by adding $2 million in incentives for 2023. Yet Ekeler’s average of $6.125 million per year ranks 323rd in the league, per Spotrac.


And while Barkley is expected to be a no-show when the Giants open training camp next week, once-maligned quarterback Daniel Jones operates with a fresh contract paying $40 million per year.


Yes, the system is skewed – or screwed, if you will, for running backs.


Just six running backs carry average salaries above the franchise tag, while several wide receivers who might be considered average have deals topping $11 million per year.


Getting to the open market is hardly the ticket. Miles Sanders received the top free agency deal for a running back this March, leaving the Philadelphia Eagles for the Carolina Panthers. His four-year, $25.4 million contract averages $6.4 million, which would make him the 40th highest-paid receiver.


It was quite the harbinger for the depressed market that has played out in ensuing months.


“You want to franchise tag and create a certain market for running backs just because you have this way of thinking that they only last three or four years,” Sanders said in June, during an appearance on "the Rich Eisen Show." “I think it’s B.S., honestly. Almost every running back is underpaid right now. I don’t know what it’s gonna take. That’s a topic that needs to be brought up a little more because it sucks to be a running back right now.”


What’s the solution? Adjusting the franchise tag, a key baseline for negotiations, would be a starting point. Although the tags are based on a formula tied to the top five salaries over five years, the NFL Players Association can conceivably negotiate with the NFL for a higher tag for running backs in establishing the cap for each season.


If not, then why not group the running backs into a category with receivers and tight ends? The tag for receivers in 2023 is $19.743 million (third highest behind quarterbacks and linebackers), while the tight end figure is $11.345 million.


“If they made that tag $16 million or $17 million,” Schaffer pondered, “people wouldn’t be tagging them and we’d find out what the market is.”


Schaffer, though, floated his own idea: allow running backs to enter the NFL on three-year contracts, with the chance to renegotiate after two years. As it stands now, the rookie pool system mandates four-year deals (with negotiations opening after three years) for players who aren’t first-round picks. As Barkley can attest after being drafted second overall in 2018, the first-rounders have it even worse because teams can exercise fifth-year options.


“The solution,” Schaffer said, “is that there has to be a recognition that when you have restraints, it’s not a true capitalistic market.”


While Jacobs and Barkley aren’t expected to report for the opening of training camps – and perhaps won’t show until the start of the regular season because they haven’t signed their franchise tag tenders – Pollard is due in Cowboys camp next week. Pollard signed his tender in March while rehabbing from a broken leg. Yet there’s still the uncertainty of not having a long-term deal.


Pollard’s agent, Kennard McGuire, told USA TODAY Sports, “We’re not going to compromise on what we think his value is.”


When it comes to running backs, though, that value is subject to much debate.




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