NFL Countdown #18: Rookie runningbacks put up just over 20% of all
100-yard rushing games in 2020. James Robinson had four on his own,
despite being paid just $610,000 over his miraculous 1,000-yard season.
The phrase “now, more than ever” has been shamelessly thrown into just about every commercial advertisement since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s usually for some gigantic soul-less corporation trying to convince viewers that their wealth-hoarding executives actually care about the plight of the common man, but I’m not buying it.
That being said, it seems that now, more than ever, the NFL is dominated by runningbacks who are barely allowed to drink alcohol legally. Salary cap managers in the NFL are constantly looking to cut corners and maximize wins for their teams while minimizing player salaries. One of the best ways to get the most bang for your buck in this department is to draft well and get a lot of production from players on their rookie contracts. Teams that can effectively use players on their rookie contracts are then free to dole out a ton of money for premier players to fill in the gaps in their rosters. Because of the advantage gained with this strategy, general managers are happy to sign a young runningback for much less than they’re worth, overwork them throughout the life of their rookie contract, then cut bait when their rookie contract is done. This strategy of team-building is likely the best key to success in the NFL, but the widespread popularization of this tactic and the speed at which beloved players are replaced has led a lot of football fans to believe that “runningbacks don’t matter”.
In the past few seasons we’ve seen many examples of teams succeeding by undervaluing their runningbacks, as well as others quickly regretting their decision to back up the Brinks truck. When the Steelers were unwilling to sign Le’Veon Bell to a longer-term contract, their superstar runningback sat out for the 2018 season while his backup, James Conner, balled out in his stead. The Jaguars let Leonard Fournette leave in free agency before the 2020 season, when undrafted free agent James Robinson stepped right into this vacated backfield and arguably performed better than the former 4th overall pick. Other teams have opted to throw a lot of money at their franchise runningbacks, with some mixed results. Todd Gurley was granted a huge 4-year/$60 million contract ahead of the 2018 season, then was promptly diagnosed with arthritis from overuse and has never been the same player. Jerry Jones has been on a spending spree lately, locking down his franchise QB for 4 years and making Ezekiel Elliott one of the highest paid runningbacks in the history of the league. In his second season on this 6 year/$90 million contract, Zeke missed the 1,000-yard mark and ran for a career-low 4 yards per carry.
Of all the players on a 53-man roster, I personally believe runningbacks deserve the most money. It makes sense that quarterbacks are paid the most – there are never more than about 15 people in the world who could realistically lead a team to a championship, and there’s probably fewer than five GMs that wouldn’t give Patrick Mahomes the shirt off their back to play for their team. This overvaluation of star athletes is seen across every sport, but I’m not sure there’s a less appreciated position in sports than the bellcow runningback. I mean, we even dehumanize them with terms like “bellcow” and “workhorse”.
I really hate to say it, but with the way rookie contracts are structured, I don’t think it’s a smart organizational decision to pay runningbacks what they’re worth. If I were the owner of a team and I didn’t have to worry about a salary cap, I would certainly pay my franchise runningback as much as I could afford. In terms of any job a human could have, I can’t picture many things more grueling than being tackled 20+ times on Sunday by gigantic men that have trained their entire lives to hit other men as hard as they can. Runningbacks routinely risk their physical and mental health to help their teams win, and in return they are treated as easily replaceable assets with a short shelf-life. They are overworked by coaches and general managers that want to squeeze every ounce of production out of their star player on a rookie contract, then are kicked to the curb after their body has taken enough damage or there’s a cheaper shiny toy they can run into the ground. It’s a sad reality, but this is a winning strategy in this era of the NFL.
So it’s almost always a better organizational decision to overwork your runningback on a rookie contract, but what if it didn’t have to be this way? I don’t know nearly enough about why we’re in this situation, but I really wish the ownership-NFLPA conglomerate was doing more to prevent teams from overworking and undervaluing these guys to the point that they never have a chance at earning more money over their careers than a journeyman backup QB. At the very least, something should be done to ensure runningbacks on rookie deals can be compensated more when they’re treated as bellcows. Maybe some sort of bonus structure could be worked into rookie contracts to reward these guys who essentially lose value every time they’re tackled. James Robinson was given the rock 289 times in 2020, essentially receiving about $2000 for each time he risked serious injury – and quite frankly, death – by challenging 11 gigantic men to bring him down. I don’t know about you, but $2000 wouldn’t even cover the medical expenses I would incur after just one carry in the NFL. Life isn’t fair, but this is just ridiculous when players like Johnny Hekker can make $72,000 for every time they punt a football.
I love runningbacks and I think they deserve much more money, but teams just aren’t going to pay these players their worth until something changes. Please hit me up on twitter (@FB_Dive) with any ideas you have that would help runningbacks get the money or the longevity they deserve. I’m not friends with Roger Goodell and I don’t know anyone who could help with this crusade, but maybe if enough of us band together and try to convince the NFL that runningbacks do matter, we’ll see more Frank Gores or at least more retired 26-year-olds with enough money to cover the team of doctors they’ll need on retainer for the rest of their lives.