Running back value is at an all time low. The best backs in the league aren’t getting long contract extensions, and very good backs are let go for nothing, then sign short terms contracts worth 1/10th of what their quarterbacks get paid. This is partly due to the sheer supply of new blood in that position, that you can get 90% of the same production for 1/10th of the cost. But this is not the free market at work, but rather the rational outcome of the economic system set up by the NFL so that billionaires can exploit millionaires.
American pro sports has evolved to be a money generating machine where profit is virtually guaranteed due to the pinning its largest expense – player compensation – to a percentage of sports-related revenues. This is similar to the wage cap being implemented in UEFA competitions in the coming years, the biggest difference is that in American sports, the cap is the same for all teams and calculated based on league revenues, so you don’t have the built in competitive imbalance (beyond local tax structures) that the UEFA system has where teams that make more money can spend more money.
NFL, Exploiter Supreme
In America, no league has been able to squeeze the players more than the NFL. Whereas all other leagues have guaranteed contacts (i.e. the terms of a contract is binding and will always been paid out regardless of injury or performance, unless there’s a material breach or a buy-out is negotiated), NFL teams can release players without fulling their end of the bargain at a whim. It’s absolutely wild for that to be a thing for a sport rife with major injuries that can derail or end careers on the field. But the NFL Players’ union doesn’t have enough leverage to wait out the owners, as the earning window for American football players are so narrow, withholding labour for a year plus is a hard-sell for much of the rank-and-file who don’t have a lot of time in the league.
This brings us to the running back, a position that is crucial for entertaining the fans as well as making the team successful on offense. Running backs are some of most dynamic, explosive players on the field, so-called “weapons” that can devastate the opponent with their speed, power, and agility. Unfortunately, the position is also one that is stocked with viable replacements for star players. The likes of Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Marshall Faulk may be the stars of their day and got paid as such, but if they were still playing, they’d be the ones that are disproportionately hurt by the current economic system in the NFL.
Thanks to a combination of age restrictions, maximum rookie contracts (i.e. caps for how much new players to the league can earn each year), and the franchise tag (i.e. designations that prevent out of contract players from signing with any team by forcing them to accept a salary that is relatively high *for the position*), the system artificially restricts the earning power of players up to their first seven years in the league. Unlike most positions, this happens to be the physical prime of running backs due to physical nature of the position, and the tolls their bodies take from being literally pounded into the ground 20-25 times each game. What this means is that other than for some truly special players, the best years a running back has to offer are the ones in which their wages suppressed, which is a wild and unfair paradox.
This is why neither Josh Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher last year, nor Saquon Barkley, the New York Giant’s best offensive player, were able to come to an agreement on long contract extensions this off season. Barkley is reportedly signing a 1-year deal for a bit over the value of the tag, which is probably the most he can get. Despite his importance to the team, he’s projected to be paid only the 6th best. So even for the best players at the position, ones that are centrepieces of their teams offenses, they can’t get commitments from teams to pay them at the top of the market, which is falling as a result.
The Name of the Game is Efficiency
From the team’s perspective, this is entirely rational given the economic system in place. When you have a hard salary cap, it’s important to allocate resources efficiently, and the marginal gains from having a superstar running back instead of a rookie or cheap free agent is just not going to be worth the opportunity cost of being able to reallocate the excess cap room elsewhere on the roster. The risk of forgoing a known quantity to go with a cheaper alternative makes sense given the large amount of cap space that can be saved. And that’s not counting the high rate of injury that can torpedo a running back’s entire season, costing a team that player anyway.
In a capped league, the name of the game is “excess value” – that is, getting more value from players than what you are paying them. In other words: exploitation. Rookie contracts are the best way of doing that: you get to have superstars on the field, but only pay them a predetermined, suppressed wage not based on how good they are, but where they were drafted. The idea for the players is that when these rookie contracts expire, the ones that have a demonstrated track record of high performance can sign big free agent deals and get paid what they are worth then.
Barring injury, this generally works out OK for the players. Most of them get their second contracts in their prime at pretty close to market value, when they are in their mid to late 20s, and teams are willing to pay higher salaries in exchange for reducing the risk of not getting the production they are paying for. Players that get franchise tagged will make the mean salary of the top 5 highest paid players at that position (for the first year) or 120% of their previous salary, whichever is higher, so they are guaranteed to be compensated in line with the highest paid at that position while on the tag. They may not get the long term guarantees they want, but at least they’ll be paid like a star during the time they are on the franchise tag, and they can sign that long term deal a year (or two) later and still get paid.
But for running backs, their production falls off much quicker than for other positions, as their prime get mostly used up during the time their wages are suppressed. When their rookie deals expire, teams are unwilling to commit to more than a year or two to them because they (rightly) fear their production will drop off. And if they are franchise tagged, the wage they get won’t be that high relative to other positions given that no running backs make a lot. It’s a vicious circle that ensures that players who play one of the most exciting positions in American football don’t get fairly compensated for the value they bring to fans.
Old school analysts bemoan the devaluing of the running back and blame analytics for figuring out that drafting them high and signing them to hefty contracts is inefficient given the expected performance drop off starting in their late 20s. But the real blame goes to the league (and the union) for allowing such a financial structure to be created and maintained where it objectively rarely makes sense to pay even Hall of Famers the kind of money they arguably deserve. Simply put, the system is broken if the franchise tag value for a running back is the lowest of all non-special team positions.
With the current setup, teams are given the incentive, due to wage suppression, to make bets on young, unproven players because of the potential excess value they can get. Even if you sign a known quantity in free agency, the one thing you’re unlikely to get is more than what you pay for, even if you sign superstars (because you’ll be paying them superstar salaries). Until the incentives change (e.g. eliminating the rookie wage scale), teams will always favour young players because you don’t have to pay according to talent or expect performance – and running backs, being largely replaceable and having short shelf-like, will suffer disproportionate as a result.
The lesson to be learned here is that putting restrictions in place in terms of how money within a system is distributed, like a salary cap and limits on how much young players earn, can have unexpected and undesirable effects, creating winners and losers that may not be obvious at the get-go. Did the league and union collude to suppress running back pay? Probably not, but what’s done is done and now, it’s hard to reverse given that the total amount of money the players get is fixed. So the real lesson to be learned is this: be really careful when you do something that is hard to undo.