The decline of the running-back position in the NFL has been quite apparent over the last few years, with the league shifting to more passing-oriented offenses. Last year we saw, for the first time in NFL history, no running-back was selected in the first round of the draft.
Team's have shifted away from having a single, do-it-all running-back, to a committee of backs with each offering a different running style. And with this year's free-agent market, the decline in value of this position painted a clear picture. Most team's are no longer willing to pay big money for running backs.
The contracts that Johnson, Darren Sproles, Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno, and Rashad Jennings signed all average to $3.5 million for this year. And most of them are expected to start, or at least compete for a starting spot.
Only 11 running-backs are getting over $5 million this season, which is well below half the starters in the league. Looking at the top contracts for running-backs in the NFL, we see that besides Adrian Peterson's contract, which pays him $14.4 million this season, no other player gets over $10 million.
For this coming season, the Chargers have invested close to that $10 million mark on three players; Brown, Danny Woodhead, and Ryan Mathews. However, Mathews and Woodhead become free-agents after this season. Entering the final year of his rookie contract which pays him $4.7 million this year, Ryan Mathews will be the feature back in the San Diego Chargers back-field once again, after accumulating 1,255 yards and six touchdowns on 285 carries last year.
Comparing his stats to the other top running-backs in the league, Mathews put up the numbers that placed him among the top 10 at the position last year. Going into this season, the average salary of the top 10 highest contracts for running-backs (not including Adrian Peterson, which pushes Mathews into this list) is about $6.87 million, per Overthecap.com.
So the question is: With how the value of this position has declined so rapidly over the years, how much should the Chargers look to pay Ryan Mathews in order to keep him after next year? And does he deserve top 10 money?
Only three running-backs that have been drafted since 2008 have received contracts that average over the $3.5 million that the free-agent running-backs got this year: Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and Jonathan Stewart. Each will earn $8.7 million, $7 million, and $7.3 million, respectively, this year.
Now, with Mathews and C.J. Spiller the next two high-profile running-backs that will be looking to cash-in, they enter a world that holds murky waters for them. But they are not alone, as their respective teams will be there as well, having to lay the groundwork for future contracts for the running backs that command top money.
After rushing for over a 1,000 yards and scoring 10 rushing touchdowns, Knowshon Moreno, a first-round selection by the Broncos the year before Mathews and Spiller were drafted, received a one-year, $3 million deal from his new team, the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos just could not justify paying Moreno, especially with Montee Ball waiting in the wings.
This year's free-agent market for running-backs has made it clear that the Chargers have somewhat of an advantage when the negotiations with Mathews begin. However, the question remains, does Ryan Mathews command more than $4 million a year, the same amount that Chris Johnson got, especially since he will be turning 28 next October?
Using the franchise tag on Mathews if negotiations stall will probably not be an option for the team.
With Donald Brown now in San Diego to help spell Mathews, he might be the perfect insurance policy in case the Chargers don't find a way to keep Mathews after this coming season. Because not only will the Chargers probably have to pay Mathews more than Brown, but they will also have to justify investing more than $10 million into their back-field. Something only the Eagles, Panthers, and Vikings are paying for this year. And that figure wouldn't even be including Danny Woodhead, if he's re-signed.
So with this year's market value for running-backs being so low, next year the Chargers will have to figure out if they will be able to retain a top 10 running-back, without having to pay a top 10 price.