Before the NFL and the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) agreed on a rookie wage scale for all entry-level contracts, highly-touted rookie prospects had peak leverage when negotiating their first contract despite teams having no idea how their skills would translate at the next level.
In the modern NFL, teams consistently overvalue prospects with their draft capital. Future draft classes are mortgaged to select a “must-have” player before he’s taken an NFL snap. One of the most impressive and successful franchises, which currently boasts one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, recently exemplified how easy it is to overvalue a prospect. The 49ers traded away their 2021 first-round pick (12th overall), their 2022 first-round pick, their 2022 third-round pick, and the Dolphins 2022 first-round pick to move up nine places in the 2021 draft and select Trey Lance.
Trey Lance went on to have a disappointing career with the 49ers, starting a total of four games for the 49ers before they traded him away to the Cowboys for a fourth-round pick. In effect, the 49ers traded three first round picks and a third rounder for the Cowboys 4th round pick in 2024.
The rookie wage scale was introduced in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement as a means of protecting teams from the financial repercussions of grossly overvaluing prospects. Here are some of the most egregious rookie contract deals that were the impetus for change:
- Ryan Leaf, San Diego Chargers, 1998. $31.25 million, four years.
- JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders, 2007. Approximately $68 million, six years.
- Akili Smith, Cincinnati Bengals, 1999. $56 million, seven years.
- David Carr, Houston Texans, 2002. Approximately $46.2 million, five years.
The goal of the rookie wage scale was essentially to protect teams from themselves, and limit prospect negotiation leverage until they had proven their value in the NFL. Not only was the pay scale fixed on draft position, it locked players into four-year deals and restricted them from negotiating an extension until the conclusion of their third season in the league. These restrictions still exist today.
How has this shaped the modern running back market?
Running backs have frequently been likened to car tires; have limited tread and replaceable once worn down.
If running backs enter the draft with impressive college numbers, those tires have been on some cross-country roadtrips through the NCAA. Running backs have historically been the prospects most ready to make an immediate impact at the next level. Since 1975, the Offensive Rookie of the Year award has gone to a running back 29 out 47 times. The heavy early-year usage skeys their prime years of production, and by 28 or 29 years that tread is wearing thin and they’re seen as too risky for long, lucrative contracts.
Before the rookie wage scale,rookies had the freedom to negotiate both contract length and value upon their entry in the league. Running backs could leverage their entry negotiation to encompass their entire prime. Note the contracts of big-name running backs from the 2000’s:
- Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens, 2000. Approximately $35 million, seven years.
- LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers, 2001. Over $38 million, seven years.
- Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints, 2006. Approximately $62 million, six years.
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, 2007. Approximately $40 million, five years.
- Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders, 2008. Approximately $60 million, six years.
It may seem like a small detail, but even the flexibility to negotiate for a five year, back-loaded deal gave players much greater leverage when negotiating their second contract. Take Adrian Peterson and his contract, for example. Although his contract paid an average of $8 million per year, his contract year was back-loaded at $10.72 million. The franchise tag for running backs was $7,742,000 in 2012 when Peterson was scheduled to hit free agency, but because teams have to pay the higher of the calculated tag amount or 120% of the player’s previous salary, Peterson would have been tagged at $12,864,000. For a second consecutive tag, the 120% escalator would have applied again, bringing him to $15,436,800. A third tag would have required a 144% increase, bringing him all the way to a cap hit of $22,228,992.
In effect, the best leverage the Vikings had over Peterson was whether they were willing to cut or trade him at 26 years old, or threaten a tag process that would have paid him 166% more than the league-wide tag value in his first year and just over $16.8 million/year if applied three consecutive times. He ultimately settled for a six year extension worth over $14.2mil/year, but would be renegotiated and reduced after the third year.
Matt Forte and Ray Rice both signed the $7,742,000 franchise tag that year. Their teams could use this multi-tag strategy to effectively lock them into a three-year deal for a hit of $9,290,400 in year two and $13,378,176 in year three, with no guarantees outside of their current year. With the ability to lock a player up for three years at $30,410,576 with no long term risk, there was no reason to extend these players for more than $10 million a season. Forte would eventually sign a four year deal that paid $7.6 million/year, and Rice would sign a five year deal that paid $7 million/year.
The problem Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, and Josh Jacobs face
Here are the rumors of what extensions the trio of tagged running backs were offered in the 2023 offseason:
- Per CBS New York, Barkly was offered a deal that would have “paid $12 million to $14 million annually.”
- Per Mike Garafolo, Josh Jacobs was offered “around $12 million per year.”
- Stephen Jones claimed the Cowboys offered Pollard an extension but the terms are unknown.
There seems to be a ceiling of around $13 million/year on these deals, and this tag-math explains why. The teams have each their running back locked into a three year, $39,637,448 deal. This year, they were tagged for $10,091,000 (although Barkley and Jacobs were given some extra incentives that modestly increased this number). The second year increases to $12,109,200, and the third year to $17,437,248. Each year is a unilateral team-option with no future guarantees for the players.
This makes their current APY’s worth $13.21 million, on a back-loaded non-guaranteed contract that will expire when Barkley and Pollard are 29 and Jacobs is 28. It will be very hard for any of these running backs to command significant value at that time.
Had any of these players signed a back-loaded five year entry deal as Adrian Peterson had, their franchise tag value and the compounding effect would have been significantly greater. Instead, their earning potentially has been stunted.
If they all finish out three consecutive tags, their career earnings and APY’s to this point would be:
- Josh Jacobs: 7 years, $58,823,847. $8.4 million/year, UFA at 28.
- Saquon Barkley: 8 years, $78,239,198. $9.78/year, UFA at 29.
- Tony Pollard: 7 years, $43,292,776. $6.18/year, UFA at 29.
Compare that to Reggie Bush signing a 6 year, $10.3 million/year entry-level deal in 2006, and take in account that the salary cap has grown 220% since. No matter how many All-Pros, Pro Bowls, and rushing titles these players earn, they won’t be able to negotiate a contract on their terms until they’re past their prime, and have played under contracts worth less than those signed over fifteen years ago.
What options do running backs currently have?
Three of the NFL’s most prolific running backs are currently missing time due to “minor” injuries, and the NFL is crying foul. Players effectively lost their ability to hold out in the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, as teams were given the ability to deny an accrued year to players that refused to report to camp, thus keeping them stuck in the current year of their contract. Whatever leverage running backs once had, like that which Le’Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon unsuccessfully tried in the past, is effectively gone.
The counterpunch being suggested, which was even echoed by NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, is for disgruntled players to fake injuries. We may have seen the first example of this tactic when Jonathan Taylor was suspiciously added to the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after extension negotiations turned toxic with the Colts.
The day of the Colt’s opening game, Adam Schefter reported a source told him Taylor could pass a physical “today.”
Jonathan Taylor, who now is on Physically Unable to Perform List through Week 4 due to an ankle injury, is “going to pass his physical and could pass it today,” per source. Taylor is planning to be ready to play as early as Week 5, when he is eligible to come off the PUP list.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 10, 2023
J.C. Tretter appeared on Ross Tuckers’ podcast over the summer, and alluded to faking or embellishing injuries as the next step for players to increase their leverage:
“You need to try to create as much leverage as you possibly can…”— Ross Tucker Podcast (@RossTuckerPod) July 18, 2023
Interesting response from NFLPA President @JCTretter when asked if players like Saquon Barkley should fake injuries for contract purposes: pic.twitter.com/mgBYNmUlJL
More recently, two running backs who attempted to leverage a contract extension this offseason have gone down with ankle injuries.
Saquon Barkley is officially ruled out of the Giants’ Thursday Night Football matchup, Austin Ekeler miss the Chargers’ Week 2 matchup against the Titans. Brandon Staley has said there’s no official timeline for his return. Austin himself has said that he’s “day-to-day, week-to-week.”
The timing of these injuries correlate with reports of the NFL filing its grievance against the NFLPA, as Mark Maske reported below. His full story can be found here.
The NFL filed a grievance against the NFLPA last week accusing the union of improperly advising running backs to fake injuries as a contract-negotiating tactic with teams. The league informed owners on the Management Council Executive Committee of the grievance. Story coming.— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) September 18, 2023
If Ekeler, Barkley, and Taylor are embellishing... can you blame them?
It’s a common sentiment for fans to expect professional athletes to uphold the contracts they sign. It’s painful seeing players hold out over contracts worth millions of dollars, and even more painful when it affects the performance of a team.
It’s hard to apply those ethics to running backs that are being robbed of their highest leverage years. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap studied the growth in positional top contract value from 2013 to 2023, and unsurprisingly running backs trail the growth of all position groups except punters, and have increased remarkably less than the salary cap. It’s similar to a salaried or hourly employee getting a yearly raise of 5% in a year where inflation was 9%. Now, continue that same trend for a decade, and you’re a running back! Just look at the discrepancy in top-market growth from running back, and the next lowest non-specialist position.
Change in top of the market contract value at every position from 2013 to 2023. RT market exploded. QBs number 2. IDL, guard, WR, and safety all more than doubled. LS, RB, and P are the ones with a major lag on cap growth pic.twitter.com/cR6AGv5nPp— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) July 20, 2023
While it’s hard to believe running backs are faking injuries to stay off the field, it’s plausible there’s a grey area where they’re simply refusing to play if they’re banged up or nursing an injury. Why would Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley, or Jonathan Taylor play on anything less than an ankle that felt 100%, when the ankle will likely affect their performance and perceived value before free agency? What’s the reward for the risk they take in injuring themselves worse? It’s a no-win situation for a player with nothing to gain, but everything to lose.
How recent running back extensions have been shaped by the franchise tag
The Browns signed Nick Chubb to a three year extension in his contract year, 2021. The alternative for the Browns could have been consecutive tag route, starting at $9.57 million in 2022, and by the end of the third year would have totalled $37,590,960, or about $12.5 million/year. Chubb ended up signing a deal worth $36,600,000 over 3 years, or $12.2 million/year.
Derrick Henry was tagged by the Titans for $10,278,000 in 2020, and would have paid just under $13.5 million per year after three tags, but he settled on a four year contract that would pay him $12.5 million/year over four years.
Dalvin Cook signed a five year pact in 2020 worth $12.6/year, but only lasted three years before he was cut. Aaron Jones signed a four year deal in 2021 worth $12 million/year, but was forced to take a pay cut in his third year of the deal.
Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara would have both been free agents in 2021, but Christian signed a four year deal in his contract year worth just over $16 million annually, and Kamara signed a five year deal worth $15 annually. They may be the exception to this rule as they are both exceptional running backs but arguably provide just as much value in the passing game.
It’s evident that the running back market has been suppressed by the league’s ability to control their final valuable years with the franchise tag, while giving an extra nod to running backs that double as a team’s top receiving option (Ekeler could have benefitted from this had he waited before signing his extension).
The contracts of Devante Adams and Tyreek Hill show that this trend doesn’t apply to wide receivers, who can negotiate third contracts impervious to tag leverage, even near age 30.
- Hill was scheduled to be the youngest of the three when his contract expired at 29 years old. His three-year tag-value was valued at $25.9 million/year; the Dolphins signed him for $30 million/year.
- Devante Adams had a three year tag-value of $25.9 million/year; the Raiders signed him for $28 million/year at 30 years old.
- Additionally, Cooper Kupp signed his extension in 2022 despite not being UFA eligible until 2024 to help the Rams with cap issues. His deal, which extended the contract in his age 31-33 years, is paying $26.7 million/year, still above the market-value of the three-year franchise tag at the time it was signed.
The solution isn’t simple, but it’s worth the NFL and NFLPA’s time
There need to be protections in place for the position with the lowest average career length, and the one that is arguably most vulnerable to career-threatening injuries. One idea could be setting carry thresholds for running backs on rookie contracts that allow them to “skip” an accrued year in their contract, allowing high-usage backs to get to free agency quicker.
If Bijan Robinson were to log 200 carries in 2023, why not allow his contract to accelerate to its third year (without paying him for the second)? Should he receive another 200 carries in in 2024, the fourth year would be skipped as well, giving him Unrestricted Free Agent rights in year 2025 and the benefits of a four-year vested veteran?
Alternatively, just do away with the franchise tag. Running backs are clearly the biggest victims of the tag, but if you don’t want to make positional exceptions, just get rid of the it. By eliminating the tag, and the fifth year option for first round picks, running backs will be free to negotiate a contract at age 25 or 26 without the leverage the tag allows teams to apply.
Until the league addresses this growing problem, expect running backs to continue to be loud with their grievances, and to come up with more creative ways to protect their interests.