Discover more from All Fields
Are the NFL's running backs wronged?
NFL running backs have a tough job. They run into people, most of whom are way bigger than them, repeatedly and without expectation that they’ll get a free breakaway more than a few times a season.
And that’s if they’re good.
One of the best statistics to tell you who’s good at it is Yards After Contact, which should give you an idea of what they’re paid to do. They’re battering rams.
They are also, like most NFL players, well-compensated. Christian McCaffrey, the highest-paid RB in the league (by annual salary), makes just over $16 million a year. You’d probably run into people for that kind of cash too.
And though a lot of people still struggle with this line of thinking, let’s set aside the matter of whether football players should make tens of millions — hint: the league makes tens of billions, so yes, they should — and talk about the disparate salaries among players.
Because running backs are not paid all that much in comparison to their peers on NFL rosters, and they’re pissed about it.
So let’s take a look at how players are compensated by position, as compiled by ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky last year.
And to be clear, this is the average salary of the top 10 players at the position as of 2022, so it’s not all-encompassing, but it gives an indication of where pay is at the premium end.
“1.) QB 40.0
2.) WR 23.0
3.) EDGE 22.0
4.) OL 19.8
5.) DT 18.1
6.) CB 17.3
7.) S 14.4
8.) TE 12.6
9.) RB 12.3
10.) LB 12.0”
To those who remember the days of Mike Ditka trading the Saints’ entire draft for Ricky Williams, this represents a major shift in the way players are valued. How the BeastModers have fallen.
No one’s surprised to see quarterbacks leading the charge. They remain, arguably, the single most important position in all of American sports, so they get top dollar. Fair enough.
What is a little surprising, given that the “skill positions” have historically meant running backs and wide receivers, is that the top WRs are now making nearly double what the top RBs are.
Even tight ends have them beat, in an age where you’d probably rather have Travis Kelce than any RB alive. Why? He plays like a WR. The league’s changed, and it’s more pass-friendly than ever.
Hit Or Be Hit
The bottom-two positions on this list — LB and RB — are the ones that take the most punishment in the run game, which has gotten less important. Their jobs, respectively, are to tackle and be tackled.
We haven’t seen the same kind of positional solidarity among linebackers as we have running backs, who are out here holding Zoom conferences and proposing summits, but even they have a better age curve than the rock-toters.
There’s tons of evidence to suggest RBs fall off a cliff before reaching 30, and that has led to teams getting stingy with aging backs. No one’s eager to pay top dollar, and that has a lot of backs feeling undervalued.
Fairly young guys, who have had strong careers to this point — Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, and Leonard Fournette — were each released by their teams this offseason as cost-cutting measures. They’re 27, 27, and 28 respectively, and none of those teams wanted to pay them.
Funny business like this is happening to even younger players too, like 24-year-old Jonathan Taylor, although his situation seems to be a weird case all its own.
The real bummer is: these teams may be right. Running backs do break down earlier, probably because of the job description we gave at the top. Occupational hazards include 300-pound wrecking balls ruining your day, any given Sunday.
It’s also not clear that having an elite running back is all that different from having an average one.
“Replacement-level” is terminology more associated with baseball, but it works in football too, and the numbers suggest that replacement-level is plenty at that position, especially considering the trend towards distributing the workload across multiple players: a backfield by committee.
One part of running backs’ case that I find especially convincing, though — possibly owing to my established interest in how college sports work and how they constrict pathways to the pros — is that RBs are required to take three years of punishment in college before they’re allowed to go pro.
That strikes me as relevant when we’re talking about players who typically peak considerably earlier than their peers.
“Any conversation about RB pay and fairness has to mention the fact that they spend the bulk of their prime working for free, then playing on a cost-controlled contract.”
The point being: even after three years of wear and tear from college, running backs will play a minimum of four years on their rookie deals — which pay set amounts based on where they’re drafted — and can then be further constrained by the franchise tag, a strange idiosyncrasy of the NFL that has become an annual grievance for a lot of tagged players.
The (sort of) counterpoint being: the market still isn’t proving lucrative even when players do get access to it. Part of that is the delayed timing, to be sure, but part of that is how the position has gotten less valuable by virtue of new rules and play styles.
Still, I do get the frustration. Running backs have uniquely short NFL lifespans, and they’re not able to capitalize on their peak earning power because of how the league structures pay for all incoming players, regardless of position.
Again, the draft itself doesn’t stand up to a ton of scrutiny if you’re looking for fairness.
RBs may push the players’ union to negotiate some kind of carveout, and though I’m unsure how far they’d get with that, I hope they try.
Otherwise, that wall isn’t moving, and these guys are going to keep running into it.