It’s easy to understand why two-time Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon believes he is due a raise from his 2019 salary of $5.6 million after scoring 14 total touchdowns and averaging 114.6 scrimmage yards last season for the Los Angeles Chargers. His odds of obtaining a richer, reworked deal, however, may not be great in this NFL, where the running game has been on the outs for years and plenty of metrics show wisdom in replacing running backs rather than paying them.
In 2018, teams rushed the football 25.9 times per game, the lowest mark in NFL history. And that’s just the latest in a downward trend that started in 2003. Accompanying that statistical trend is one in which many teams have opted to let even top-tier running backs walk away rather than spend big on a second contract. It at least appears the Chargers are similarly minded after their offer to Gordon.
“We received an offer — talks had been dead — but we received an offer that wasn’t a fair offer based on what Melvin has done, where he was drafted and how he’s performed, making two of the last four Pro Bowls,” Damarius Bilbo, one of the agents who represents Gordon, told NFL Network. “It was disrespectful.”
Gordon isn’t as integral to the Chargers’ success as he and his agents might think.
In the 12 games Gordon played last season, the Chargers averaged 128.1 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. In the four games he missed, backups Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson managed 84 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. So there is some dip in performance, but Ekeler proved more elusive than Gordon. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Ekeler created 3.63 yards per carry after contact. By comparison, Gordon created 2.83 yards per carry after contact, similar to what Jackson mustered (2.76).
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All three players were beneficiaries of an improved offensive line. The Chargers’ offensive front ranked 31st, 23rd and 26th in adjusted line yards — a measure of offensive line play that is independent of running back performance — during Gordon’s first three years in the NFL but improved to fifth last season, which helped facilitate Gordon’s ascension to the upper echelon of the position. But, as you can see, the offensive line buoyed Ekeler and Jackson, too, dulling any leverage Gordon thinks he might have.
Defenders of Gordon will argue running backs like him deserve more given their ability to catch passes out of the backfield. But that, too, is misguided: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Gordon connected on 50 of 66 passes for 490 yards and four touchdowns, but Rivers and Ekeler combined to go 39 for 53 for 404 yards and three touchdowns. Ekeler also created more missed tackles on receptions (12) than Gordon (11) despite Gordon receiving more targets.
In addition, passes to Ekeler were more lucrative, resulting in 20.8 more points scored per 100 snaps than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each throw, almost double the mark of Gordon (11.6). Only throws to tight end Antonio Gates (11.1 EPA per 100 snaps) and wideout Travis Benjamin (minus-11.2 EPA per 100 snaps) were less successful for the Chargers last season.
Gordon wouldn’t be the first running back who misjudged the market. Le’Veon Bell thought he could make the Pittsburgh Steelers pay up, only for them to turn to James Conner, a third-round draft pick in 2017 who logged 68 snaps that season before getting the starting nod with Pittsburgh a year later. Conner didn’t disappoint. He touched the ball 270 times for 1,470 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns, ending the season as the eighth-best running back of 2018, per Pro Football Focus. Conner also cost just $754,572 against the salary cap, a fraction of the $14.5 million the team earmarked for Bell before his holdout.
Bell did end up getting a four-year, $52.5 million contract ($27 million guaranteed) with the New York Jets, but those contracts are rare in today’s market. In 2013, the first year in which yearly data is available from Spotrac, the average running back cost $6.2 million per year in salary cap space. In 2018, that dropped to $4.9 million. In 2013, 10 teams spent at least 6 percent of their salary cap dollars on running backs, with the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans spending 11 percent or more. Last season, only one team, the Buffalo Bills, spent more than 5 percent of their salary cap space on running backs. Buffalo finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs.
This isn’t to say that a great running back isn’t important or doesn’t help a team win. It’s to say that money spent on a big second contract for a running back typically is a poor decision.
The Vikings spent their money on Adrian Peterson, giving him a seven-year, $96 million deal in 2011. He led the league in rushing yards the following season and again in 2015 but had two years with Minnesota when he mustered 75 yards or fewer (2014 and 2016). Tennessee signed Chris Johnson to a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension with $30 million guaranteed in 2011 but cut ties with him in 2014 after a career-low 3.9 yards per carry in 2013.
The peak age for a running back is somewhere between the ages of 23 and 28 with a steep and quick decline shortly after that. The average draft age for a running back is 22. If each pick is signed to a four- or five-year rookie deal, the second contract almost always encompasses prime decline years, making it a risky investment.
Remember, too, teams aren’t just weighing whether running backs are worth, or have earned, a big contract. They’re weighing whether the money would be better spent elsewhere — for example, pass rushing. And the reason for teams’ reluctance to spend on running backs stems from replaceability. NFL teams are able to find productive rushers from unlikely and varied sources with little risk or investment.
Chris Carson, a seventh-round pick in 2017, earned the bulk of Seattle’s carries this past season ahead of Rashaad Penny, who was drafted 27th overall in 2018.
Spencer Ware got the starting gig for the Kansas City Chiefs last season after the team released Kareem Hunt. And when Ware went down with a hamstring injury, the team turned to four-year pro Damien Williams and undrafted rookie Darrel Williams. In 11 games with Hunt, Kansas City averaged 115.8 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. Without Hunt, the Chiefs averaged 116.2 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry.
Undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay rushed for 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns for the Denver Broncos last year and cost just $689,704 against the salary cap. Only $15,000 of his three-year, $1.725 million contract is guaranteed. Compare that with the $9.2 million salary cap hit the Los Angeles Rams are committing to Todd Gurley II, who may have an “arthritic component” to his knee, and the case is clear: Don’t risk big money on running backs.