The NFL’s relationship with running backs took a negative turn this weekend when Adrian Peterson, a 13-year veteran and former MVP, told reporters he felt it was “disrespectful” the way teams value the position. It’s understandable why he would feel that way. Broken down by position in 2020, the average salary for a running back ($1.59 million) will only be higher than the average punter ($1.51 million), fullback ($1.20 million) and long snapper ($882,000). Quarterbacks, by comparison, will average $4.87 million this season.
But Peterson shouldn’t blame the owners and general managers for the current situation. He should blame the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
|Position||Average salary in 2020|
|Offensive lineman||$2.51 million|
|Wide receiver||$2.01 million|
|Tight end||$1.73 million|
|Running back||$1.59 million|
The NFL CBA features a rookie pay scale for players selected in the draft, averaging $17.96 million for first-round picks in 2020 and $3.38 million for those selected in the seventh round in 2019. These players were able to sign a deal no longer than four years in length, although contracts for first-round picks include a team option for a fifth year. Undrafted free agents were able to sign contracts no longer than three years in length. Players with three accrued seasons who have received a qualifying offer become restricted free agents, and those with four or more accrued seasons are eligible to be an unrestricted free agent. For a running back drafted or initially signed around 23 years old, the average age for the position in Year 1 of their pro careers, that’s terrible news.
Since 2002, running backs have peaked between the ages of 23 and 26. This is true whether we look at rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage or total touchdowns. Three-fourths of running backs will peak sometime within that window, and nearly half will do it at 23 or 24. In other words, a running back selected in the draft will most likely peak while under the initial four- or five-year contract, leaving little incentive for an owner or general manager to commit premium salary cap space to a declining player.
Durability and workload is another concern. Once a running back exits his prime at around 26, the number of games he plays the following year starts to decline. For example, 26-year-olds play roughly the same number of games at 27 but 5 percent fewer from 27 to 28, 10 percent fewer from 28 to 29, 10 percent fewer from 29 to 30 and 20 percent fewer from 30 to 31. And these only count the running backs still in the league. If we adjust for those that are already out of the NFL, the average number of real games played by a running back at age 26 compared with age 30 is 10 to three.
“I think the change is going to come,” Peterson told TMZ. “Me and Frank Gore continue to show guys: ‘Hey, we are valuable. We can have 10-, 14-year careers as well, so value us as well like you would value a quarterback, you know?’ ”
Not likely. If anything, those two are the exception at a position that absorbs a lot of contact. Not only that, but the running back’s financial position will continue to lag behind the rest of the offense because teams do not place a premium on running backs as the league continues to embrace the passing game. For example, when outside the red zone with the score within a touchdown on first and second down in 2019, teams averaged seven yards per play passing and less than five yards per play rushing. In those situations, teams also moved the chains more often by throwing the ball (33 percent) than running it (19 percent). While it doesn’t make running backs irrelevant by any means, it does make sense that teams would invest their money in players who contribute to the passing game, given that disparity in efficiency.
|2019||Yards per play||First down rate||Points per game|
We’ve already seen a massive adjustment in how running back contracts are doled out. In 2019, the average contract extended to a running back past his prime (27 or older) was for 1.5 years and paid an average of $2.17 million per year. Five years ago, those averages were 2.2 years and $4.43 million per year after adjusting for salary cap inflation.
|Contract year||Average length||Average annual dollars (adjusted for salary cap inflation)|
|2015||2.2 years||$4.43 million|
|2016||1.6 years||$2.42 million|
|2017||1.3 years||$2.00 million|
|2018||1.4 years||$2.33 million|
|2019||1.5 years||$2.17 million|
These are, of course, valuing the position as a whole and not individual players, who can and do still sign massive contracts, especially those who have become a fixture in the passing game. Christian McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers agreed to a four-year contract extension in April, averaging $16 million per year, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Ezekiel Elliott agreed to a six-year, $90 million contract extension with the Dallas Cowboys in September. Yet it’s possible those two aren’t still with their clubs by the time the deals expire.
In July 2018, Los Angeles signed Todd Gurley II to a four-year, $60 million contract extension that included $45 million in guarantees, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL at the time. The 25-year-old was released 20 months later. The Atlanta Falcons released 27-year-old Devonta Freeman with three years and $21 million remaining on his contract in March. The Tennessee Titans released 29-year-old Dion Lewis just two years into a four-year, $19.8 million contract that he signed in 2018. Jerick McKinnon had his base salary lowered from $6.5 million to $910,000 by the San Fransisco 49ers after he turned 28. And Lamar Miller, who turned 29 in April, was not re-signed by the Miami Dolphins at the conclusion of his four-year, $14 million guaranteed deal from 2016. He missed the entire 2019 season with a torn ACL and remains a free agent.
There is virtually no case that makes sense for giving older running backs more money. It makes far more sense to invest in more efficient passing-game players, who also carry less health risk. Teams aren’t going to change their spending habits without a reason. And that reason probably will require a change to the CBA.
The NFL has made it virtually impossible for running backs to make financial gains under the current CBA. Instead, the best they can aim for is to outperform expectations on their entry-level contract and hope a team goes against conventional wisdom and offers a lucrative multiyear contract, which history has shown probably will lead to their release before it expires. If running backs want more respect in the pay department, they’ll need to change the CBA.
More NFL coverage: