Are Big Running Back Contracts Worth it?

Dominic Blatt, Staff

There is no doubt that having a good running back instantly improves an NFL team, no matter what scheme they’re using. But, having said that is it really worth it to spend a lot of money on a good back when you can find a better value back elsewhere?

Recent History has shown that most backs that are signed to big deals end up not being worth the money, whether due to injuries or bad play. 

Todd Gurley: After two all pro seasons in 2017 and 2018, Gurley received a much deserved four year, $60 million contract. The following season was an injury riddled with Gurley’s knee causing him a diminishing workload and only posting 850 rush yards and 12 touchdowns. He was then cut, giving the Rams about $20 million in dead cap. 

Ezekiel Elliot: Zeke is one of the few backs in the league who haven’t been a bad large contract investment for their team. He received a six year, $90 million contract and in return had a 1350 yard season with 12 rushing touchdowns(the second highest in his career). So far through the 2020 season, he has 413 yards at 4.1 yards per carry and five touchdowns. 

Devonta Freeman: After two good seasons in 2015-2016, Devonta received a five year, $41.25 contract, only to go out with an injury for the 2018 season. When he came back in 2019, he was never the same, posting 650 rush yards and just two touchdowns. 

David Johnson: David Johnson had an all pro year in 2016 and in return received a 3 year, $39 million contrat with the Cardinals. After that great year, he has been an injury prone and largely ineffective back, posting 1300 rush yards over the next three seasons with 9 touchdowns to accompany them. 

Christian McCaffrey: During this last offseason, CMC signed a four year deal totaling $64 million. So far this season, he played two games before getting injured, posting about 230 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in those games. 

Le’veon Bell: The Jets went out and made Le’Veon one of the highest paid backs in the league with a four year $52.5 million dollar contract. He then went on to have some of the lowest stats in his career and ultimately be cut from the team. He recently signed with the Chiefs on a one year contract worth up to $1.69 million. 

Doug Martin: Doug Martin got paid big via a 5 year, $35.75 million dollar contract after a monster season in 2015. In the next three seasons after that, he got just over 800 yards in two seasons with the Bucs with 2.9 yards a carry. He then got cut and signed with the raiders, rushing for 700 yards and 4 touchdowns before ultimately being cut. 

Chris Ivory: Chris Ivory signed a five year, $32 million contract with the Jaguars in 2016. After that signing, he went to post 1200 total yards over the next three seasons with 5 touchdowns before being cut. 

Many running backs who received generous contracts have been riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness. It makes sense why many teams are stalling on giving their star players large extensions. The saints are one of those teams, with their star running back Alvin Kamara wanting a large extension. Kamara, who has posted 3 straight pro bowl seasons since being drafted in 2017, has made it no secret that he expects a large contract to be coming his way soon. This is for good reason too, as he is a weapon that can effectively change the outcome of a game. 

That being said, most of the running backs listed above were the same. They were all coming off of big seasons and were large parts of their teams success yet they fell off after getting their payday. This is due to the way rookie contracts are negotiated and the average peak of backs. Statistically, most peak anywhere from 23-26 years old. It’s no wonder why they do their best at a young age and often get hurt, it’s hard on the body to be a running back. You are constantly being hit and are in contact with the other teams players no matter the play. Longevity has not been a strong suit for backs historically, with the exception of player like Frank Gore, who is practically a dinosaur at 37 years old. 

It doesn’t help running backs’ cases that the NFL is a pass-first league. Even the league’s leading rusher, the Ravens(who also set the all time record for team rushing yards), passed more than they ran the ball. 

There is a certain hierarchy in the way positions are valued with QBs at the top, and RBs are much closer to the bottom. Since the league is pass first, positions that help the pass game and help shut down the pass are valued more. For example, Quarterbacks and tackles are valued highly because they are key pieces of an offence in today’s NFL. Defensively, corners and edge rushers are some of the most sought after positions because of their influence on pass defence. 

From the point of view of the front office of a team, it’s much more cost effective to find good, young backs in free agency for a cheap price or use backs that are still on their rookie deals. keeping running backs on low cost deals gives teams more leway in signing positions that will help them dominate in this passing dominant league.