You may recall the events surrounding the 2011 NFL Draft. It was a weird world where teams could call players on the day they were drafted, but were not allowed to start any contract negotiations until the Collective Bargaining Agreement was finalized. Furthermore, the CBA that was agreed upon that summer created a rookie wage scale for the first time in the NFL. There would be no more giant contracts to unproven rookies; any drafted rookie would have a four year contract and there would be a special fifth year team option for first round selections.
Furthermore, Article 7, Section 3(k)(I) of the CBA spells out how rookies are allowed to renegotiate the terms of their contract with teams after the final game of their third accrued season. That said, teams seeking to exercise the fifth-year option had to do so in writing after the final game of the rookie's third season but before May 3rd of the following season. This part is in Article 7, Section 7(a) of the CBA.
What does all this have to do with anything? We have seen a few quarterbacks take advantage of this chance to renegotiate already (Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill). There have not been many other players to get themselves out of the rookie cap, however, but after his first two seasons, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy looked like someone who might possibly stand to make that money. Lacy ran through the league in his first two years, compiling 2,317 yards rushing (over 1,100 in each season) and 20 rushing touchdowns. In that time, Lacy also added 684 yards receiving and four more touchdowns. However, in 2015, Lacy had 946 total yards between rushing (758) and receiving (188) and just five total touchdowns. Much of this sudden decline has been attributed to Eddie Lacy's increased weight, which now appears to be a non-issue as the 2016 offseason program begins next week.
2011 Draft Class
Looking back at the two prior drafts where players had to deal with the terms of the recent CBA, there were two classes of draft picks that reached the three year mark. The 2011 class saw 24 running backs drafted, though only eight were gone by the end of the third round. Two of the running backs from that class have reached a Pro Bowl (DeMarco Murray and Mark Ingram). In reading through the names, there are five running backs who could be considered of note through their first three seasons: Mark Ingram, Daniel Thomas, DeMarco Murray, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen (though Dion Lewis gets an honorable mention for his recent success in 2015 with New England).
Among those names, only Murray and Ridley crossed the 1,000 yard mark in their first three seasons. Ridley hit 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, but had a drop off in 2013 to just 773 yards and seven touchdowns. Murray started hot as a rookie with 897 yards, fell to 663 yards rushing in his sophomore campaign, and rebounded for 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns in his third season. Murray had an even more impressive 2014, but the third-rounder left the team in free agency last spring. Ingram was the only first round selection and therefore the only one eligible for the team option for the fifth season. None of the running backs in this class renegotiated their contracts after their third seasons.
2012 Draft Class
2012 tells us much the same story. Nineteen running backs were selected, seven in the first three rounds, and three first round selections. Again, two Pro Bowlers came out of this class (Doug Martin and Alfred Morris). There were four names that stuck out as possible renegotiation candidates: Doug Martin, Ronnie Hillman, Lamar Miller, and Alfred Morris. Trent Richardson and David Wilson are two people who generated talk in their first year or two, but never really had any juice left by the end of their second season...let alone their third.
Lamar Miller was a fourth round pick who has been better every season. In his rookie season he had 250 yards, then he improved to 709 in year two, and finally attained 1,099 yards rushing in his third season. Alfred Morris went the opposite direction - he burst onto the scene with his 1,613 yard rookie season only to erode to 1,275 and then 1,074. Despite three straight seasons of 1,000+ yards, Morris was never contacted about a contract. All the running backs named above were allowed to enter their fourth season without a new contract. Three running backs were eligible for the team option and none received it (Richardson, Martin and Wilson).
What does this mean for Lacy?
In these two prior seasons only Morris had three big seasons, but his run was marred by the constantly decreasing returns. Players like Miller and Murray kept improving and were told to wait and see. Eddie Lacy could have been a candidate to be the first to break through this run. If he had improved to 1,300 yards and still had double digit touchdowns, he would have been the first runner drafted since the CBA was in place to post three straight 1,000 yard seasons and improve each year in doing so. There is no guarantee of course, but it seems like a highly probable outcome. The only other potential candidate would have been Le'Veon Bell, but Bell was suspended to start 2015 and then ended the season on injured reserve.
Why this matters starts with the well-acknowledged shorter careers of running backs. This means running backs have a shorter period of time to get to that second contract and make their money in the league. Mark Ingram played through his fourth season and got a new contract with the Saints in free agency. That deal was a four year contract for $16 million. LeSean McCoy, a 2009 draftee, recently got a five-year $40 million contract after joining the Buffalo Bills. Eddie Lacy will make $867,602 in base salary for 2016 (not counting prorated bonus that is part of his cap number). Based on recent contracts like Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson, Lacy could be worth $5-6 million a year in a contract negotiation today. And of course, as a second round pick, there is no fifth season option.
Prior to last season, Eddie Lacy was looking at a possible payday this summer. He had a window this season where he could have stepped up and earned an extension and been making $5 million this year. Instead his conditioning slipped and he allowed his weight to contribute to a poor season that separated him from millions of dollars. It was a costly mistake. Those pounds cost him serious dollars, and he will need to have a big 2016 in order to earn back the money that he let slip away in 2015.