The first shoe to drop among the running backs taken early in the 2013 NFL Draft has fallen. With no running backs taken in round one of that year's draft, every player at that position who remains with his original team is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
This is of course critically important for the Packers, as they chose Eddie Lacy in the second round (pick #61) that season. Lacy was the fourth running back taken that year, behind Giovani Bernard (#37 to Cincinnati), Le'Veon Bell (#48 to Pittsburgh), and Montee Ball (#58 to Denver). The other starting-caliber back taken that year was Latavius Murray (#181 to Oakland).
(The Seahawks made Christine Michael the fifth running back taken in round two with the 62nd overall pick, but he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 and later waived. He signed back with Seattle as a free agent in December, so he is not considered here.)
With just four starting running backs remaining from the 2013 draft class and three of them being selected with 24 picks of each other, the free agency fates of Bernard, Bell, and Lacy (as well as Murray) will be intertwined this season. And today, Bernard became the first of these players to sign a new contract:
#Bengals are finalizing a 3-year, $15.5 million contract extension with running back Giovani Bernard, source said.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) June 8, 2016
Of these four players, Bernard comes in third in total yards from scrimmage with 3,440, behind Bell's 4,166 and Lacy's 3,947. He also has 17 total touchdowns compared to 22 for Bell and 29 for Lacy. Murray, on the other hand, did not play at all in 2013 and only became a starter in 2015. Last year, he did rush for over 1,000 yards, but still does not seem to have the full faith of the Raiders' coaching staff yet.
Another important note of comparison is that the trio of Bernard, Bell, and Lacy can all be described as good receiving backs (at worst), and can remain on the field on third downs as both options out of the backfield as well as pass-blockers.
Based on their raw numbers alone, Lacy and Bell look likely to cash in with bigger contracts than Bernard's. Each has mitigating circumstances, however, and it is certainly plausible that neither would sign a new deal until after the upcoming season concludes. Bell served a suspension early in 2015 for a marijuana-related offense, and tore an MCL after playing just six games. Bernard has had no significant injury concerns, missing just three games total in three years. Meanwhile, Eddie Lacy is still answering questions about his weight and fitness after a disappointing 2015, and is looking for a big 2016 season and a return to the form he displayed in his first two years. If Bell does get an extension before or during the season, that would further set the market for Lacy's services moving forward.
If Lacy does indeed return to being a 4.5 yard-per-carry back, exceeds 1,100 yards on the ground, and approaches 1,500 total yards once again, he should certainly earn a significantly bigger deal than Bernard's contract. With only nine running backs making over $6 million per year on their current contracts (including this year's fourth overall pick, Ezekiel Elliott), and only four exceeding $7 million, both Lacy and Bell could break into that top-five tier. However, Lacy will need that big turnaround this fall in order to earn that kind of contract next March.