It’s mid-July, so there’s very little to talk about in American sports right now. One conversation that has quickly shot up to the top of the sports world’s agenda, because of this vacuum, is the financial landscape that running backs are facing across the NFL.
Earlier this week, the deadline for teams to sign franchise tag players to multi-year contract extensions came and went. Unsurprisingly, the three players who were hit with the franchise tag but didn’t sign a new extension with their current teams are all running backs: the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs and Dallas’ Tony Pollard.
The chart above (via Pro Football Focus) explains the reality that running backs are facing. While the salary cap has exploded since 2011, when the rookie wage scale began, running backs have seen virtually no growth in terms of their average salaries — in stark contrast to every single other position. There are a couple of factors here leading to this result. Let’s break them down:
Factor 1: It’s a passing league.
Passing efficiency increased significantly since 2004, which is when the NFL really began to make the passing game easier for offenses. The inverse of making the passing game more influential is that it has made the running game less impactful. During the 2022 NFL regular season, for perspective, the passing offenses in the league earned about 4.5 times the amount of expected points (which is calculated by comparing pre-snap down and distances to the results of the play) as run plays.
You could even argue that four of the top five running games in expected points came from offensive systems (Philadelphia, New York Giants, Baltimore and Atlanta) that heavily leaned on the quarterback run threat. Only Kansas City (53.3 points over expected) added 43 or more expected points via the ground game in 2022 without a “running” quarterback. That lead-leading running-back-led 53.3-point mark was eclipsed by 15 passing games. That’s right, an average passing game is now equivalent to the best running-back-led ground game.
Factor 2: No one has lost more at the bargaining table than running backs.
If you don’t know why a rookie wage scale was implemented in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, it’s because it allowed people at the table (active players) to negotiate a larger share of the salary cap pie for themselves while others (players still in college who would later play under the wage scale) weren’t represented. Because of this and the run-it-back mentality of the 2020 CBA ratification, we’re staring down the barrel of a climate where there will be a 20-year suppression of wages during running backs’ prime years by the time this current CBA concludes after the 2030 season.
Meanwhile, teams have become wise to the wear and tear that backs take on the field and have noticed that few who are paid to perform like elite talents at 28 years old or later end up reaching that benchmark. That’s why the franchise tag is quickly becoming a running back-specific issue, as it allows franchises to take another one-year rental on a player rather than allowing a back to hit an open market, where he’s more likely to find a suitor who will pay him the signing bonus and multiple years of guaranteed money that he wants.
For first-round running backs, it’s not out of the question that you might not see true free agency until your eighth year in the league. A rookie contract is a four-year deal, which comes with a fifth-year team option if you’re a first-round pick. Add two franchise tags on top of that, which would be cheaper than the guarantees and signing bonus of a major running back contract, and that gets you to Year 8 free agency where your prime seasons are almost certainly behind you. Ouch. 2031 is right around the corner, I guess.
So how does this impact the Green Bay Packers? First of all, one of their co-starting running backs — AJ Dillon — is going to be a free agent next season. Secondly, they have a decision to make about their other co-starter — Aaron Jones — who is set to carry a $17.7 million cap hit in 2024 as a then 29-year-old. A release of Jones in 2024 would leave the Packers with a minimum cap hit of $12.3 million (as long as he’s not post-June 1 designated) due to the remaining signing bonus and the 2022-2023 salary conversions that have already been paid out to Jones but have yet to hit Green Bay’s salary cap. Why hasn’t it hit the Packers’ salary cap yet? In the most simple terms: Green Bay has kicked that can down the road.
In all likelihood, the Packers will be in the running back market next offseason, as the team hasn’t been willing to give either of their co-starters a bell cow’s share of touches. So will the running back landscape look like next year? Below are Spotrac’s contract projections for notable 2024 free-agent running backs, including the three backs who weren’t given extensions before the franchise tag deadline:
- Derrick Henry: $30.7 million over two years ($15.3M APY)
- Jonathan Taylor: $52.3 million over four years ($13M APY)
- Josh Jacobs: $51.4 million over four years ($12.8M APY)
- Austin Ekeler: $12.8 million over three years ($12.8M APY)
- Joe Mixon: $50.6 million over four years ($12.6M APY)
- Saquon Barkley: $49.3 million over four years ($12.3M APY)
- Tony Pollard: $40.1 million over four years ($10M APY)
- D’Andre Swift: $25.9 million over four years ($6.4M APY)
- AJ Dillon: $13.8 million over three years ($4.8M APY)
- JK Dobbins: $8.3 million over two years ($4.1M APY)
Beyond Jacobs, Barkley and Pollard, plenty of other backs on this list are having vocal contract disputes with their teams. Ekeler asked the Los Angeles Chargers to allow him to seek a trade earlier this offseason, which he later rescinded when the team added $2 million in incentives to his current contract. Dobbins sat out the Baltimore Ravens’ minicamp last month, which came with mandatory fines. Swift was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles in April after the Lions drafted a young replacement, Jahmyr Gibbs, in the first round.
Since the franchise tag deadline passed, Henry took to Twitter and said, “At this point, just take the RB position out of the game then.” Taylor also voiced his opinion on Twitter, which you can find linked below.
1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.— Jonathan Taylor (@JayT23) July 17, 2023
2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed.
…If you succeed…
3. You boost the Organization
Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB https://t.co/mG6In1ATGg
That leaves just Mixon — who took more than a $9 million pay cut over the next two seasons, including his 2024 team option — and Dillon as the only top backs in next year’s free agent running back class who haven’t aired out their grievances. I wouldn’t want to be an agent for running backs right now.
How the Packers will navigate the current running back market is anyone’s guess, but it’s something for Green Bay fans to monitor moving forward. Odds are that they’ll need to add at least one more back to the mix next season, as it’s unlikely that Jones’ deal gets restructured a third time AND that Dillon gets signed to a veteran contract.
With so much up in the air about the future of the position, I don’t envy the spot that general manager Brian Gutekunst is going to be in next winter. With so many options on the table in different types of financial ballparks, the direction the team takes in the running back market might be one of their most important decisions over the next year.