Running backs get hit a lot, and therefore running backs have short careers. I’ll let you absorb that for a moment, and then we’ll continue.

Done? Alright then.

The lack of longevity for a running back’s career is such common knowledge at this point that it’s become an offseason cliché as new contracts are negotiated. Yet understandably, it seems the only members of the NFL community who either aren’t aware of that clichè or choose to remain ignorant are those who, well, play running back.

The elite talent at the position deserves to be paid accordingly, but teams still need to heed the warnings of current trends and essentially insure themselves against the inevitable decline as bones become more brittle during the latter half of a contract. That’s why last week the term given to LeSean McCoy was at least mildly startling. McCoy was signed to a six-year contract worth $46.6 million, with $20.7 million guaranteed, meaning the Eagles have already committed to him until he turns 29.

He’s worth every cent, and McCoy is certainly worthy of receiving similar guaranteed money to what Arian Foster will make over the five-year life of his contract ($20 million). The problem is the length, and the risk the Eagles assumed, the same risk that’s made the Bears and Ravens apprehensive with Ray Rice and Matt Forte.

Rice was slapped with the franchise tag, and will make $7.7 million next year under a one-year deal if a long-term agreement isn’t reached. He wants a commitment similar to the one given to Adrian Peterson (seven-year contract worth $96 million, with $32 million guaranteed), but as ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio reported yesterday, the chances of his wish being granted are slim. Forte was also franchised and is facing a similar fight in Chicago after losing significant leverage when the Bears signed Michael Bush.

While there are still plenty of teams willing to take the leap and commit long-term to their star running back, the position’s ever-churning cycle dictates that in many cases, there’s a few years of prime productivity during long RB contracts, followed by several more of fading into the twilight and grooming a successor.

To match the length of McCoy’s deal and the similar commitments that could be given to Forte and Rice, we went back six years and simply looked at the top five rushers in each season. While there isn’t much change at the top, there are some graveyard residents at the bottom.

2011

1. Maurice Jones-Drew

2. Ray Rice

3. Michael Turner

4. LeSean McCoy

5. Arian Foster

2010

1. Arian Foster

2. Jamaal Charles

3. Michael Turner

4. Chris Johnson

5. Maurice Jones-Drew

2009

1. Chris Johnson

2. Steven Jackson

3. Thomas Jones

4. Maurice Jones-Drew

5. Adrian Peterson

2008

1. Adrian Peterson

2. Michael Turner

3. DeAngelo Williams

4. Clinton Portis

5. Thomas Jones

2007

1. LaDainian Tomlinson

2. Adrian Peterson

3. Brian Westbrook

4. Willie Parker

5. Jamal Lewis

2006

1. LaDainian Tomlinson

2. Larry Johnson

3. Frank Gore

4. Tiki Barber

5. Steven Jackson

Consider even just this past season, and how it fed the running back apprehension during the peak of a passing era. Last summer at the ripe age of 25, Chris Johnson signed a six-year deal worth $55 million, with $30 million guaranteed. Combined over the previous two seasons he rushed for 3,370 yards and had 25 touchdowns on the ground. He then had just 1,047 yards and four touchdowns following his lucrative contract.

Then of course there’s Peterson’s knee injury, a concern despite his consistent presence throughout the six lists above. On the back end, 2007 is particularly jarring. Just five years ago, LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Willie Parker, and Jamal Lewis were among the league leaders. Those four had a combined 75 carries in 2011, all coming from Tomlinson.

When looking closer at those names, the importance of durability is further emphasized for the Ravens and Bears as they evaluate the long-term futures of their backfields. Many names appear multiple times, but the examples of RBs who have either suffered major injuries (Peterson and Jamaal Charles), taken a swift tumble (DeAngelo Williams, Johnson, Portis, Westbrook), or just simply had a brief time atop the league (Parker) are more than enough to create pause.

Right now, McCoy, Forte, and Rice are elite, but as the hits mount they may not maintain that status towards the end of their contracts (or likely contracts) in 2016.

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