When I took a long, sorrow-filled look at the NFL running back last week and the decline of this particular football species in recent drafts, the evidence provided by free agency was a footnote. That was mostly done out of necessity, because even in late March the sample size to draw from of running back free agent signings this year was moderate at best. It was Ben Tate, followed by Rashad Jennings, and then a bunch of bit players and veterans.
That last part is still true. As is expected of a position where body breaking is an epidemic, the available names beyond Tate this year often have a very specific role they need to play if their new team wants a favorable return on their investment. It’s still an important role, though, one that in theory deserves fair financial compensation.
Well, define fair.
Late last week three more running backs finally found new places of employment: Maurice Jones-Drew, Knowshon Moreno, and LeGarrette Blount. Everyone understood that the prices for Moreno and Jones-Drew would be much lower given their injuries and physical beatings, though Moreno still has some youth left as he turns 27 this summer (as does Blount, who’s the same age). Jones-Drew is nearing the running back death age of 30 (he’s 29), and he’s logged 2,139 career touches.
We get it, we all do. Running backs are treated like the modern day equivalent of those throwaway cameras that were (are?) immediate tourist tip-offs. Specifically in free agency teams were looking at the likes of Moreno and Jones-Drew, and seeing the opportunity for a steep discount on a declining asset. When the price reaches a certain point of basement nothingness, the risk is non-existent, and the player becomes a lottery ticket.
But about that price: guaranteed money is barely a thing with running backs in this market.
At some point a player at any position wants to be compensated fairly for the role he’s about to take on. In Miami there’s a reasonable chance Moreno enters Week 1 as the starter, or at the very least he’ll be getting a fair share of carries in a platoon with Lamar Miller. In Oakland Jones-Drew will compete for the starting gig and he could easily beat out Darren McFadden, which is a frightening reality and shows you can’t be part of Reggie McKenzie’s rebuild unless you’re old, crumbling, or some combination of the two. And in Pittsburgh Blount’s role may be a lesser one by comparison behind Le’Veon Bell, but he still has a unique set of skills as a goal-line human snowplow.
When those three signings were finalized, here’s the total combined guaranteed money given out: $2.65 million.
Just for fun let’s keep going down the list. Toby Gerhart will be a starter in Jacksonville, and he’s seen little punishment while being Adrian Peterson’s backup, recording only 353 career touches. That led to Gerhart getting $4.5 million in guaranteed money, which sounds mammoth. Tate led the running back market, yet due to his own frequent snapping the Browns gave him only $2.5 million guaranteed.
How much guaranteed cash did Pat McAfee get as the top punter in free agency? $5 million. It gets worse. Of course it gets worse…
Six signed RBs from @NFL_ATL‘s Top 101 free agents list average $2.89M annually. NFL’s top 5 punters average $3.05M in base salary for 2014.
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) March 27, 2014
Say what you will about the reality of running backs aging and breaking, and none of those things are wrong. But even in a reserve or specialist role they’re on the field for far more snaps than any punter, who will be called upon maybe nine times during an extremely busy afternoon.
This fall DeMarco Murray is entering a contract year, along with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Frank Gore. That will perhaps be a better test of the market with Murray a featured back, and both Patriots RBs set for significant workloads in separate roles this year with Blount gone. However, a quite established Reggie Bush was given $4 million guaranteed last offseason, and now he’s set to lose more touches to Joique Bell. Gore? He’ll be lead off to the great running back pasture in the sky.
There’s little reason for hope, or a swift turnaround. Looking at the scheduled base salaries at the position for 2014, only three running backs exceed $6 million, and one of them (Chris Johnson) is about to be released because his performance isn’t remotely in line with an $8 million paycheck. In a passing league where passing controls all, four wide receivers will be paid $10 million or more.
This is what today’s running back has signed up for. So again, good luck with that Carlos Hyde, and the rest of the 2014 draft class.