running back pay disparity in the nfl

Exploring the NFL Running Back Pay Disparity

In the high-stakes world of the National Football League (NFL), where quarterback contracts make weekly headlines, there’s a group of athletes who have been battling a long-standing disparity in compensation: running backs. Despite being the driving force behind many NFL offenses, running backs have historically struggled to secure contracts on par with those of their offensive counterparts. This article explores the current state of NFL running backs’ compensation, the challenges they face, and the reason NFL franchises hesitate to offer them these lucrative contracts.

The Current Landscape of the Running Back Pay Disparity

Recent contract disputes involving superstar running backs like Josh Jacobs of the Raiders and Saquon Barkley of the Giants have highlighted the ongoing issue of running backs fighting for big paydays. Jacobs finished first in the league last season in rushing yards, while Barkley was not far behind him in fourth (the two also finished third and fourth in rushing touchdowns respectively). Yet their franchises will not meet their demands for competitive pay. In August 2023, Barkley and the Giants agreed to a one-year deal worth around $10 million, and soon after, Jacobs signed a one-year deal worth up to $12 million. While these contracts will get these two back on the field, the problem isn’t really solved, and the same issues will likely come up for discussion next offseason.

As former Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon found out, this is a position without much leverage. Gordon missed four games (held out) with the Chargers in 2019 because he wasn’t being offered the deal he wanted, but holding out for better backfired; the Chargers never offered him a new deal, and just three seasons later he is a free agent unlikely to get signed this season. Browns running back Nick Chubb put it into perspective the best by stating that their position is the only position in which production = less value. The more yards they run, the more worn-down they will appear to franchise owners.

Running Backs’ Short Shelf Life

One significant factor contributing to the pay disparity is the short lifespan of an average NFL running back’s career. The position is arguably the most physically demanding. They are absorbing constant hits and enduring the wear and tear of a grueling seventeen-game season where they are running the ball twenty-plus times a game, catching passes, and blocking big defensive linemen. This intensity week after week, year after year, often leads to injuries and reduced performance levels, causing a sharp decline in effectiveness after just a few seasons. As a result, teams are hesitant to commit large sums of money to running backs who may struggle to maintain their peak performance throughout the duration of a long-term contract.

Look at guys like Marlon Mack, who ran for 1,091 yards in 2019, but just a grand total of 211 yards from 2020 to 2022. Eddie Lacy had back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons and was out of the NFL three years later. These guys just do not last — and replacing them with more productive players is all too easy. The Colts moved on from Mack with Jonathan Taylor, who put up 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021. The Packers have had one of their most consistent running backs in the league in Aaron Jones. And the Broncos moved on from Lindsay with the up-and-coming Javonte Williams. The expendability of the running-back position, along with their short-lived success, have been absolute killers to their leverage in negotiations. And is the number one reason for the running back pay disparity – but it’s not the only significant one.

High-Risk, High-Reward Contracts

While some running backs have secured substantial contracts, these deals come with inherent risks. The history of big contracts for running backs is a mixed bag. Players like Todd Gurley and David Johnson received sizable contracts only to face injuries and diminishing returns shortly after signing. On the flip side, there are a couple of players like Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry who have showcased the potential value a dynamic running back can bring to a team when healthy. These high-stakes investments have left teams cautious when it comes to rewarding running backs with lucrative contracts.

Taking a look at recent history, it seems for every contract that pays off, there are many more that don’t. We’ve already mentioned Gurley and Johnson, but there are others who can be named, such as Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. They got the second and fourth largest running back contracts in NFL history, respectively, and switched teams or retired before the duration of their deal was up.

Sometimes the gamble has paid off, such as contracts given to Adrian Peterson, Derrick Henry, and Christian McCaffrey, however, these players’ teams did not win Super Bowls while these contracts were in force. So, the million-dollar question remains, can a superstar running back really lead a team to the promised land?

Star Running Back = Championship?

Taking a look at the history of Super Bowl winners and successful franchises can be quite revealing. While quarterbacks often take center stage, running backs have played crucial roles in championship runs of the past. The key word to note here is “past,” as in the 80s and 90s.

As the league has shifted to a pass-first style, the running game has become less pivotal to winning a championship. A star running back undoubtedly enhances a team’s chances of success, but the correlation between a single running back and championships is not straightforward. The NFL has seen teams with standout running backs fall short of winning it all due to various factors such as defensive shortcomings or quarterback performance. Championships are the result of a cohesive team effort, and while a star running back can elevate a team, they are just not decisive.

Contract Standoffs

Running backs who engage in contract disputes often face a tumultuous future. A prime example was Le’Veon Bell and his disputes with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After five seasons in Pittsburgh and multiple years tallying 1,800 yards from scrimmage, Le’Veon and the Steelers could not come to an agreement. This saga saw him sit out for the entire 2018 NFL season and miss upwards of $850,000 a week, or even $14.5 million had he played under the franchise tag. Bell’s holdout with the Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately led him to sign with the New York Jets, where he finally got what he wanted, a 4-year deal worth $52.5 million. Some saw this as a win for Bell, as he had one full year away from football to come back fully refreshed, however, he struggled to replicate his previous success. His once 4.9 yards per carry dipped to an average of 3.3 with the Jets, and he was released after just two out of the four seasons he signed for. This pattern illustrates the complex nature of contract negotiations and the potential ramifications for a player’s career trajectory.

So What’s the Final Answer to the Running Back Pay Disparity

The current state of NFL running backs’ compensation reflects a broader challenge within the league. While the value of these athletes is undeniable, their short career spans, injury risks, and the evolving dynamics of football strategy have led to a pay disparity compared to other positions. Running backs like Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley may be the catalysts for change in this narrative, as they advocate for equitable compensation. However, pushing the fight too far can lead to career-altering decisions such as Le’Veon Bell’s. As the league continues to evolve, finding a fair balance between the principle of equitable compensation and the market forces created by the nature of the game remains a central challenge for NFL franchises, and more importantly, NFL running backs.

More reading on the topic of Running Back Pay Disparity in the NFL:

The Athletic | The pay disparity for NFL running backs is as wrong as it is wide

CBS Sports | Why Jonathan Taylor, Josh Jacobs, others take issue with pay structure

The Bay State Banner | The declining valuation of the NFL running back

The New York Times | The Plight of the N.F.L. Running Back

And more Running Back content:

Montee Ball and Derek Bylsma on Antonio Brown, Transfer Portal, and NIL

Thomas Wilcher | Leadership from HOF Cass Tech High School Football Coach