Maurice Jones-Drew agreed to terms with the Oakland Raiders on Thursday night. Exact terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but the contract length is expected to be three years, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. More importantly for the Raiders, however, the veteran running back is not expected to break the bank. Jones-Drew had reportedly been asking for roughly $3.5 million per season in free agency, and may have had to accept cheaper to sign with Oakland, according to Levi Damien at Silver and Black Pride.
Whatever the figure is, it won't seem like much for a 29-year-old player with a track record like Jones-Drew's. His numbers dove sharply last season, enough to sink seven years of remarkably consistent production. Jones-Drew was on a five-year deal worth more than $6 million per season, and lobbied for more by sitting out training camp before the 2012 season. He suffered a foot injury that knocked him out for the season after six games, though, and then went on to average 3.4 yards per carry last year in 15 games played. The Jacksonville Jaguars opted not to re-sign him.
Jones-Drew's nosediving market value isn't unique to him and his situation, however. Running backs of various backgrounds have been unable to garner rich, long-term contracts this offseason. So far, running backs have been earning in the $3-$4 million range. Darren McFadden is the richest annual contract signed thus far at $4 million, but the Raiders brought McFadden back on just a one-year deal. Beyond McFadden, Rashad Jennings and Joique Bell earned relatively nice paydays. Both players will earn $3.5 million per season going forward, though Jennings was able to get four years from the New York Giants compared to two for Bell from the Detroit Lions.
These are players who are expected to be significant contributors next season -- in Jennings' case, he has a chance to be the Giants' full-time starter depending on whether the light turns on for David Wilson -- being paid somewhere between what kickers and backup quarterbacks typically make. Josh Scobee has the highest base salary for any kicker at $3.25 million per season, and in free agency Dan Carpenter recently earned a four-year, $9.95 million deal. Among backup quarterbacks, Michael Vick and Ryan Fitzpatrick signed running back-esque deals for one year, $4 million and two years, $7.5 million, respectively.
Compared to running back contracts handed out the last two years, the 2014 figures for running backs are relatively subdued. Last year, Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson both earned long-term deals at $4 million per season, with Shonn Greene just behind at three years, $10 million. In 2012, Matt Forte signed a four-year, $30.4 million mega deal and Michael Bush received four years, $14 million to play as his backup.
The contracts of Greene and (Michael) Bush are perhaps the best examples of the diminishing market value for running backs. Both earned what would be near-starting money in the 2014 market to carry the ball a combined 140 times last season. Bell and Jennings both had more than 160 carries last season. McFadden would have, too, if he had played more than 10 games. Jones-Drew paced them all with 234 carries. Of those four running backs, only Jones-Drew will be expected to see fewer touches next season.
Perhaps most surprising was the cheap contract that Knowshon Moreno earned from the Miami Dolphins on Thursday. After posting career numbers in a prolific Denver Broncos offense, his one-year deal was apparently worth just $3 million to Miami. The same "What have you done for me lately?" thinking that made Jones-Drew a cheap insurance policy behind McFadden apparently didn't apply to Moreno and his sudden return to respectability with Peyton Manning and Co. That doesn't mean that the Dolphins don't have big plans for Moreno, however. He is expected to compete for a starting job with Lamar Miller, and should earn at least a significant role in a timeshare.
It's a tough time to be an NFL running back, and by earning a three-year deal at presumably the market average, Jones-Drew made out about as well as he could have hoped. His deal and others serve as signposts of the decreasing value NFL teams place on the position. Bargaining power appears to be slipping ever more in favor of ownership in a league that seems to fall more in love with the passing game by the day.