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NFL running backs have a big money problem

Friday’s Rise ‘n Grind takes a look at the issue NFL running backs are facing: their lacking contracts compared to other offensive position groups.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs in the NFL are facing a dilemma. The large majority are not getting big-money deals when their rookie contracts run out.

Le’Veon Bell will be the top paid running back in 2018 and he’s set to play on his second consecutive franchise tag, assuming he signs it. His cap hit will be $14.5 million in 2018 if he doesn’t reach a long-term deal with the Steelers prior to July 16, the deadline for tagged players to reach an extension. In terms of 2018 cap hits, the next highest paid running back is making $4 million less and that’s Jerick McKinnon, who signed with the 49ers this offseason. After him is LeSean McCoy ($8.95 million cap hit in 2018), then third-year running back Ezekiel Elliott who has a cap hit of $6.8 million due to being a top-five draft pick back in 2016. Lamar Miller rounds out the top five, coming in with a cap hit of $6.75 million.

Comparatively, the top-10 wide receivers with the highest cap hits in 2018 are all guys on at least their second NFL contracts and all are making more than $11.8 in 2018. The top-10 tight end cap hits also are all for guys on their second (or beyond) contracts and are all $6.75 million or more for the upcoming season.

So the 10th highest tight end cap hit is the same as the fifth highest among running backs. Part of this is an issue of the running back position being devalued (why spend a good chunk of cap space on it?). Another part is running backs often lose steam quickly and aren’t as good once their rookie contracts expire. A third part is young running backs are quickly adjusting to life in the NFL and dominating when given the chance. That’s true even of late-round draft selections, proving there’s no reason to reach for a running back early on in the draft.

The top 10 running backs in terms of total yards in 2017 were Kareem Hunt (a rookie), Todd Gurley (on his rookie deal), Bell, McCoy, Mark Ingram, Jordan Howard (on his rookie deal), Melvin Gordon (on his rookie deal), Leonard Fournette (a rookie), C.J. Anderson, and Elliott (on his rookie deal). Six out of the top 10 running backs last season were rookies or playing on their rookie contracts.

Anderson signed a one-year contract this offseason that’s worth just $1.75 million. He illustrates the issue pretty well as a top-10 back who couldn’t break the $2 million mark with a new contract this offseason. A total of 78 wide receivers have a cap hit higher than $2 million in 2018.

This trend is hurting running backs

Take, for example, David Johnson, one of the league’s best running backs, who is holding out on spring workouts while awaiting a new NFL deal from the Cardinals. Johnson was a third-round draft pick in 2015 who had a great sophomore campaign and was expected to be a top running back in 2017 before going down with a season-ending injury in Week 1. Johnson is set to make $2,066,844 in 2018 and he’s scheduled to hit free agency next March if the Cardinals don’t sign him to an extension before then. He wants that new deal sooner than later, which is why he failed to participate in OTAs and minicamp (Bell is doing the same). But, it’s unclear if Arizona is going to pay up, especially considering the trend with running backs around the league. The Cardinals could just draft a new starting running back next year, despite Johnson being an incredible playmaker and top talent at the position.

How can this problem be fixed?

For starters, the Steelers can help solve this issue by giving Bell a long-term deal and not angering him by making him play on one-year franchise tags. The Cardinals could do the same by paying Johnson, giving him a long-term deal and resetting the market. Until a big-time running back is given a fittingly big-time deal, holdouts will continue and running backs will receive the short end of the stick.

What if...

Check out more of our NFL “what ifs” on Twitter.

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