The NFL’s wage scale is burying running backs in their prime

Le’Veon Bell was 21 years old when the Pittsburgh Steelers picked him No. 48 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. He was 22 when he was named a first-team All-Pro running back.

But it wasn’t until he was 27 when he finally signed a contract that he and his representatives truly negotiated.

Bell — like every other NFL draftee since 2011 — was slotted into a specific contract as a rookie based on where he was selected, leaving little room for negotiation when he first entered the league. Then, he received a four-year, $4.12 million deal from the Steelers.

Four years, two Pro Bowls, 5,336 rushing yards, and one season-ending knee injury later, Bell was given the franchise tag, negating his opportunity to reach free agency. After another All-Pro season in 2017, he was tagged again.

Pittsburgh made offers to Bell. It tried to lock him down to a five-year deal with “rolling guarantees” that the running back was probably right to refuse. So Bell took drastic measures to show his disapproval. He voluntarily sat out all of 2018, forfeiting $14.5 million to get to free agency.

The payoff was a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets that made him the third-highest-paid running back in the NFL — sizable, but well short of his record-breaking goal.

Overall, salaries in the NFL have soared in the last decade. In 2011, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady split the title of highest-paid NFL player with salaries that both averaged $18 million per year. Now, there are several quarterbacks who have eclipsed an average of $30 million.

That hasn’t been the case for Bell and his fellow running backs. No position other than fullbacks and long snappers have a lower average salary.

It’s why players at the position are scratching and clawing to get paid. Two of the biggest stars at running back — Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys and Melvin Gordon of the Chargers — sat out all of preseason and are threatening to continue holding out into the regular season if they don’t get contract extensions.

Many factors have led to running backs getting a smaller piece of the pie. An increased emphasis on the pass game has certainly contributed, but nothing is hurting the position more than the 2011 version of the collective bargaining agreement.

The rookie wage scale is a problem for running backs

Early in August 2019, attorney Veronica Patton filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to create the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs. The organization was to serve as a new bargaining unit separate from the NFL Players Association that would advocate specifically for running backs.

Patton’s reason for the filing was summarized in the middle of the filing:

The new mini-max rookie wage contract is economically harmful to workers in skill group (RB), but advantageous to players in skill group (QB).

The rookie wage scale was introduced in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement to halt a steep rise in the cost of signing a top-10 pick. The first pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, Sam Bradford, signed a six-year, $78 million deal before ever taking a snap for the St. Louis Rams.

The agreed-upon solution between the NFL and NFLPA was a rookie wage scale that would make draft picks affordable.

In many ways, it worked out well for players, too. Salaries for quarterbacks, pass rushers, and wide receivers ballooned. Bradford’s $13 million per year contract in 2010 is dwarfed by the deals quarterbacks get today. More than half the NFL’s starters get at least $20 million per year, although none of those contracts were signed before rookie seasons like Bradford’s.

Running backs haven’t seen the same spike, however. Darren McFadden got a six-year, $60 million contract when the Raiders made him the fourth overall draft pick in 2008. Over a decade later, that’d still be a top-five deal for the position.

“This labor agreement was made for quarterbacks without any regard for the running backs,” Patton told SB Nation of the current CBA. “Quarterbacks have to progress, so you pay them these low salaries for essentially their apprenticeship, and then you start to pay them off the charts.

“Running backs spend almost their entire careers — and certainly their prime — making minimum wage. They need their own bargaining unit.”

It’s a fair point, no matter what you think of her long shot odds at pulling players from the NFLPA into a separate union.

Running backs shine early and burn out fast

The CBA’s rookie wage scale isn’t bad for all positions. It’s only particularly bad for running backs because their careers start fast and end quickly.

The oldest of the eight 2018 Pro Bowl running backs (including two replacement players) was 27-year-old Lamar Miller of the Houston Texans. The average age of those eight players was 23.75. Every other position group was at least two years older, on average.

That’s par for the course. Running back was the youngest position group at the Pro Bowl after the 2017 season. And the year before that, and the year before that.

That makes sense considering young running backs have dominated the NFL the last few years. Saquon Barkley, a 21-year-old rookie, was second in the NFL in rushing in 2018, behind Elliott, who was 23.

Running backs seem disproportionally capable of adjusting to the speed of the pro ranks. Where players at highly valued positions like quarterback and defensive end often take years to develop, it rarely takes a running back long to make an impact.

The unfortunate flip side is that no position exits its prime faster than running back.

Eddie George was a Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State and an instant star for the Houston Oilers after he was picked in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft. He rushed for 1,368 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season, earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He followed that with four straight Pro Bowl seasons.

In 2004, he was released by the Titans after tallying over 10,000 rushing yards in eight seasons for the franchise. He was 30 years old. George played one more year — managing just 432 yards for the Cowboys — and retired at age 31.

“The position has a short shelf life because of the amount of carries that they have,” George told SB Nation. “You have a finite amount of carries on your head. When you get close to the 2,500 carries mark as a running back, the knocks you get add up.”

George is one of five players in NFL history with over 400 rushing attempts in one season. Odds are, we’ll never see it happen again. But his quick rise to NFL prominence and subsequent sharp fall are typical. Only 10 players have ever topped 1,200 rushing yards in a season after turning 31.

One of those was longtime Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, who earned his first career Pro Bowl nod at age 31 in 2007. He stayed in the NFL until he was 34, but picked up just 980 rushing yards in his final three seasons.

Taylor doesn’t believe running backs are more prone to wear-and-tear than any other position. They just get hit a whole lot more.

“We’re going to give one person the ball 20 times and have 11 people chasing that one person,” Taylor told SB Nation. “In football, injuries happen simply because the body can’t handle loads and loads of stress. No matter the position. The percentages are higher if it’s the guy touching the ball the second-most times on the field, behind the quarterback. But quarterbacks are protected.”

The early success for running backs — and their quick declines — mean players at the position are most valuable in their early 20s. The CBA, in turn, makes it impossible to turn that value into money.

The NFL still wants good running backs

It’s not just the CBA that’s making it hard for running backs to cash in on their talent. The NFL’s shift toward passing the ball more frequently has done the position no favors.

Pass plays now constitute about 60 percent of an NFL offense. The 2018 season saw records set for quarterback completion percentage (64.9), touchdown passes (847), and passer rating (92.9).

Yet in the midst of that offensive revolution, there are still teams investing in running backs — even if they won’t pay top dollar. Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and Barkley were all top-five draft picks between 2016 and 2018. It helps they can contribute as a pass catchers, but each was drafted for his rushing prowess. That certainly suggests it’s not a position getting phased out entirely.

“It’s hard to get away from the foundation of the game,” Taylor says. “If you have no run game, the defenses are going to say ‘we’re going to sit our guys back.’ They’ll get all these tweeners who are fast defensive ends, fast linebackers, and put that unit out there and let them run around with your receivers and play a 7-on-7 pass drill. You have to have the threat of the run to keep the defense on their heels and teams know that.”

An elite running back may keep a defense honest, but George thinks that until a team can win a Super Bowl by committing to one, the rest of the league will be hesitant to follow.

“The running game will come back around and become the emphasis when there’s a team that becomes successful because of it,” George said. “New England did it running back by committee, and won several championships doing that. [The Patriots] don’t believe in running one guy. They’ll get 1,000 yards collectively rushing the football, but they do it by committee. Everybody is trying to do it by that formula.”

That’s meant only a handful of running backs are now treated as significant investments. For Elliott, Fournette, and Barkley that investment came in the form of a top-five draft pick. For Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) and David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals), it was a pricy extension.

Gurley, Johnson, and Bell are the only three running backs with contracts that average more than $10 million per year. The rest of the league’s running backs haven’t been as fortunate.

The next CBA could help, but it probably won’t

The simplest solution for running backs to get more money would be shorter contracts. It’d mean cashing in while they’re most valuable. That’s what Elliott and Gordon are trying to do.

Gordon earned two trips to the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, but the Chargers have balked at opening the pocketbooks for an extension prior to the 2019 season. If he hadn’t gotten a rookie contract in 2015 that included a fifth-year option, Gordon would’ve been set to hit free agency earlier in 2019. That would’ve either forced the Chargers to play ball and offer more, or it would’ve let Gordon get a deal somewhere else.

If rookie contracts were just three years instead of four to five, Elliott also could’ve been on the open market.

And if the franchise tag weren’t a viable option for the Steelers to use on Bell in back-to-back seasons, he wouldn’t have had to wait until he was 27 to negotiate a deal with the Jets. It would’ve helped him earn bigger money too if he became a free agent after his All-Pro 2017 season instead of after a year away from the NFL.

Sitting out of action or threatening to leave after a contract expires are the only forms of leverage NFL players have if they’re outperforming their contract. That’s true of all positions, but running backs are the ones — more so than any other — wasting their most productive years on rookie deals.

Shortening those contracts and/or eliminating the franchise tag would seem to be the NFLPA’s best potential routes for helping running backs. Getting rid of the franchise tag would help all positions, really. Don’t count on seeing either happen in the new CBA, though. Negotiations have started ahead of the CBA’s 2021 expiration date and the NFLPA hasn’t deemed overhauls of the franchise tag or rookie wage scale a top priority.

“What we can do is look at the rookie system and look at how we can make changes to benefit all players,” an NFLPA source told SB Nation. “That’s not an answer everyone’s going to be happy with, but that’s not the job of the union. The union’s job is not to look at any one position and try to make things better for long snappers or defensive ends or running backs or whatever. It’s just ‘How do we make a system that benefits the most? How do we get the most for the most?’”

For most players, things are going pretty well. The NFLPA could fight to tinker with the next CBA and get small changes implemented. That won’t help running backs catch up to other positions, though.

The rookie wage scale and the franchise tag are the two parts of the CBA making running backs fall behind in pay. Neither looks to be on the chopping block. An easy solution that allows running backs to get paid their worth probably isn’t coming any time soon.

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