The adage of “running backs don’t matter” is a prevalent one in today’s NFL. For many, a successful running game is just reflective of a good offensive line or scheme, and not as much the player. This isn’t necessarily true, as Barry Sanders dominated without either, but it’s easy to see why people believe it. Running backs have the shortest shelf lives (averaging only two and a half years), and take more punishment than almost any other position. So short, in fact, that many teams question whether they’re worth the investment.
The Tennessee Titans find themselves in this siutation, mere months removed from Derrick Henry taking them all the way to a 10-0 lead in the AFC Championship game on the last year of his contract. Should they pay him? Should anyone pay their running backs?
The Trouble With Paying Running Backs
The Shanahan Effect
This season, the San Francisco 49ers had one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses. They were first in rushing touchdowns (23), and second in rushing yards (2,305). Only Lamar Jackson‘s Baltimore Ravens had more rushing yards than San Fran in 2019. Despite that, no one player stood out. They had three different players, Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman, with over 500 rushing yards. They also had two other players, Deebo Samuel and Jeff Wilson, with over 100 rushing yards and multiple scores.
This isn’t new for a team coached by a Shanahan. Kyle’s 49ers have had consistent rushing performances since he arrived, but his father, Mike, basically invented rushing by committee. His zone blocking schemes got incredible production out of Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, and Alfred Morris. No matter where the Shanahan’s go, regardless of who is lined up behind the quarterback, there is production from the running game.
So if you can gimmick or scheme production out of backs, why pay a ton of money for one? The creepy adage of buying the cow when you can get the milk for free certainly applies here, and we can prove it by looking at the top five highest paid backs in the NFL right now.
David Johnson is the fifth highest paid back in the NFL, and perhaps the best example of why you shouldn’t pay running backs. He broke onto the scene in 2016 with 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns, both of which led the league. He missed most of 2017 with injuries, but that didn’t stop Arizona from re-signing him early in the 2018 season. That year, he mostly returned to form, registering nearly 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2019, Johnson struggled, only accounting for 715 total yards and six scores.
Despite that, he was due nearly 10 million dollars, and would’ve accounted for 25.2 million dollars in dead cap space. He’s made $14,538,750 since he re-signed, and will be due another $11 million in 2020 if he stays on the team. Since he joined the league in 2015, he’s really only had two good seasons, and is a potential cap casualty for a young Cardinals team attempting to build around undeserving rookie of the year, Kyler Murray.
Devonta Freeman had great success early with the Atlanta Falcons, averaging 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns a year during the first three seasons of his career, even splitting carries with Tevin Coleman and Steven Jackson. He really took off in 2015 and 2016, surpassing 1,500 all-purpose yards and 13 scores each year. That’s when the Falcons signed him to a five-year, $41.24 million deal.
He was fine in 2017, but nowhere near as good as in 2015 or 2016, registering the fewest yards from scrimmage (1,182) and touchdowns (eight) since his rookie season. He missed 14 games in 2018, and then under-performed during his rebound season. After averaging well over 1,000 yards and double digit scores during his first three seasons, he averaged fewer than 800 and only five touchdowns after getting paid.
It doesn’t seem fair to blame a player for getting hurt, but sadly, injuries are par for the course for tailbacks. Freeman is still one of the league’s highest paid backs, but he’s 52nd in all-purpose yards since they re-signed him. Considering that the Falcons are strapped for cash in 2020, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Atlanta moved on from him.
In a way, Le’Veon Bell is the face of the debate. When he was healthy in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell was a monster. Known for his versatility and patience in between the tackles, Bell averaged 1,600 yards and eight scores a season during his first five years in the league. That’s including that 18 games he missed due to injuries and suspensions.
But those injuries and suspensions didn’t go unnoticed. At the time, the Steelers were fringe playoff contenders. They had to worry about paying Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and a defense that could compete with Tom Brady‘s New England Patriots. It would be very risky to pay Bell, a tailback rapidly approaching 30 that had been repeatedly injured and suspended, so they didn’t.
They gave him the franchise tag, essentially a one-year, 12 million dollar contract. Bell was paid well, but not as well as he believed he should’ve been. At the time, not only was he the team’s leading rusher, but also the number two receiver, and he felt he should’ve been paid as such.
After another impressive season, the Steelers attempted to give Bell the franchise tag again, and he held out. The Steelers were essentially renting Bell, refusing to commit to a long-term deal, wasting his most profitable years before the dreaded 30 came along.
The Dreaded 30
Of the 145 men in NFL history with multiple 1,000 yard rushing seasons, only 14 men have done it after the age of 30. It makes sense. If you’re good enough to still be playing when you’re 30, you’ve probably taken a ton of punishment. Hundreds of carries, nagging injuries, and the wear and tear of the grind would take a toll on anyone, but it definitely hurts those who venture into the middle on almost every carry the most.
Bell eventually signed with the New York Jets, but very clearly wasn’t the same guy. Maybe he was rusty, out of shape, or just another victim of Adam Gase, but the only time Bell was less productive over the course of a season was back in 2015 when he only played six games.
When healthy, Todd Gurley is the best back in professional football. Absolutely lethal as a rusher and a receiver, Gurley averaged 1,600 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns a season over his first four years. Rumors swirled about just how long he’s been dealing with arthritis in his knee, but it became an issue two seasons ago. The Rams decided to give him a four-year, $60 million deal, and he looked worth every penny.
After averaging over 20 carries a game in 2018 through 12 games, Gurley faded towards the end of the season. He only had 52 touches during the 2018 playoff run, and he didn’t look like himself at all. He only had 34 yards in the Super Bowl loss against the New England Patriots, and people were wondering why he only had 10 carries.
In 2019, Todd Gurley had the fewest yards of his entire career. He only rushed for 857 yards and added 207 through the air. He only missed one game due to injury, but visibly wasn’t the same back, and the Rams suffered, only winning nine games.
Ezekiel Elliott is arguably the best tailback in football. Since he was drafted back in 2016, he’s averaged nearly 1,800 all-purpose yards and 12 scores a year. He should’ve won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he’s been so dominant that he tricked the NFL into thinking that Dak Prescott was good. And then, his contract came up before the 2019 season.
For many of the same reasons the Steelers didn’t want to pay Bell, the Cowboys didn’t want to pay Ezekiel Elliott. All the way back in college at Ohio State, Zeke had off the field issues, as well as a ton of tread on his tires. He already has well over 2,000 touches between college and the pros, and missed six games thanks to a suspension back in 2017.
However, the Boys made good for Zeke after he held out through training camp, giving him a six-year extension worth $90 million. And in 2019, Zeke was fine! He rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 12 scores. Sure, it was his worst season in which he played at least 11 games, but he was still the league’s second-leading rusher.
But here’s a list of players that (as of this writing) the Dallas Cowboys haven’t been able to pay because of their lack of funds. Corner Byron Jones, quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver, Amari Cooper, linebacker Sean Lee, and wide receiver Randall Cobb. The Cowboys are losing a chunk of their core, with more pieces, like Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, expecting a payday sooner, rather than later. You’ve gotta wonder if the Cowboys still pay Elliott if they knew how much was really at stake.
It’s complicated. Is Derrick Henry important to the Tennessee Titans? Absolutely. Including post-season, the Titans are 13-0 when Henry rushes for 100 yards since 2017, and 17-22 when he doesn’t. The Titans won five of their last six in 2019, mainly because Henry was averaging nearly 150 yards and two touchdowns a game. The Titans were up 10-0 in the AFC Championship game, and it would be disingenuous to insinuate they get that close to a Super Bowl without Henry.
However… Including college, Henry has nearly 1,600 touches. In 2019 alone, Henry had career-highs in carries (303) and receptions (18) during the regular season, and playoffs (83 and five). Doctors will also tell you that per step, you’ll feel the force of three pounds for every pound you weigh, and Henry weighs nearly 240 pounds.
So this is someone that, for hundreds of times a year, will carry the pressure of 720 pounds, while opposing defenders attempt to dive at his knees to avoid his imposing frame. Henry already has a ton of miles under his belt, and he’ll likely turn 30 during his next big contract.
If “Ezekiel Elliott’s contract is the floor,” then Henry expects to make at least $15,000,000 a year. That’s 30% of Tennessee’s current cap space, without mentioning what it would bring to re-sign quarterback Ryan Tannehill or a potential replacement. Do you really want to commit that much of your salary cap to a player with Henry’s baggage?
The “Other” Option
As harsh as it sounds, there is another option. The Titans could give Derrick Henry the franchise tag. It would essentially be a one-year, $10 million deal. As brutal as it sounds, the Titans could repeatedly tag Henry, paying him at a high level for as long as he plays at a high level. They don’t want to pay him, because an injury, or at least a decline in play, feels inevitable, but letting him go would mean they lose their best offensive playmaker.
And sadly, I think this is a big part of the future for tailbacks. More and more teams will opt to rent their tailbacks as opposed to truly investing because they don’t want to be stuck with a bad contract like some of the teams I mentioned earlier. In an age where even Christian McCaffrey is on the trade block? It’s hard to imagine too many teams opening up the checkbook for a runner.
So should a team pay their running backs? Absolutely. Is it ethically questionable to keep slapping the franchise tag on them? You bet. But do I understand the business side of why teams don’t seem interested in doing it? Unfortunately. Regardless of what the Titans choose to do, hopefully Derrick Henry keeps balling out and plays long enough to make far, far more money than any person actually needs.