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  • Writer's pictureChristian Novarro

Death of the Running Back Market: Potential Impact on Saquon Barkley & Josh Jacobs' Future Contracts

Updated: Jan 17

In 2020, star running back Christian McCaffrey signed a record-breaking contract with the Carolina Panthers which included $38 million dollars guaranteed over the first three years.[2] Since then, however, the contract values for NFL running backs have drastically declined. Top running backs like Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants and Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders, who are currently seeking new contracts, will surely be affected by this trend.


Why Are Running Backs Being Devalued?


There are a variety of factors that could explain the massive drop-off in the running back market. First, running backs get hit a lot and, in turn, suffer a significant amount of injuries. The violent nature of the position has caused running backs to have the shortest career life span (the average career is 2.57 years long) and one of the highest injury rates of all NFL positions.[3][4] For example, since signing his massive deal, Christian McCaffrey has missed 22 of a potential 49 games (45% total).[5]


Second, teams have repeatedly been able to find cheap, productive running backs in the annual NFL draft. From the 2022 draft class, five rookie running backs led their respective teams in rushing with around 800 rushing yards or more last season:

  • Kenneth Walker (second round),

  • Brian Robinson (third round),

  • Dameon Pierce (fourth round),

  • Tyler Allgeier (fifth round), and

  • Isiah Pacheco (seventh round).[6][7]

In addition to leading the Kansas City Chiefs in rushing with 830 yards during the regular season, Isiah Pacheco was an integral part of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory with 76 yards and a touchdown.[8] As a rookie, Pacheco had a cap hit of $724,777 in 2022 and will only cost the Chiefs $889,777 next season.[9] McCaffrey, comparatively, made $8.6 million in 2022 and will have a cap hit of $12 million for the 2023 season.[10] Therefore, it does not make sense from an organizational standpoint to give injury-prone running backs big contract extensions when teams have received quality production for a tenth of the cost via the draft.


2023 Running Back Deals vs. Past Years


During the 2023 free agency period, a relatively strong running back class with highly productive players such as Miles Sanders and Jamaal Williams garnered deals cheaper than in years past. Miles Sanders, for instance, had a 2022 season that was comparable to some of the league’s top backs, such as Joe Mixon and Nick Chubb, the year before they signed long-term deals. Yet, his four-year deal worth $25.4 million dollars with $13 million guaranteed was substantially less than what Joe Mixon and Nick Chubb received.[11][12]

RB & Year Before Deal

Rushing Yards

Yards Per Carry

TDs

Total Yards from Scrimmage

Average Annual Salary

Miles Sanders (2022)

1269

4.9

11

1347

$6.35 million

Joe Mixon (2019)

1137

4.1

8

1424

$12 million

Nick Chubb (2020)

1067

5.6

12

1217

$12.2 million


After Joe Mixon’s 2019 season and Nick Chubb’s 2020 season, they each received long-term extensions paying them about $12 million a year. Meanwhile, Miles Sanders' recent contract with the Carolina Panthers pays him only around 50% of what Mixon and Chubb make, despite having a similar on-field performance. In addition, the Panthers do not owe any guaranteed money to Sanders after the second year of the contract and can easily cut ties with him after the 2024 NFL season.[13][14]

RB & Year Before Deal

Total Yards from Scrimmage

Yards per Carry

TDs

Guaranteed Money

Miles Sanders (2022)

1347

4.9

11

$13 million

Jamaal Williams (2022)

1139

4.1

17

$8.15 million

James Connor (2021)

1127

3.7

18

$13.5 million


Comparatively, despite less impressive statistics, Arizona Cardinals running back, James Connor, received $13.5 million guaranteed over two years last year during the 2022 offseason ($500K more than Sanders). Sanders had over 200 more scrimmage yards and averaged a whopping 1.2 more yards per carry.[15] Connor’s numbers were more similar to that of Jamaal Williams who recently signed with the New Orleans Saints. Yet, Jamaal only received $8.15 million guaranteed over two years - a significant $4.35 million less than Connor.[16]


The Franchise Tag and Its Potential Effects on Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley


Two more of the NFL’s top running backs, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs, were set to hit the open market this offseason with the hopes of receiving long-term deals. However, both were given the franchise tag by their respective teams. As a result of the tag, Barkley and Jacobs will each be paid $10.091 million in 2023 (an average of the five highest paid running backs in the league).[17] By failing to secure a long-term extension, Jacobs and Barkley will miss out on potentially millions of dollars they could have made in guarantees beyond the 2023 season. Therefore, they should not accept their franchise tags - and reports have surfaced that Saquon Barkley does not plan to accept his as he remains determined to secure a long-term extension from the Giants.[18][19]

After a couple injury-riddled seasons, Saquon Barkley reminded everyone why he was the second overall pick back in 2018. Barkey averaged 4.4 yards per carry and had 1,312 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns in 2022.[20]


Josh Jacobs was even more impressive in 2022. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, led the league in rushing with 1,653 yards, and he had 12 touchdowns to go along with it.[21] Jacobs and Barkley will not get a McCaffrey-like deal for the reasons described earlier, but they do deserve to get paid like the other elite running backs in the NFL and the time to strike is now.


If Barkley and Jacobs wait, they are adding another year of wear and tear on the body (decreasing their value) and risk suffering a major injury before they can get paid. Saquon Barkley has already suffered a torn ACL. Another severe injury would eliminate his chances of receiving a lucrative deal. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that either player will hit the open market after the 2023 season. Although both players were franchise tagged this offseason, the Giants and Raiders could franchise tag both players again for the 2024 season. If a team applies the franchise tag to a player in back-to-back years, they must pay them 120% of their salary from the year before.[22]


A second-consecutive year on the franchise tag for Barkley or Jacobs would cost the Giants and Raiders around $12.1 million. This is still a reasonable salary in comparison to other widely acclaimed running backs. Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, and Joe Mixon’s 2023 salary cap hit, for example, would all be greater than Jacobs and Barkley’s $12.1 million cap hit in 2024 on a second-consecutive franchise tag:

  • Derrick Henry 2023 cap hit - $16.367 million,

  • Dalvin Cook 2023 cap hit - $14.101 million,

  • Nick Chubb 2023 cap hit - $14.85 million, and

  • Joe Mixon 2023 cap hit - $12.761 million. [23]

Conclusion


It makes sense for the Giants and Raiders to refrain from signing their star backs to long-term contracts. Barkley and Jacobs are on their rosters at reasonable prices without the risks that come along with a longer deal. And, if both continue to play at an elite level, they can retain them for another season at another manageable salary by way of the franchise tag.


But from the player's side, it makes sense for Barkley and Jacobs to forego playing absent an extension. They were arguably the most valuable players to their teams in 2022. Despite the risk of injury and the ability for teams to find cheaper talent elsewhere, few players can replicate the impact that Barkley and Jacobs have. Ultimately, they deserve long-term extensions, however, given the state of the running back position, it is unlikely they will receive the deals they desire.


References: [2] Spotrac.com https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/contracts/# [3] Christina Gough, Average length of player careers in the NFL, Statista.com (31 January 2023) https://www.statista.com/statistics/240102/average-player-career-length-in-the-national-football-league/ [4] Hayden P. Baker, The Injury Rate in National Football League Players Increased Following Cancellation of Preseason Games Because of COVID-19, ScienceDirect.com (August 2021) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666061X21000808 [5] Pro Football Reference https://www.pro-football-reference.com/ [6] NFL.com https://www.nfl.com/stats/player-stats/category/rushing/2022/post/all/rushingyards/desc [7] Ben Rolfe, Running backs drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft, ProFootballNetwork.com (30 April 2022) https://www.profootballnetwork.com/running-backs-drafted-in-the-2022-nfl-draft/ [8] Pro Football Reference, supra. [9] Spotrac, supra. [10]Id. [11]Id. [12] Pro Football Reference, supra. [13] Spotrac, supra. [14] Pro Football Reference, supra. [15]Id. [16]Id. [17] Spotrac, supra. [18] Jordan Ranaan, Saquon Barkley won’t sign franchise tag before Giants’ offseason program starts, Espn.com (12 April 2023) https://www.espn.ph/nfl/story/_/id/36168563/saquon-barkley-sign-franchise-tag-giants-offseason-program-starts [20] Pro Football Reference, supra. [21]Id. [22] Charlotte Edmonds, NFL franchuse tag: What you need to know, NBCSports.com (15 February 2023) https://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/eagles/nfl-franchise-tag-what-you-need-know [23] Spotrac, supra.

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