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Case Study: Is paying running backs worth it?

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

After Derrick Henry’s 4-year, $50M contract ($25.5M guaranteed) extension with Colts division rivals Tennessee Titans, the debate of whether it is smart to commit big money to a running back capture my attention. Many fans think it is stupid to pay for a position where it is easy to find value and where players’ production drops off a cliff without any type of warning, but others have a different opinion, and think of running backs as they do any other player: if he is good, you pay him.

To shine some light into this well-discussed subject, I looked over the most recent cases of running backs signed to an expensive long term deal. I can tell you now, it is not pretty.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons, 2017 off-season

Devonta Freeman was signed to a then record 5-year, $41.25M extension for a running back. He was a key part of the Falcons offense. Freeman has drastically declined since he signed that contract, struggling with injuries and a lack of production. He was released at the start of this offseason.

Before the extension: 3 seasons, 43 games started, 3248 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 193 receptions, 1582 receiving yards, 37 total TDs

After the extension: 2 seasons, 16 games started, 724 rushing yards, 3.7 YPC, 64 receptions, 433 receiving yards, 4 total TDs

Todd Gurley, Rams, 2018 off-season

Gurley’s case is a bit weird. He had a fantastic rookie season but fell off in his second year. He rebounded in his third year and the Rams rewarded him with a handsome 4-year, $57.5M extension. The first season after the extension Gurley seemed to prove the Rams right, by posting a historically great season, recording 21 total TDs and being the main reason why the Rams reached the Super Bowl that year.

However, it was not all great, as he suffered knee complications towards the end of the 2018 season that lingered into the following year. He was released by the Rams in this offseason after further complications with his left knee.

Before the extension: 3 seasons, 43 games started, 3296 rushing yards, 4.2 YPC, 128 receptions, 1303 receiving yards, 35 total TDs.

After the extension: 2 seasons, 29 games started, 2018 rushing yards, 4.4 YPC, 90 receptions, 787 receiving yards, 35 total TDs

David Johnson, Cardinals, 2018 off-season

Johnson was extended by the Cardinals mainly due to his incredible sophomore season, where he was not only a threat running the ball but also an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He was coming off a major injury so he was much cheaper than Gurley, at $39M for 3 years. After signing the contract Johnson’s injury struggles continued and he seemed to lose his touch, getting benched last season in favor of Kenyan Drake, and even being a healthy scratch a couple games.

He was traded to the Houston Texans this off-season in what can only be described as a highway robbery for the Cardinals.

Before the extension: 3 seasons, 22 games started, 1843 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 122 receptions, 1403 receiving yards, 32 total TDs.

After the extension: 2 seasons, 25 games started, 1285 rushing yards, 3.7 YPC, 86 receptions, 816 receiving yards, 16 total TDs.

Le’Veon Bell, Jets, 2019 Free-agency

Let me recognize something first, I was among the ones that wanted Ballard to get Le’Veon Bell, and I’m glad he did not. After holding out the 2018 season in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bell was a free agent in 2019 and signed a 4-year, $52.5M contract with the New York Jets, who have a history of overpaying for free agents. Bell entered the Big Apple with lofty expectations, but he came nowhere close to living up to his massive contract in his first season with Gang Green.

Steelers’ Le’Veon: 5 seasons, 62 games started, 5339 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 312 receptions, 2660 receiving yards, 42 total TDs.

Jets’ Le’Veon: 1 season, 15 games started, 789 rushing yards, 3.2 YPC, 66 receptions, 461 receiving yards, 4 total TDs.

We still have to wait and see how Ezekiel Elliot and CMC contract extensions pan out, as they are both generational type running backs in their own way. I would not put Henry in the same tier as Zeke and CMC yet but he can get there.

These results suggest that Ballard was right in drafting Jonathan Taylor in the second round, as starter Marlon Mack is in the final year of his contract and I’m sure C.B. does not plan on overpaying him to stay in Indy, especially with Taylor, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins all still in the fold for 2021. Ballard will also have to worry about extensions for Ryan Kelly and T.Y Hilton as priorities next offseason.

These observations lend credibility to the idea that running back production can be easily/cheaply replaced through the Draft or free agency. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost Bell and replaced him with James Conner, a third round pick. Conner has been really solid for the Steelers, who have not suffered a noticeable drop-off in production. Last year’s Super Bowl running backs where both UDFA coming out of college, and both Mostert and Williams were productive down the stretch for their respective teams.

There is not as much production difference for team who have an above-average running back (say Mack, Ekeler, Conner, Carson, Ingram to name a few) to those those who have a pedestrian one (Montgomery, Sanders, Drake, Breida), as there is in other positions.

Running backs also have a limited shelf life. Looking at the top 12 running backs for the past 3 seasons, their average age is 24 years and 8 months. Of those 36 running backs, only 16.6% (6/36) of them were above the age of 27. Look at the top running backs from 5 seasons ago and look where they are now, then do the same for the top quarterbacks, receivers, defensive linemen. Of course there are some exceptions to the rule, like for example A.P or former Colt Frank Gore, but the truth for running backs is that it is really rare for them to sustain above-average production long enough to justify big extensions.

The smartest move right now with starting running backs seems to be the franchise tag, as it allows team to keep the player without having to commit long term.

Analytics and common sense are against committing big money to running backs. If the trend seen in recent years continues, as it most likely will, don’t be surprised if the Titans and the Cowboys end up regretting handing their running backs hefty contracts, and Ballard will be recognized for his management of the position.