Let me be clear about this take: All NFL running backs should make as much money as they can in their first few years in the league because they aren’t valuable after that.
Why NFL Running Backs Don’t Deserve a Second Contract
What Has Changed in the Landscape of NFL Running Backs?
NFL running backs take a lot of punishment. That’s why the drafting strategy has changed from selecting a player who can run in between the tackles to a guy who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Running backs like Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, and Jerome Bettis were some of the greatest running backs of all time because of their brute strength and power, but teams wouldn’t select a [layer like that now because they are more susceptible to injury.
Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, and Aaron Jones provide skillsets that NFL general managers are looking for. The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and all four guys have received second contracts.
This also depends on organizational philosophy. New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley is having trouble securing a long-term contract with the Giants for two reasons. One is his injury history, and two is because of Giants GM Joe Schoen. Schoen worked as assistant general manager with the Buffalo Bills from 2017- 2021. During his time there, the Bills never gave a running back a second contract. Here, he’s using the same philosophy. Only Barkley is significantly better than the running backs in Buffalo.
But paying Barkley would be a mistake because the running back position is devalued, and with his injury concerns, giving him the deal he wants would be a monumental risk.
Christian McCaffrey is the prime example of how quickly a running back can be interchangeable in the NFL. McCaffrey had a big 2019 season in which he rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Panthers gave him a four-year $64 million contract, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Two injury-plagued seasons later and six games in 2022, and was out of Carolina.
What running backs should do is go the Aaron Jones route. In 2021, Jones signed a four-year $48 million but it was structured so that he could make more money on the back end of his deal. After two sub-standard seasons, Jones reduced his salary from $16 million to $11 million for the upcoming 2023 season. Jones saw the writing on the wall on what would happen if he got released into the open market.
Look at Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys. He signed a six-year extension with the Cowboys in 2019, and after the Cowboys didn’t get a return on their investment, they released him three seasons.
Having a good running back is a luxury, not a necessity. The Kansas City Chiefs won a Super Bowl this year with a seventh-round draft pick, Isiah Pacheco. The running back position is the least important in the NFL because you can always find another running back who will play on a cheap contract.
Hopefully, players like Saquon who hold out realize they won’t win the battle and are hurting themselves and the fans who pay to watch them play.