Running back salaries remain issue in NFL


To continue reading, log into your account:

[theme-my-login show_title=0]
Le'Veon Bell (26) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

We could see a new CBA agreed to in the coming weeks in between the NFL owners and the NFLPA. But it might not address one of the biggest issues facing the players -- at least the players at one position.

How to compensate running backs remains an issue. A glamor position, running back salaries haven't kept up with those at other skill positions.

Running backs made a comeback in 2019 in the NFL. There were 15 who topped 1,000 rushing yards in 2019, the most since 2012. Despite that, just four running backs had a contract that averaged $10 million or more this season. There were 25 wide receivers whose average salary eclipsed $10 million.

We've heard for years now that running backs aren't as valuable as they used to be. They've been deemphasized in the draft, with teams grabbing players at other positions, such as quarterback or offensive and defensive lines, in the first round of the draft to get their running back in the later rounds.

Nine of this year's 1,000-yard rushers weren't first-round draft picks, with six of those having been taken in the second round.

Why is this significant?

Per the rules of the current NFL CBA, teams have a fifth-year option on players selected in the first round. And with that fifth-year option comes a hefty raise.

First-round picks also make a significant amount of more money than players taken in the later rounds, as well because of the signing bonuses involved.

It was this situation that put the Steelers in a tight spot with Le'Veon Bell in 2017 and 2018.

A second-round draft pick in 2013, Bell clearly outplayed his rookie contract, making just $3.8 million in salary and signing bonus his first four seasons when he was one of the league's best backs.

And when the Steelers were unable to work out a new deal with him before the 2017 season, they used the franchise tag on him, paying him $12.1 million. It was a significant raise, but it didn't offer the long-term security Bell desired, especially after he led the NFL in touches that season with more than 400.

So when the Steelers tried to tag him again -- this time for $14.5 million -- in 2018, he balked at the move and refused to report, becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and eventually signing with the Jets.

"We had one, I’ll call it unusual experience, and I think it was that – an unusual experience," Steelers president Art Rooney II said this week when asked if that would keep the team from using the franchise tag in the future.

"When you look around the league, people use the franchise tag, and sometimes it works to help get a contract done. Sometimes it’s a short-term solution, but for the most part, it’s what’s helped teams keep players on the field."

Many would say Bell had a "down" year in 2019. But he had 1,259 total yards and scored eight touchdowns this season. There were three wide receivers who had more yards from scrimmage than that this season.

A couple of high-profile running backs deciding to stay in college this week, rather than declare themselves eligible for the draft brought it to the forefront.

Neither Clemson's Travis Eitenne or Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard said that was a factor in them staying in school, but it very well could have been in the back of their minds.

Both were projected as top-five picks at the running back position, but neither was considered a first-round prospect.

Why not go back to school when there's a possibility that next year, they could go in the first round and make significantly more money before being used up?

It's a gamble, but it's one that could be worthwhile.

Look at Tennessee's Derrick Henry.

A second-round draft pick in 2016, Henry will be an unrestricted free agent after leading the league with 1,540 yards and 303 carries. He's added another 64 carries in the Titans' two postseason wins, getting another 19 in their loss Sunday in the AFC Championship.

That's a heavy workload.

He made just $1.3 million this season, bringing his career earnings to $5.4 million. Nine running backs made more this season than Henry has made in his career.

Henry will want a big raise. But the odds show that a running back who carried the ball 386 times in the previous season is likely going to regress the next season.

Now, had Henry been drafted just 14 picks earlier -- in the first round -- he would have already made roughly the $8.265 million that German Ifedi, the final pick of the first round that season by the Seahawks, earned in his first four seasons.

And even if the Titans chose to pick up his fifth-year option, he would still get a significant raise, earning the average salary of the top 25 players at his position, somewhere between $4 to $5 million.

So, it's a gamble for Eitenne and Chuba to return to school, but if they can improve their status enough to go in the first round, it's definitely worth it at their position.

For a team such as the Steelers, who could be looking for a running back in the second round -- their first pick in this year's draft -- Eitenne and Chuba deciding to return to school is significant.

Either could have been a consideration for the team in the second round. But, perhaps at least in part because of the salary structures when it comes to running backs, they won't get that chance.

To continue reading, log into your account: