Saquon Barkley is just the latest running back to see his value diminish in the NFL.
In the age of the RPO and pass-first offenses, the running-back position has officially been devalued. It’s been trending this way for some time, but the fact has never been more apparent than this offseason, especially this week.
As NFL teams move toward running backs by committee, the Giants, Raiders, and Cowboys allowed the deadline to pass without locking up their clear top backfield options for the long term.
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Barkley may be the highest-profile back affected, but Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard also could not agree on contract extensions with their teams before Monday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline.
“It is what it is,” Barkley tweeted after the deadline passed.
The three backs will play for $10.1 million in 2023 since the franchise-tag payout is calculated by the average salary of the top-five players at the position over the past five years.
Running back is the lowest-paid franchise-tag position on either side of the ball, and its payout has decreased over the past six seasons, from $12.1 million in 2017, even as the NFL salary cap has risen almost $60 million in that span.
It’s ironic that all three backs will be forced to play under the franchise tag distinction, given that their perceived more valuable teammates are already locked into long-term contracts.
Barkley is the only running back that was chosen with a top-five pick in any of the past six NFL drafts, and he and Jacobs are two of eight first-round backs from that span. Two more, Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, were selected in the first round of the most recent draft in April.
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While the commonly accepted peak age for an NFL RB has historically been 30, even that is trending younger — more like 27.
Four 1995-born former bell-cow backs, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott, and Kareem Hunt, remain unsigned as training camps get set to open across the league.
Hunt has been a controversial figure throughout his career and was memorably cut midseason by the Chiefs after a high-profile domestic violence incident in 2018. Fournette, like Barkley, was a top-five pick in 2017 but has struggled, especially in the past three seasons.
However, Cook and Elliott are still unemployed despite being two of the league’s most consistent lead backs. Cook is a four-time 1,100-plus yard contributor who has racked up at least 40 receptions in each of the past five seasons. Meanwhile, Elliott has surpassed 1,300 rushing yards three times in his career and had 12 touchdowns a year ago.
Therein lies the problem for running backs. As opposed to quarterbacks or offensive linemen, who need more reps to grow into their valuable positions, running backs are never more valuable than when they come into the league. And that is especially true for those with notable college careers, like Fournette, Elliott, Cook, and Barkley.
Top NFL Running Backs Speak Out
Don’t think other backs around the league haven’t noticed the trend, either.
All-Pros Christian McCaffrey, Jonathan Taylor, and Derrick Henry each voiced their disappointment in Monday’s developments.
McCaffrey has set the market, earning about $16 million per year. The 49ers back, who was acquired midway through the 2022 season from the Carolina Panthers, also spoke out in favor of his brethren.
“This is criminal,” McCaffrey tweeted Monday. “Three of the best PLAYERS in the league, regardless of position.”
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Taylor, who led the NFL in yards (1,811) and touchdowns (18) in 2021, yet could become an unrestricted free agent after this season, is becoming cynical to the process.
“1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you. 2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. …If you succeed… 3. You boost the Organization …and then… Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB,” Taylor tweeted Monday.
Three years ago, Henry received a lucrative four-year contract with $25.5 million guaranteed. He is set to play the final season of that deal in 2023, accumulating $51 million in total earnings.
But even though he’s one of the last true bell-cow backs who got his proverbial bag, Henry is still disappointed by the trend away from fairly compensating his position mates around the league.
“At this point, just take the RB position out [of] the game then,” Henry tweeted. “The ones that want to be great and work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization. Just seems like it don’t even matter. I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve.”