NFL running back drama, explained: Why aren't RBs getting paid?

Josh Jacobs, Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley are learning the hard way that NFL running backs just aren't valued anymore in the way that they once were.
Don't pay running backs
Don't pay running backs / Jeff Bottari/GettyImages

Since it's back-to-school season, imagine you are out at Staples purchasing your stationery for the school year. You need to purchase some pencils. Brand-new, never-used pencils are selling for $1, medium-used pencils are selling for $1.50, and pencils used almost all the way up are selling for $2.50.

Any person of average or slightly below average intelligence would choose the most pencil for the money. In this case, the brand new pencil, or worst-case scenario, a couple of medium-used pencils.

If you are able to follow along with this simple analogy, you are able to understand why NFL running backs are not being paid. A running back at the end of his rookie deal is essentially a pencil, worn all the way down to the eraser. He's at the end of his life. You throw him away, and you get a new one, or some that have more tread on them.

It's not personal, it's business.

Why aren't NFL running backs being paid anymore?

This hasn't always been the case, but since Nirvana is not in the top 10 today on the Billboard charts, we are no longer in the 90s. The modern NFL football team has chosen to go running back by committee, or possibly even a running back on a rookie contract for four years, and then replacing the player with somebody else after that. On an NFL roster, a running back is slightly more valuable than a punter.

The tide began to turn in large part due to large contract extensions signed by Todd Gurley in 2018 and Le'Veon Bell in 2019. Gurley may have been somewhat productive the first two years after his new contract, but his career was still over at age 26. Bell was a complete train wreck, on the other hand, averaging just 400 yards per season after signing his big deal.

Teams saw the writing on the wall and chose to use a stable of backs. In other words, a couple of medium pencils, and a brand new pencil.

There were some teams who were slow to learn this lesson. After signing Christian McCaffrey to a record-breaking contract extension, he played 10 games for the Carolina Panthers over the next two seasons. Despite never rushing for 1,000 yards, Alvin Kamara got a $75 million contract from the Saints, only to play in 23 games out of 34 potential contests over the next two seasons.

The Tennessee Titans had one of the highest-paid running back rooms in the NFL last year and finished 7- 10. On the flip side, the Bills, Chiefs, and Eagles all chose to go running back by committee and had three of the best records in the NFL. Even when you get production out of your running back, it doesn't mean you will have success as a team. The four leading rushers in the NFL last year went a combined 29-38-1.

Two of those players were Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley, both of whom were clamoring for new contracts this offseason. They have both had to settle for one-year deals. This is a new NFL, and teams are sending a message to all the running backs in the league currently on their rookie contracts.

Going forward, no matter how well a running back performs, after his rookie deal, he can expect a one-year deal each year for the rest of his career. This is because a running back’s career is basically over by the age of 26 or 27.

There are exceptions to every rule, but teams are refusing to bet a player being that exception. They will play the odds and not pay their running back. Instead, they will invest that money in quarterback, offensive line, edge rusher, and cornerback. Pretty much any position other than running back.

Avoiding the pitfalls that teams like the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, and Tennessee Titans have had over the last couple of years, teams will choose to pass on large deals for running backs. With the Super Bowl in mind, they will choose to treat running backs like disposable pencils. Use up the lead, throw it away, and get another one.