When Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal last month worth $60 million - including $45 million guaranteed - some NFL experts believed the big-money dry spell for running backs was about to end.
A prominent former NFL agent wrote about the new precedent Gurley’s deal would set. The Ringer's Robert Mays used Gurley's extension to romanticize the potential resurgence of the franchise back. And Gurley himself told ESPN The Magazine's Sam Alipour: "It was not only big for me, but it was a statement for the running backs, for what we do and what we deserve to get in this league, as much as we put in."
Yet a healthy skepticism remains about whether Gurley's extension with the Los Angeles Rams will lead to other big contracts for running backs. And considering history, that skepticism is well-founded; NFL teams largely keep their running backs overworked and underpaid, and that's unlikely to change, even with a handful of elite rushers on the verge of new deals.
Joel Corry, a former NFL agent, notes that Gurley's deal is a significant outlier compared to the recent deals other elite free agents received.
"The highest-paid guy on a long-term deal (before Gurley) was (Atlanta Falcons running back) Devonta Freeman," said Corry, who writes about contracts and the salary cap for CBS Sports. "It's money that wasn't even what Steven Jackson got a decade ago. Something is seriously wrong. I don't think that's going to translate to every running back."
Jackson signed an extension with the Rams in 2008 that paid him $21 million in guaranteed money. There have been just a handful of deals since in which running backs have seen more guaranteed dollars - among them, Titans superstar Chris Johnson's extension in 2011 ($30 million guaranteed) and Vikings star Adrian Peterson's deal in 2012 ($36 million guaranteed).
Gurley, who led the NFL with 2,093 offensive yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017, is one of the lucky ones - a versatile running back in his prime with little wear on the treads playing for a franchise that considers him one of its most valuable assets. But for the most part, NFL teams are strategically avoiding long-term investment in primary ball carriers, especially with a new wave of young franchise backs being ushered into the game. Rookies have led the NFL in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
Running backs are critical to a team's success, but they're also among the most volatile, injury-prone players on offense. The average career of an NFL running back is about three years, according to the NFLPA (though the union counts all running backs on league rosters even before the beginning of the season). The NFL has said the average career for running backs who appear on the initial 53-man roster is about six years.
With attrition levels high and rookie salaries low in comparison to lucrative extensions, it's easy to see why NFL teams are loath to spend at running back - even for the best of the best. And that bodes poorly for Le'Veon Bell. The All-Pro rusher is playing on the franchise tag for the second straight year after he rejected a reported below-market deal from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell is a free agent after the season.
The three-time Pro Bowler led the NFL last year with 406 touches in 15 games - an average of 27 touches per game, one year after averaging 28. But he faces a dilemma: rack up that many touches again and he'll run the risk of injury or burnout; accept a lighter load and his counting stats could suffer - along with his chances of landing a big contract.
"One, he has to stay healthy and two, he can't have regression" to beat Gurley's deal, said Corry. "If he has regression ... teams will say, 'Hey, well, his best years are behind him.'"
Bell, who hasn't yet signed his tender and hasn't practiced with the Steelers since camp opened, reportedly rejected an offer that only promised $10 million in guaranteed money. He’ll make $14.544 million under the tag.
How desperate have things become for a player that's posted 8,000 total yards and 42 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons? According to Corry, Bell might be better off spending the first part of the season on the sidelines.
"Something which might be best for him, and this may sound crazy ... a soft-tissue injury early in the season which keeps him out for several weeks," Corry said. "He comes back the last quarter of the year, gets a huge workload and then the playoffs, and he doesn't have the heavy usage. That might be his best-case scenario, personally - not for the Steelers, but for him."
But not everyone is quite so pessimistic about the place of running backs on the NFL's pay scale.
"That's a lot of money guaranteed for Todd Gurley," former NFL running back and current NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew told theScore. "From there, that's what teams will start to look at. To me, if you're an exceptional back and you're an exceptional player you need to get paid an exceptional rate, period."
Jones-Drew believes players also get short-changed in terms of public perception, suggesting that the blame for any contract dispute gets placed on them as opposed to ownership or management.
"Players get a bad rap, and it's from fans," said Jones-Drew, who made three Pro Bowls in eight years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "You never get mad at ownership for not getting a deal done. But then we want Le'Veon to come on a one-year deal and run all over the place and do all this stuff.
"No, that's not how life works. At the end of the day, the team has just the same issue as the player - they need to find a way to get the deal done."
Bell isn't the only elite running back whose team faces a difficult decision.
Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft, has averaged an NFL-best 104.6 rushing yards per game and nearly 25 touches per game since he entered the league. He's eligible for an extension after this season. Could the Cowboys take the same approach with him as the Steelers are using with Bell?
Just four years earlier, the Cowboys let DeMarco Murray walk in free agency after Murray made the Pro Bowl twice in four seasons. Murray led the NFL in touches, rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and rushing TDs in 2014, an All-Pro season, but rejected Dallas' reported offer of $6 million annually to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles for $8 million a year, with $18 million guaranteed.
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, an All-Pro in 2016, is entering his fourth season and is also eligible for an extension. He led the NFL in 2016 with 373 touches, 2,118 yards from scrimmage, and 20 offensive touchdowns.
While it's possible that any or all three of these running backs wind up with $25 million or more guaranteed, it's far from certain.
"I think that the smart teams that have unique offenses are going to chew up and spit out certain (running backs)," said South Florida-based agent David Canter, who doesn't represent any player among the 20 highest-paid running backs.
Corry said NFL teams would be wise to get as much work as possible out of their primary ball carriers and then let them walk when their franchise-tag rights run out, which is what the Steelers appear poised to do with Bell.
"Personally, that's what I would do," Corry said. "I know that sounds kind of harsh or overly cynical, (but) I wouldn't pay one of these guys."
Geoff Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter, radio host, and TV personality with more than 20 years of experience covering all major sports and leagues. He also hosts regularly on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and co-hosts "The Sports Shop" on Facebook. You can find him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.
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