When will NFL teams learn to stop spending big on running backs?

·4-min read

Let’s call it the Todd Gurley conundrum.

When the Los Angeles Rams were rolling through the NFL in 2017, both fans and executives identified Gurley as the driving force of the offense.

So, too, did the Rams. In the summer before the 2018 season, the Rams signed Gurley to a four-year deal worth $60 million that reset the market for running backs. He seemed locked in as a franchise player for years to come after finishing second in MVP voting behind Tom Brady in 2017.

Three years later, Gurley is no longer with the Rams. He is now a cautionary tale of what not to do with running backs.

This isn’t a slight on Gurley. He had an arthritic knee coming out of college that led to his decline in production as he got older, but it’s an honest assessment of the state of the position, and why paying second contracts to running backs is a mistake.

This isn’t just a Gurley problem. As of 2019, the highest paid running backs in the NFL were Gurley, David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Lamar Miller, Devonta Freeman and Ezekiel Elliot. Only Elliot and Bell remain on their same teams one year later, and not one player on the list led their teams to the playoffs last season.

Gurley, Freeman, and Fournette were all released by their respective organizations after 2019 due to a lack of production and not living up to their exhaustive costs. Johnson, too, was traded after the Arizona Cardinals no longer had use for his services, and that deal was a primary reason Bill O’Brien was fired this past week by the Houston Texans.

On the opposite end of the scale, teams continued to find more value at running back from unheralded players. Chris Carson finished as a top-five running back with the Seattle Seahawks and his 2019 salary was less than $1 million. The two starting running backs in the Super Bowl for Kansas City and San Francisco – Raheem Mostert and Damien Williams – were both making close the league minimum. Mostert was undrafted and bounced around the league while Williams signed off the streets as a free agent who had been on multiple teams before landing in Kansas City.

The same trend has continued thus far in 2020.

The Carolina Panthers made Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in NFL history, signing him to a $64-million extension this past April. He is an elite talent who fits the modern game, yet as great as McCaffrey is, he isn’t helping Carolina win games.

According to SB Nation’s Geoff Schwartz, the Panthers’ franchise back has 15 games in his career with more than 10 receiving targets, and the team is 1-14 during those games. He has five games with over 100 yards receiving, and the team is 0-5 over that stretch.

The Panthers were 5-11 in McCaffrey’s breakout season last year. They are 0-2 with him in the lineup this year, and 2-0 without him. There’s no doubt Carolina could’ve got better use out of their resources. Mike Davis, a veteran street free agent playing on the league minimum, has provided quality production since McCaffrey got hurt and the offense has been more productive as a whole.

The same issue is happening in Minnesota. Dalvin Cook leads the NFL in rushing, yet the Vikings are 1-3 and in last place in the NFC North with a declining offensive line. Cook signed a new contract worth $12 million per year before the season.

Cook and McCaffrey individually are fantastic players, but there is no evidence that handing out big money to running backs is correlated with winning on the field. In fact, the opposite appears to be true as the contracts become prohibitive.

After spending $15 million per season on Gurley, the Rams couldn’t afford to keep starting guard Roger Safford, who remains a quality starter in Tennessee. As a result, the Rams’ offensive line deteriorated, which ironically caused Gurley’s own production to dramatically decline. This year, the Rams are far more productive in the running game without Gurley.

The Jaguars, too, appear to have learned their lesson after moving on from Fournette, a top-five draft pick in 2017. In his absence, rookie James Robinson, an unheralded player entering the season, has been far more efficient than Fournette was in previous years at a fraction of the cost.

Running backs not only have a short shelf life because of the physicality of the position, but teams would be better off allocating resources to areas that impact the passing game – which advanced analytics shows is more correlated with winning – and towards players that maintain performance as they get older such as offensive linemen or defensive backs. Having a better offensive line makes it easier to run the ball, no matter who is at running back.

General managers need to learn from what happened with cases like Gurley and make more educated team-building decisions going forward.

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