NFL running backs: How Jonathan Taylor saga shows change in value
How the Jonathan Taylor saga can impact the value of RBs. 'That's just how the market goes' The Texans coaching staff would normally at this time of year be poring over film searching for ways to stop Jonathan Taylor. Instead, the Colts' All-Pro running back, who has averaged 124.
6 rushing yards per game against the Texans and has never lost to his AFC South rival, will spend his second of four weeks on the physically unable to perform list as his contract dispute with the Colts enters its third month. The saga is not just a standoff between Taylor and Colts decision-makers who have used the recovery of Taylor’s ankle, which underwent surgery in January, to buy more time. It’s a siege against an obstinate NFL market in which the value of running backs has stagnated while other position groups have skyrocketed in the last decade.
It’s also a case that will set precedent for the Texans when they inevitably face this issue themselves. It's reasonable to suggest that if Taylor were a quarterback, his contract dispute would have already been resolved. The Texans just played the Ravens, a franchise that salvaged its financial relationship with Lamar Jackson in time for the regular season.
Jackson, the NFL’s 2019 MVP, issued a March 2 trade demand before ultimately agreeing hours before the draft to a five-year, $260 million extension that at the time made him the league’s highest-paid player in history. That Joe Burrow’s five-year, $275 million extension with the Bengals ended Jackson’s reign after only four months shows just how much more NFL teams are willing to commit to elite quarterbacks within their budgets. The increased dollar amounts are absurd to common mortals, but they’re constant indications of the wealth that’s available to players who compete for percentage shares within a league whose salary cap continues to soar annually.
No position group has lost out on more money in the past decade than running back. Since 2013, the salary cap has increased by 82. 8%.
The average of the top-five salaries for running backs (reflected in each year’s franchise tag values) has only increased by 22. 8% in that span, according to Spotrac. That’s nominal growth in comparison to the top-five salaries for defensive tackles (124.
1%), quarterbacks (117. 6%) and linebackers (117. 5%), a stagnancy made only more staggering by the position group with the second-lowest growth: cornerbacks (67.
1%). NFL teams don’t devote large portions of their salary caps to running backs. The top-five quarterback salaries signed in 2013 held an average cap share of 14.
3%, according to Over the Cap. That average is now 22. 3%, which doubles the share of any other position.
But the top-five average cap shares of contracts signed by defensive tackles (10. 1%), offensive linemen (9. 72%) and defensive ends (9.
26%) also more than double the top-five average cap share of running backs (4. 76), the second-lowest share only to kickers and punters (2. 02).
Running backs consider this a crisis. Their market share affords them little to no leverage in contract negotiations. Austin Ekeler, who is entering the final year of his contract with the Chargers, attempted a Jackson-like impasse by requesting a trade in March, but the 28-year-old succeeded only in receiving a $1.
75 million pay bump with no additional years. Ekeler, who is vice president of the player’s union, held a zoom call in late July to discuss bargaining complaints with a list of running backs that reportedly included Taylor. Taylor possessed considerably more clout as a 24-year-old All-Pro who led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2021, but his contract negotiations with Colts owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard entering the final year of his rookie deal haven’t yet been any more successful.
The drama has unfurled publicly. Irsay intimated in a July 26 Twitter post that Taylor’s agent, Malki Kawa, was selling “bad faith,” and Kawa shot back that “bad faith is not paying your top offensive player. ” Taylor requested a trade July 29, and after the team’s self-imposed Aug.
29 deadline passed with no acceptable offers (Ballard told reporters he wasn’t going to let Taylor just “walk out the building”), the Colts kept Taylor on the physically unable to perform list, which requires him to miss four games. Taylor is now the most prominent running back waging a war that experts say may not be won within the confines of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in March 2030. There are myriad reasons why the value of the running back has dropped so significantly in the last decade.
One of the most damaging factors is that a running back’s average longevity as a productive player rarely exceeds beyond his rookie contract. Mike Giddings, owner of Proscout Inc. , a renowned evaluation agency that 35 Super Bowl-winning teams have employed since 1977, uses a color-coded model that many NFL scouting departments have adopted themselves.
The colors are attached to skillsets: blue being the best, red is “darn good,” Giddings said in a Tuesday interview, and purple “you can win with. ” Giddings used his model to study young elite running backs (which he qualified as players who were blue runners, blue route-runners, and at least red at blocking the blitz in two of their first four seasons) from 1996 to 2015, and of those 77 running backs, Giddings said the average number of total blue-red seasons they produced in their careers was 5. 7.
The average number of total blue-red seasons they produced after year four of their contracts was 1. 7. Quarterbacks under the same terms averaged 6.
5 blue-red seasons, Giddings said, 3. 9 after year four. In more digestible terms, NFL decision-makers rarely believe even their elite running backs will eventually become as productive as Adrian Peterson, one of four running backs in the sample size to produce nine blue-red seasons.
None produced 10. Peterson, a four-time All-Pro and 2012 MVP with the Vikings, is the only running back who has signed two contracts that accounted for almost a tenth of his team’s cap space since 2002 (11. 8%, 2011; 9.
8%, 2015). “See, this is where the GM job is not always easy,” Giddings said. “But if you’re the Indianapolis Colts, you’ve got to go, ‘Jonathan.
Last year, you missed six games. OK? You had an ankle (injury) in Week 4. Missed Weeks 5 and 6.
You were re-injured in Week 8 and missed Week 9. And you were on the injured reserve the last three games. Going back in Year 1 and Year 2? Yes, you were a bell cow.
Last year, you were not a bell cow, and you have an ankle injury. And you’re asking for more money right now? And our view is you do have a contract. Show me you can go back to being a bell cow, a blue running back.
Show me that and I’ll maybe reconsider my position. But right now, that’s not a good investment. ’” But the Colts still wield significant leverage even if Taylor were to return and be productive in 2023.
Taylor could deliver another All-Pro caliber season, and Irsay and Ballard could still attempt to tether him to the league’s established market value for another season by spending the team’s one allotted exclusive franchise tag on him in 2024. NFL teams have often exercised the franchise tag to affordably stow running backs, which longtime agent Leigh Steinberg said is partly the reason so few running backs can boost their position's market share by reaching free agency in their prime. Le’Veon Bell refused to play for the Steelers after they franchise tagged him in 2018, and after sitting out that season, he signed a four-year, $52.
5 million deal with the Jets that initially accounted for 7% of the team’s cap space. The 2020 collective bargaining agreement afforded NFL teams another advantage with the advent of the fifth-year option. Teams can choose to retain first-round picks under their rookie contracts for a fifth season.
The Giants deployed both strategies by picking up Saquon Barkley’s fifth-year option in 2022, and after Barkley rushed for 1,312 yards and 10 touchdowns, the franchise retained the 2018 No. 2 overall pick with a franchise tag that will pay Barkley $10. 1 million this season (4.
4% of the team’s cap). The Giants explored trading Barkley in the offseason. But the 26-year-old, who suffered an ACL tear in 2020, remained New York after no team was willing to offer the Giants the assets they desired nor Barkley the lucrative long-term deal that has been evading running backs in this era.
“The arguments in veteran negotiations are all about comparables,” said Steinberg, who represented former Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and Ricky Williams. “It’s finding someone else who has similar stats, similar years of service and comparing yourself to that person and trying to get that contract. When the contracts are all at a much lower level, there’s no comparable to analogize from.
” Christian McCaffrey (8. 1%, Panthers) and Alvin Kamara (7. 6%, Saints) are the only running backs to sign long-term deals that accounted for more than 7 percent of their team’s cap space at signing since 2020, according to Over the Cap.
The two backs, plus Barkley, are dual-threat anomalies who are as threatening as pass-catchers as they are runners. But even McCaffrey, a two-time Pro Bowler, didn’t net the Panthers any first-round picks when they traded him to the 49ers last season for a 2023 second-round, third-round and fourth-round pick plus a fifth-rounder in 2024. Steinberg says running backs like McCaffrey, Kamara and Barkley can try to make the argument that their combined production as rushers and receivers warrants higher pay.
In 1993, Steinberg showed the Bills a series of charts and exhibits to argue that Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, who totaled 2,000 total scrimmage yards twice under his rookie deal, was so prolific that he ought to be paid like a quarterback. The Bills disagreed, but Thomas still became the NFL’s highest-paid running back with a four-year, $13. 5 million deal.
But that era dissolved in a steady development of the modern era’s spread system. By 2021, NFL teams were deploying one-back packages 88% of the time, according to Sharp Football Analysis. Teams like the Texans could stock running backs like Dameon Pierce and Devin Singletary — who together account for less than 2% of Houston’s cap space — who could split the roles an every-down back once absorbed.
“It would take a change in the approach to the game,” said Bill Polian, six-time NFL Executive of the Year in 22 seasons as general manager of the Bills, Panthers and Colts. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen. ” Can running backs carve out a larger share in the upcoming offseason? They’ll be watching players like Taylor and Barkley, hoping that their precedent finally arrives.
“That’s just how the market goes,” said Pierce, a fourth-round pick whose four-year, $4. 5 million rookie deal expires in 2026. “That’s one thing we signed up for as NFL players.
There’s always football, and there’s always a business side. So, unfortunately right now, the market’s just low. You know what I’m saying? It might spike in the next few years depending on how they view or how they perceive it.
All I can do personally, and all we can do as running backs, is just keep playing our game, keep making plays. All it takes is one to get a contract. ” .