Playing running back in the NFL is not the most glamorous of lifestyles. They have the shortest shelf life of all NFL players and their prime playing years are usually either playing for free in college or under low rookie contract earnings. And, of course -- they encounter a train wreck on every play.
The other big problem for running backs is pay. As Chris Johnson did in September, they have to get the most they can as soon as they can in their careers. Having been in an NFL front office for ten years, I understand their plight but understand it from the teams point of view. When I was with the the Packers, as much as I liked our running back Ahman Green as a friend, I could not advocate allocating sizable resources to him for a third contract. I had studied running back contracts for players with similar age and wear and tear and found a graveyard of bad deals (Eddie George, Corey Dillon, Jamaal Anderson, etc.). Indeed, virtually the only players that I saw performing at a high level past their later twenties were Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin. Thus, the dilemma with running backs.
Here are your gold, silver, and bronze NFL rushing leaders through the first 10 weeks of the season and their salaries: Fred Jackson (917 yards, $1.75 million), LeSean McCoy (906 yards,$490,000), and Matt Forte (869 yards, $600,000) are earning just a combined $2.84 million in base salary this season.
It is clear that they have outperformed their existing deals but questions remain whether they will secure new contracts and if so, when will that be. Let's examine: ICONJackson faces the problem of age.
Jackson, who has played a significant part in the Bills' offense, has reportedly received an "assurance" from the Bills front office that they will restructure his current contract, a four-year $7.5 million deal signed in 2009.
The mitigating circumstance with Jackson is his age. Jackson is 30, the point of no return for most running backs. And despite the fact he is only in his fifth season, he has three seasons of wear and tear from indoor and European football leagues prior to the NFL. The Bills are trying to structure a deal that protects them from a dropoff in performance in a couple of years.
A bright spot on a disappointing season, McCoy has broken out this season and leads all non-quarterbacks in touchdowns (12). His lateral agility is reminiscent of Barry Sanders and his value is soaring.
McCoy still has another year remaining on his rookie deal – one that I negotiated while consulting for the Eagles in 2009 – at a reasonable figure of $600,000. With the Eagles' profligate 2011 free agent splurge, McCoy may need to wait until next season to secure a contract extension.
It will also be interesting to see whether the Eagles use the franchise tag on DeSean Jackson in 2012 and as a negotiating tool with McCoy for 2013, as both are represented by Drew Rosenhaus. McCoy’s recent firing and re-hiring of Rosenhaus may have been related to this potential conflict of interest.
Not the Bears' Forte
Forte's frustration in securing a new contract have been discussed here. Despite his disgruntlement, Forte has not allowed his contract dispute to become an on-field issue. At least not yet.
Forte’s heavy workload could ultimately work to his disadvantage. With the 2012 franchise tag in play here, this negotiation will reach a crescendo as Forte’s play continues to shine later in the season.
While Johnson's new deal (along with Adrian Peterson's) set a new market for elite running backs, his lack of top-level production is not helping his peers. At the least, it gives hesitant front offices a data point to argue against rewarding running backs at that level. And speaking of unfulfilled expectations…
The curious case of Peyton Hillis
In 2010 Hillis bruised his way to over 1600 total yards and 13 touchdowns, besting Michael Vick to become the new Madden cover player.
Fast forward to 2011, a nightmarish season for Hillis, full of injuries (he’ll miss his fifth game in a row Sunday), illness (strep throat) and issues in his own locker room. While the Browns engaged in some negotiations earlier this year, contract talks have come to a screeching halt. Browns president Mike Holmgren recently emphasized, "Let's let Peyton play, let the dust settle and see what happens." Translation: we’re not giving him a new deal anytime soon.
The Madden curse continues.
These backs discussed above are running to daylight; whether they’re running to greener pastures remains to be seen.
Two game-changing players – Matt Forte and DeSean Jackson – have a lot in common, perhaps more than they'd like. Both Forte and Jackson were drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, a mere five picks apart (#44 and #49, respectively). And each is earning $600,000 this season, playing out the final year of their rookie deal. Over the past year, both have witnessed the market for top players at their position pass them by while they have outperformed their existing contracts. And although each had a low rumble of discontent in training camp, neither secured a contract extension before the season. Both have taken the high road (for the most part), putting their contract situations on hold for the time being. Let's analyze:
After Forte voiced his displeasure, the Bears reportedly offered a deal in the $6 million average per year (APY) range, with about $13 million guaranteed. Forte declined, confident in his skill set and determined to allow his on-field performance -- which has been stellar -- increase his value.
Conversely, Jackson – whose one-day holdout was aborted due to the threat of penalties for staying out longer – has heard only deafening silence from the Eagles. While continuing to watch and wait, Jackson has seen the Eagles’ free agent spending spree and the lucrative Michael Vick extension. And instead of signing a contract, Jackson signed an insurance policy.
Running Back Market
The running back market – which had remained stagnant for several years – advanced light years during the past month, with top deals signed by Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson.
A seven-year, $100 million contract in name only, Peterson's new deal breaks down to $40 million over the first three years ($13.3 million APY), with $36 million guaranteed. Chris Johnson's extension is worth $31 million over the first three years ($10.3 million APY), with $30 million guaranteed.
Although the Bears earlier made the argument that Peterson and Johnson were in a class unto themselves, Forte seems to be knocking on that door. Agent Adisa Bakari will point to the gaudy numbers Forte has produced during his first three season and the fact he is on pace for another year of statistical brilliance. The Bears' MVP, Forte has thus far produced nearly 50% of the Bears' total offensive yardage. Forte's production has been strong despite his contract discontent.
From Forte’s point of view, the longer the Bears wait, the greater Forte's value escalates. The Bears may have a different point of view.
The Bears know – as everyone does – that the shelf life of an NFL running back is brief. They are also seeing limited production from Johnson following his extension after seven games.
The dilemma for the Bears and Forte, who has averaged 327 touches over the last three seasons, is predicting when the large workload given to him by the team catch up to him?
I remember in Green Bay when running back Ahman Green and his agents were pushing hard for a new contract, having watched extensions for players such as Clinton Portis bolster the market. Although I was friends with Ahman I resisted, knowing the risk involved in rewarding running backs second or third contracts.
Running backs are the most disadvantaged position group in the NFL. Often, their prime playing years are performed both for free in college and for low earnings in the early years of their NFL career. Teams are hesitant to reward players who have produced significant numbers in second or third contracts despite that production or, more ominously, because of it!
Wide Receiver Market
Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes recently signed top of market deals. Fitzgerald's deal – $45.5 million guaranteed ($15 million APY) – is one of the most valuable contracts ever given to a non-quarterback. Holmes, a free agent, never really tested the free agent waters and returned to the Jets under a five-year $45 million contract ($9 million APY) with $24 million guaranteed.
Jackson will not be able to secure a similar deal to Fitzgerald but will press the Holmes deal as a comparable, both in terms of APY and guarantees.
The double-edged sword for Jackson, however, remains his uniqueness. Jackson is truly dynamic; he can score from anywhere on the field and is always a threat in the return game. However, the Eagles' concerns center around his slight build and the risks Jackson faces every Sunday.
With Vick signed and the Franchise Tag available for 2012, the Eagles know they can delay the situation another year despite whatever grumblings may come from Jackson or agent Drew Rosenhaus.
The Other Side of Rookie Pay
In the new 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), NFL owners prioritized curbing the excessive contracts in the top half of the first round, making these players the "sacrificial lambs" of the new CBA. Compensation paid to all other rookies including second-round picks, however, remains relatively flat. And as I know well from managing a Cap for a decade, NFL teams’ best value players are those drafted in the second round or later. Unfortunately for dozens of productive players like Forte and Jackson, this aspect of draft compensation has not changed.
Time Will Tell
NFL teams can extend players and use up 2011 Cap room up until the tenth week of the season, a date that is looming soon. It will be interesting to see if either player receives an extension prior to then.The time is near for them to reap their financial reward; the question remains as to when, how much, and potentially where?
With both Forte and Jackson, the intriguing question is whether their success and uniqueness is helping their case for a new contract or, in an ominous twist, hurting it!
I thought I would post this because this last week all of the attention has been given to Cutler's injury and Hanie as his replacement.
Brandt make a point here that I did not realize. Teams that are going to offer players extensions and have that $$$ count against the 2011 caqo must do so before the end of the tenth week of the season. This is the eleventh week so any extensions from this point on go towards the 2012 cap. Of course the 2011 cap excess can be carried forward this time so it's not a use it or lose it as it has been in previous years but it would seem to me that whatever extensions the Bears intended to offer have already been done and we still have a huge number of guys who will be unsigned after the end of this year.
I'm getting to that age where a lifetime warranty just doesn't mean as much to me anymore as an afternoon nap.
Honey Badger Don't Care. Honey Badger Don't Give a Shit.