The discourse on running backs and their value to the NFL is at it again. Derrick Henry, who is more valuable to the NFL than 99% of players in the league regardless of position, tweeted in response to ESPN’s Matt Miller that the hard work he puts into his craft “don’t even matter” because people like Miller keep arguing that he’s not valuable. No matter what he or any other running back does.
“At this point, just take the RB position out the game then,” tweeted Henry in response to Miller saying that teams should draft a running back, work him into the ground, give him at most one franchise tag, and then replace him. The tweet came shortly after it was revealed that Tony Pollard will play this season on the franchise tag and not get a long-term deal from the Dallas Cowboys because the deadline had passed.
At this point , just take the RB position out the game then . The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization , just seems like it don’t even matter . I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve . https://t.co/OgvBWZCKvn
— Derrick Henry (@KingHenry_2) July 17, 2023
Pollard is not alone, as Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs are also expected to either holdout or play on the franchise tag for their teams. Both could sit out and risk not playing at all in 2023, as Le’Veon Bell did for the Pittsburgh Steelers not long ago.
Josh Jacobs & Saquon Barkley are now locked into a 1 year contract for the 2023 season – but that doesn’t have to be their $10.091M franchise tag figure.
— Spotrac (@spotrac) July 17, 2023
Jacobs led the NFL in rushing in 2022, Barkley finished third in Comeback Player of the Year voting. And Henry has led the NFL in carries in three of the last four years, while he would have also done it in 2021 if not for missing nine games due to injury.
It was injury that made the decision to extend Todd Gurley a bad one for the Los Angeles Rams and in many ways the beginning of the end for the running back position.
Gurley was the NFL’s best running back in 2017 and he was named Offensive Player of the Year. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and was first-team All-Pro in 2018, but it was evident he wasn’t the same player and that his knees may not holdout long-term. That didn’t stop Les Snead from giving Gurley a very controversial record-breaking contract extension in 2019, but the running back would never play on that deal for the Rams.
L.A. released him after the 2019 season and he played one more season in the NFL, getting 678 yards and 3.5 yards per carry for the Atlanta Falcons in 2020.
Following Henry’s lead, many other NFL running backs chimed in on the conversation, including Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler, and Najee Harris.
1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.
2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed.
…If you succeed…
3. You boost the Organization
Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB https://t.co/mG6In1ATGg
— Jonathan Taylor (@JayT23) July 17, 2023
This is the kind of trash that has artificially devalued one of the most important positions in the game. Everyone knows it’s tough to win without a top RB and yet they act like we are discardable widgets. I support any RB doing whatever it takes to get his bag. https://t.co/sRYfAKwrpQ
— Austin Ekeler (@AustinEkeler) July 17, 2023
I agree with my running back brothers around the NFL- history will show that you need running backs to win- we set the tone every game and run trough walls for our team and lead in many ways- this notion that we deserve less is a joke. https://t.co/rWJkGIEgmW
— Najee Harris (@ohthatsNajee22) July 17, 2023
The NFL profits off of the work of running backs unlike any other positions except quarterback and at this point probably wide receivers. But they promote players like Henry, Harris, and Taylor for fantasy purposes—and because they touch the ball so often—much more than they would ever do so for a guard, cornerback, center, linebacker, tight end, tackle, defensive tackle, or safety.
Yet running backs are among the lowest-paid players in the NFL, not getting much more on average than kickers, because teams are afraid of landing in a “Gurley situation” of their own due to the high risk of injury and the potential to get production out of a low-risk back behind an elite offensive line.
Christian McCaffrey leads the position at $16 million per year, Alvin Kamara is next at $15 million per year, and both were paid because of their abilities as receivers. Henry is next at $12.5 million, followed by Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon (who was forced to take a pay cut or be released), Aaron Jones (pay cut), then the three franchise tag running backs.
Chargers running back Ekeler, who has been vocal about wanting a new deal or to be traded, is making $6.125 million per year. Ekeler led the NFL in touchdowns scored in both 2021 and 2022, a total of 38 touchdowns, and he’s also caught 177 passes for 1,369 yards in that period of time with over 900 rushing yards in each season. He makes less money per year than Dolphins receiver Cedrick Wilson, who has 79 catches and 973 yards with eight touchdowns over his entire five-year career.
The Rams have gone in the other direction, spending a second round pick on Cam Akers in 2020, a fifth rounder on Kyren Williams in 2022, and a sixth rounder on Zach Evans in 2023, while also bringing back veteran Sony Michel on a cheap veteran deal. But Snead was able to survive the bad contract for Gurley (and Jared Goff and plenty of other examples who weren’t running backs) by winning the Super Bowl shortly thereafter.
The Chiefs were heavily criticized for taking Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round in 2020, but have reached two Super Bowls and won one since that decision.
If you can’t survive a bad running back contract, you probably weren’t going to win anyway.