If you haven't heard me say it before, let me say it again: Thomas Rawls has been my favorite player since before he was a player. Since the Rams were in LA the first time. Since the ice age. Since Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, the 2006 blockbuster co-starring Jay Leno. That's how way back my love of Rawls goes.
Last season, Rawls led the NFL in yards per carry and he was dead-first in DYAR and DVOA. He came hot out of the gate and out-performed every other Seahawks running back (of which there are many last year) by being at least twice as good as any of them, including Marshawn Lynch. Assuming that his ankle is fully healed in time and that he gets a 250-carry season, I have considerable faith that Rawls can win the rushing title in 2016.
He's the right player in the right system on the right team with the right opportunity. Which is why I feel so bad today knowing that he might not make a lot of money relative to most successful athletic careers.
Rawls was an undrafted free agent last year, already setting him way behind most NFL players of his experience. Simply by not being a good enough prospect, Rawls had already cost himself millions upon millions in money that was guaranteed at signing to drafted players like Melvin Gordon (15th overall pick, fully-guaranteed $10.6 million contract, 0 touchdowns so far), but consider that even knowing what we know now, he still isn't among the 50 highest-paid players on his own team right now.
After final cuts, when those dudes aren't getting a base salary anymore, Rawls will climb up that list but not by much. That's an even more concerning proposition for a running back when you consider that it's among the lowest paid positions in the league right now since teams have become savvy about the fact that you:
- Benefit more from a running back-by-committee situation
- Youth is much more valuable than experience -- rookies often supplant veterans with little-to-no loss in production
- Running backs are more likely to get hurt and carry dead weight soon after signing bigger contracts
That last truth contributes to the fact that running backs usually have shorter careers than any other position, so teams aren't usually quick to pay them much in the way of guaranteed money. Consider that at this point, Adrian Peterson is making $14 million per season, which is $6 million more per year than any other running back in the NFL. When Peterson inevitably gets released or renegotiates after this year (he won't be getting the $18 million salary he's set to make), don't be surprised if no running back gets over $10 million APY again for a while.
Doug Martin, who is 27, just hit free agency after rushing for 1,402 yards plus another 271 yards receiving and signed for $7.15 million per year to remain with the Bucs. Perhaps if he had been more consistent in his career he would have gotten more, but is "consistent" really the word you think of when you hear the names Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson, both of whom are making more than double what Martin just signed for?
Rawls is set to make $525,000 this year, plus he will have another $5,000 going against the cap in the form of a $15,000 signing bonus from 2015 split over three years. So in total, his cap hit is $530,000 should he make the team (he will), which is very low on the totem pole. He is set to make just $615,000 the year after that before becoming a restricted free agent. Of course, we just saw Doug Baldwin turn an undrafted free agent career into being one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL, but he had to play for five seasons before getting that kind of a raise and most running backs don't get five seasons, let alone convincing a team that they'll contribute even more after five seasons.
If only Rawls had become a middling NBA veteran averaging 4.3 points per game, then maybe he too could be getting $6 million per season. Instead, he may be lucky to earn $6 million over a career that could include two or three Pro Bowl seasons. That's how good Rawls could be, but being an undrafted free agent at a position that promotes the "churn 'em and burn 'em" mentality is about as bad off as you can be relative to the other major American sports.
Among the teammates getting paid more than Rawls are:
- Christine Michael has a $675,000 salary with a $25,000 signing bonus, plus $25k more as a potential roster bonus. So if he makes the team as Rawls' backup, Michael will be making about $200,000 more than him.
- Rookie Panubs: C.J. Prosise, Nick Vannett, and Rees Odhiambo will have cap hits between $611-thou and $623-thou this year, all thanks to their bonuses that cracked in at over $600,000 guaranteed at signing as third round picks. Not a luxury assigned to Rawls, who had $15,000 guaranteed at signing.
- Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson. Should either make the team, they will make $675,000 this season.
- The "$600k Boys" include a gang of dudes who are set to make $75,000 more than Rawls this season. Among them are Ryan Robinson, Steven Terrell, Marcus Burley, Cooper Helfet, and Brock Coyle. There's also another bargain starter in Garry Gilliam, but if Gilliam breaks out as a left tackle (even just as a suitable one), he could be making $9 million per season soon after.
- Kristjan Sokoli and Tye Smith. Both are set to have the same $525,000 base salary, but if either make the team, their cap hit would be higher than Rawls' cap hit because they had more guaranteed money at signing. Sokoli's prorated bonus is over $22,000, while Smith's is over $41,000. Of course, Sokoli and Smith will have a harder time making the team than Rawls will, so that base salary won't matter if they aren't on the final 53-man roster, but should they get in as reserve players they will get the same amount of money in 2016 as a presumptive lead running back.
- Seattle is hopeful that J'Marcus Webb can be a good blocker for Rawls. That's why they're paying him more than four times what Rawls will make -- all guaranteed -- despite a fairly unsuccessful career thus far. Speaking of unsuccessful, Bradley Sowell got a $200,000 signing bonus, so he can at least walk away with that. If he makes the team as a backup offensive lineman, he'll get another $800,000. He hasn't made a start since 2013.