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Rams fool public into believing they’ve changed market with Todd Gurley contract

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

This week, the LA Rams gave Todd Gurley a record contract for a running back, and then the internet went crazy. Get used to this phrase being overused throughout this article: “reset the market.”

The “$45 million in guarantees” was especially relevant for everyone, but here’s what it wasn’t: $45 million, guaranteed.

The difference between the two phrases is that Gurley is not guaranteed to make his $45 million in guarantees ... he just has a chance to get to the point where that much money does become guaranteed. But when the contract details actually came out, it became obvious that the Rams could actually get away from Gurley as early as 2020, which is when he was set to become a free agent before the deal was signed.

Don’t get me wrong, Gurley still signed the best deal for a running back ever. His $21.95 million guaranteed at signing (the real guarantee) is the highest-ever true guarantee for a running back, topping $18.3 million given to LeSean McCoy (note the tweet is still no better than accidentally misleading with Gurley’s $45 million figure):

Per, the rest of Gurley’s guarantees come in the form of roster bonuses and injury guarantees after 2019: $7.55 million in 2020, and $5 million in each of the next three seasons. To release Gurley in 2020 before the third day of the league year, that would still be a bold move and not save LA a ton of money (over $12 million in dead money) but teams have eaten much more than that before, and for players who play at positions that carry a lot less risk.

But regardless, let’s pretend that Gurley stays healthy, cuts down his fumbles (he led all running backs in fumbles last season), and remains productive, earning most of this contract. Has he “reset the market” regardless of his aptitude for living up to his new contract figures?

That depends. Most importantly of all, how many running backs looking for new contracts in the next year are: 23/24 years old, no significant injuries, led the NFL in yards from scrimmage, coming off of a MVP-level performance, with few character concerns or red flags?

I can’t think of many.

Over at CBS Sports, Joel Corry details three running backs looking for new deals now or in the near future: Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott. The presumption that everyone seems to be circling around is that all of these players will ask for and get at least a four-year, $60 million, with $45 million guaranteed in guarantees. I am struggling to understand why teams are suddenly going to be eager to do this based on the Rams feeling that they could do it with Gurley, who had two years left on his deal, and as the hottest player at his position right now.

Bell is set to play 2018 on the franchise tag for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has remained steadfast in their intention to use Bell in his prime years without a long-term commitment on his demands. However, if Bell does manage to escape this season without any problems (I have serious concerns about his NFL-high 406 touches last season +playoffs), here’s what teams will be looking at:

Bell turns 27 in February, three years older than Gurley was at time of signing. Bell was suspended in both 2015 and 2016, treading a dangerous line that could lead to a longer suspension if he gets in trouble a third time. He had surgery in March of 2017 for a groin injury, tore his MCL in 2015, missed the playoffs in 2014 with a hyper-extended knee, and had a Lisfranc injury in 2013.

Is a team going to be comfortable signing him through his age 30 season? At $15 million per year? (Tweet deleted due to error in the statement about age, but it’s still true that Gurley is three years younger):

Maybe David Johnson is a more reliable player to sign long-term, since afterall, he’s “newer and younger” than Bell, right? Newer, yes, younger, no. Johnson was drafted in 2015 but at age 24 and he’ll turn 27 in December. He also has just one dominant season under his belt, leading the NFL in total yards in 2016 before missing basically all of 2017 with a broken wrist. He was an incredible player two years ago, but it’s not unusual for running backs to go from dominant to unwanted.

In 2015, the top of the total yards leaderboard included Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Devonta Freeman, Darren McFadden, and Latavius Murray. In 2014, it was DeMarco Murray, Bell, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Eddie Lacy, Justin Forsett, and LeSean McCoy.

Before giving Johnson a long-term contract, the Arizona Cardinals likely want to see how he’ll perform after missing a year; with a new head coach; new offensive coordinator; expected-to-be-bad offensive line; and new quarterback(s). Assuming they don’t extend him before free agency next March, how much will a team want to give to a 27-year-old running back (again, three years older than Gurley now), with two quality seasons on his resume?

Elliott and his agent can begin to negotiate a new deal after this season. He led the NFL in rushing yards per game in both 2016 and 2017, but he comes with obvious red flags. Elliott was suspended for six games last year, with the decision looming over him and the Dallas Cowboys for most of the year, not that Jerry Jones seems to care about off-field problems. His YPC dipped from 5.1 to 4.1, year over year. He plays behind the NFL’s richest and perhaps most-talented offensive line. The team also over-used and abused Murray when he was an impending free agent, so I’d expect them to want to get as much out of Elliott as possible during his 2018, 2019, and fifth-year option 2020 seasons. Will they ever even get to the point where they feel they need to negotiate with Elliott long-term?

Let’s see if he can survive the next two years without any further problems first.

So that’s basically where I stand with the three running backs everyone is looking at now in terms of this market that Gurley and the Rams have “reset.” What about the rest of the running backs in the NFL though? Because we’re talking about the expected best-of-the-best in the entire league and them potentially getting close to the figures of some of the best offensive linemen and pass rushers in the league. (Kind of, not really.)

However, running backs are still getting nowhere near the kind of money that players at other positions are getting.

Bell (on a franchise tag) and Gurley are the only two backs in the NFL making more than $8.25 million per year, which is where Freeman currently stands after signing a five-year, $41.25 million deal last August. McCoy is at $8 million per year. Saquon Barkely is next at $7.8 million per year, and no other position in the league lets its rookies get into the top-10 or even top-20, of highest-paid players.

Move way down the list and you’ll find LeGarrette Blount getting $2 million on a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions. Blount averaged 4.4 YPC with the Philadelphia Eagles last season and had 18 touchdowns two years earlier, winning three Super Bowls in the last four seasons. He’s 31 — which is old for a running back. Let’s take a moment to consider how “old” that made Blount to prospective NFL teams who wouldn’t give him more than they’d give an above-average punter. Martin’s comeback attempt with the Oakland Raiders cost the team $1.475 million, none guaranteed.

Perhaps a more relevant deal for running backs is the four-year, $30 million deal that Jerick McKinnon got with the San Francisco 49ers, including $11.7 million at signing. That’s a good deal for mid-tier running backs to work around when negotiating with teams because almost none of them can convince a franchise that they’re going to be as productive as Gurley was with LA in 2017. McKinnon hasn’t been all that exceptional but he gets to take home eight figures no matter what.

Still, how much of an advantage is it, contractually-speaking, to play a position besides running back?

Marqise Lee is the 22nd-highest paid WR (on APY basis) after signing a five-year, $34 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, giving him $8.5 million annually. Remember, Freeman makes $250,000 per year less than that and he’s got the second-biggest long-term contract in the NFL for running backs. Further down the list, Travis Benjamin makes $6 million annually, which is more than all but nine running backs; Coming off of a healthy season, with 938 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 59 catches, 1,288 total yards, and just two fumbles, Carlos Hyde pulled down $5 million annually with the Cleveland Browns.

On Friday, the Tennessee Titans signed tackle Taylor Lewan to a five-year, $80 million deal, with $50 million guaranteed. (Conflicting reports on “guaranteed” vs “in guarantees.”)

By most accounts Lewan, 27 years of age, is a very good left tackle. He’s not the best in the league like Gurley is regarded among running backs. He could be in the top 10. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons. His best attribute, like many offensive linemen getting deals much larger than that of the players they make running lanes for, is that the Titans aren’t really concerned about his play. They also made this move despite the fact that they drafted Jack Conklin in the first round two years ago and Conklin may be a better tackle than Lewan, a reliable future at the position, but it’s clear that Tennessee values both tackle positions more than they value all running backs.

Lewan’s APY comes in at $16.5 million, double that of Freeman. Jake Matthews signed a new deal with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday and the figures comes in just below Lewan’s:

Matthews, 26 years of age, has never made the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro list. Financially though, he’s more valuable than all running backs in the NFL, including Gurley. By most accounts, he could be just about as good as Lewan, which is very good.

Also signing new deals for offensive linemen this season:

Andrew Norwell, a guard coming off of his first notable season, and turning 27 in October, signed a $66.5 million deal, with $30 million actually guaranteed at signing; $9 million more than Gurley.

I could continue, going position-by-position-by-position, but you know where this going. Running backs still make the least money in the NFL for all offensive and defensive positions, but this week brought about the crazies based on one deal, before the details were out, that affects almost no other running backs in the league. I mean, look at this, one of the dumbest statements ever written about football:

The article continues with inane, unsupported arguments:

“While quarterback remains the most important position, the running back is re-emerging as the most dominant one.”

“Pass-throwers are still the key in a passing league, but runners like Gurley, on teams that don’t have Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, are the players who actually win games.”

“It’s also been a long time since we’ve seen runners outshine quarterbacks in popularity and importance. But we are starting to see exactly that.”

“In Arizona, Los Angeles, Buffalo, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Miami, the running games are (mostly) the stars, not the quarterbacks.

In Tennessee, Dallas and Kansas City, offenses lean as heavily on runners as they do the quarterbacks. Even in places like Atlanta, where Matt Ryan puts up astronomical numbers, he is greatly assisted by Devonta Freeman.”

(Imagine thinking that Drew Brees isn’t the star of the Saints, or making an argument that because Joe Flacco sucks, the Ravens must be intentionally leaning on their running backs.)

“The only places where quarterbacks remain unquestioned kings are in New England, Green Bay and Seattle. The Super Bowl champion Eagles finished with 2,115 rushing yards last year, third-best in football.”

(Conveniently not mentioned: Lions, Panthers, Bucs, 49ers, Giants, Raiders, Chargers, Texans, and realistically Bengals, Falcons, Saints, Washington, Vikings, and Colts. I mean, realistically realistically: all teams favor the quarterback, but not all teams have a quarterback like they’d want to.)

“Want more proof? Consider the dramatic uptick of draft capital teams are investing at the position.”

(Four quarterbacks just went in the top 10 of the draft, meaning that the Browns, Jets, Bills, and Cardinals actually belong in the “quarterback remains unquestioned king” category. Also the Bears, one year after selecting Mitchell Trubisky, and the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, Texans with Deshaun Watson.)

(Barkley went second overall, as the author points out, then no other running back was selected until Rashaad Penny at 27.)

“The less physical nature of the sport is also changing things. It’s still brutal, of course, but rule changes in recent seasons have favored protecting offensive players, unlike in the past. Running backs are also finding a path to longer careers thanks to medical advances and 21st-century training regimens.”

(I mean, the above is pretty much nothing more than an unfounded, unsupported statement with no evidence and no proof to believe there’s any truth in it other than the fact that we do know that ACL recoveries are quicker and more reliable than they were two decades ago. Running backs still fall out of favor after their 26th birthday and the Gurley contract does nothing to dissuade that.)

So, whatever, that’s just one really bad article. But it does speak to a larger belief that since the Gurley contract that there’s a new “market” for running backs. There’s also no evidence of this. To the contrary, every other running back in the NFL remains underpaid to most of their starting teammates, and even the most elite back in the league gets a lot less than the elite players at quarterback, tackle, receiver, defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, and cornerback.

We haven’t seen what Johnson’s market actually is, because he’s in a much different circumstance than Gurley. We haven’t seen what Bell will get, only that the Steelers don’t want to give him anything beyond 2018 unless they’re getting a discount on his demands. Not many notable running backs are even hitting free agency next year, with Bell potentially leading the list, and Tevin Coleman perhaps getting the second-most attention. Teams aren’t going to start giving eight-figure salaries to running backs just because the Rams wanted to settle another contract situation before they touched Aaron Donald’s deal.

Nothing is different. The running back position remains the least-valued in football for starters, and if anything, Gurley’s deal — at the height of his powers — only proves that point further.