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‘This is criminal’ - Top NFL running backs react to lack of long-term deals for tagged RBs

It appears the running backs have heard all of the “running backs don’t matter” chatter.

New York Giants v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Monday was the deadline for franchise tagged players to agree to long-term contract extensions with their respective teams, and the three players who didn’t get a new deal this year were all running backs.

Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders), and Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) all passed the deadline without a new contract, so if they play in 2023 it’ll have to be on the roughly $10.1 million franchise tag tender. Pollard signed his tender, whereas Jacobs and Barkley haven’t and have been absent from their teams’ offseason programs. With training camp on the horizon, it’s not inconceivable that we see Jacobs and Barkley holdout into the regular season.

The discourse over running back pay—I’m fully aware we have heavily contributed to this over the years—has been exhausting and unrelenting but still evolving. And by that I mean they’re all either taking pay cuts or not getting the mega contracts their predecessors (e.g. Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, etc.) received.

This has been a bloodbath for running back pay and there’s no evidence that it’s going to turnaround any time soon, if ever. I wrote a column on this last month, pondering whether it’s worth it to even play the position anymore, and if the position itself is in danger of eventual extinction in the NFL. It’s a bit doomsday/hyperbolic to think we’ll one day see an NFL without a traditional running back, but obviously current running backs are peeved over their position’s increasing inability to cash in like top players in other positions. See the reactions from Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, and Jonathan Taylor.

And for a Seattle Seahawks viewpoint, star safety Quandre Diggs weighed in.

The Seahawks under Pete Carroll have been dinged for primarily their draft capital investment in running backs, as opposed to long-term contract extensions. Seattle drafted Rashaad Penny in Round 1 back in 2018, and (perhaps more egregiously) Christine Michael in Round 2 in 2013. They’ve taken second-round running backs Ken Walker and Zach Charbonnet in back-to-back drafts, which in itself has raised eyebrows, and I’ve also been a critic of the process. On the flip side of the high draft capital, they’re still on their rookie deals, so adding in DeeJay Dallas, Bryant Koback, and Kenny McIntosh, the Seahawks will have a very inexpensive backfield for at least another year or so.

What’s the end game? Owners aren’t saving any money for themselves by paying running backs less. The NFL has a salary cap and that money gets doled out elsewhere, but running backs are losing out, and as Mina Kimes pointed out, think about how many of them have their best years in high school and college where (at least pre-NIL) they aren’t getting paid, and most running backs are out of the league before they’re 30.

We now have a process in which running backs aren’t getting paid (or only a select few are getting paid) at the amateur level, and then they enter the NFL Draft where fewer players at the position are getting taken in Round 1. They proceed to play on a cost-controlled rookie deal, and then when that deal is close to up and it’s time to pay the big bucks there’s an increasing lack of commitment from their team or from other teams in the trade/free agency market. Not to mention the more recent push to have running backs drafted Round 3 or later, so that’s lowering their rookie earnings out of the gate.

I ask again, how can this position survive in the NFL in the long-term under the current and future pay structure? The best high school and college backs will be aware of this trend and likely urged to switch positions... and no, not everyone can be as versatile as Marshall Faulk or Christian McCaffrey. Just because the position is more fungible than others doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear difference between good backs and bad ones.

It’s a pass-first league and more quarterbacks run the ball than ever before. Deebo Samuel may not be a unique dual threat as WR/RB in the years to come, which could siphon more carries from traditional running backs. Barring massive league-wide schematic changes and/or rule changes that, the position as we know it is not reverting back to its level of importance from the 1970s-1990s. Sadly, with all of the airing of grievances from familiar running backs, I don’t know if they’ll get a resolution any time soon.