Le’Veon Bell is in a showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers over his contract, and for the second straight year he has been franchised instead of getting a longterm deal. Bell will also be getting far more, for this one season, than any other running back, which is the problem.
The Rookie Wage Scale implemented back in 2011 after the lockout has obliterated the running back salary scale, at a time when pretty much every other position has seen huge leaps in top-end veteran contracts. The end result is that the quantity of decent contracts for running backs is diminished, the franchise numbers are held down, and then a team like the Steelers can choose to just pay Bell as they go under consecutive franchise tags rather than go longer term.
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The primary driver of this is that running back–as much as any position in football–is dominated by guys younger than age 26. Thus, the cheapest players also make up a large percentage of the best. That saved money doesn’t go to the running backs themselves, though, when they come up to get paid. It goes to other positions.
Using historical data at Spotrac, here is a comparison of the rise in the Top 10 Salaries across positions, for 2007 versus 2018.
Running back was in the middle of the pack in average high-end salaries 12 years ago. Now, it runs ahead of only kickers and punters. That 2018 average includes Le’Veon Bell’s cap charge for the franchise tag. Without it, there has basically been no growth even though the salary cap has grown astronomically.
Here’s a representation of the changes in average salary of the Top 10 cap charges at the running back position since 2007. Salaries were rising heading into the 2011 Rookie Wage Scale implementation. They peaked shortly after, as legacy veteran deals like Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson were still at the top. But it has bottomed out since 2013, with a slight rise this year only due to Bell’s franchise tag increase atop the list.
The running back position has a reputation as being far more risky because of injury. As I’ve shown in the past, this reputation shows some bias because some other positions do not age gracefully either, while running back bears the brunt of the impact on salaries.
I took every player who made a pro bowl by age 25–excluding special teamers- between 2001 and 2010 (excluding some that were still active and under age 32, and Sean Taylor), and I calculated the age the last year they started 6 games in the NFL. I used “27” for all players who stopped by then, and capped it at “33” for all players who reached that age.
Here are the averages, and the percentage that reached a certain age.
So we can see that running back is at the bottom. But right there is inside linebacker–the position that stops them on inside runs–and they don’t have a similar salary issue. In fact, linebacker has seen huge jumps in salary despite many of the top stars being driven from the game before their thirties.
The other difference, though, is volume. Running back is #1 in pro bowlers by age 25. It almost doubles most positions. The best players don’t get paid when they are the best players. Le’Veon Bell is at the forefront here, because we had a few year period where there were no top veterans hitting the market at age 26 and 27. We are about to have David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and others soon. But the market will always be held down by the wage scale.
It’s a problem that particularly vexes the running back position. The only solution (if you are a running back) is to drive for changes in the next CBA–or hope a rival league that beats the current market develops, in the same way that Herschel Walker once jumped to the USFL, and then entered the NFL in demand.