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Saunders: How to Fix NFL Running Back Issues



NFL Steelers Running Back Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris, Dec. 11, 2022. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The issues between NFL teams and players when it comes to running back salaries bubbled over earlier this week in public fashion, as Pittsburgh Steelers back Najee Harris was one of several NFL rushers that was openly critical of the process that has resulted in many NFL running backs feeling underpaid.

The Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders and New York Giants failing to reach pre-deadline deals with franchise tagged running backs Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley was the latest blow to the position that has seen its value continue to fall in the eye of NFL general managers.

Those followed an offseason that has seen Joe Mixon agree to a pay cut with the Cincinnati Bengals and Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott get released by the Minnesota Vikings and Cowboys. These are not over-the-hill players that fail to contribute. Jacobs led the NFL in rushing yards in 2022. Barkley was fourth. Cook was sixth. Mixon has 25 touchdowns over the last two seasons and Elliott has 24. The oldest member of the cadre is 27 years old.

It’s not a new problem. The issue has been simmering since before Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season rather than be subjected to playing under the franchise tag with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

RELATED: Farabaugh: Le’Veon Bell Lost the Battle and the War

Steelers Le'Veon Bell

FILE – In this Oct. 1, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) carries the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)

But it has gotten worse. The franchise tag valuation for running backs in 2023 is $10.09 million. The contract that Bell refused to play under in 2018 was worth $11.87 million. In the interceding five years, every other position group — including kicker — has seen its franchise tag value rise.

The problem is that the franchise tag has become a significant value for NFL teams. The Cowboys, Giants and Raiders are content to let those players play out the 2023 season under the franchise tag because the price itself is not exorbitant, and the long-term health issues that running backs carry make the kind of big investment that it would take to reduce the near-term cap hit unattractive to teams.

Six players were hit with the franchise tag for 2023. Three of them were running backs. All of the other three were signed to long-term deals. As fewer running backs sign long-term deals and more get tagged, there could be a runaway impact on the salaries at the position. The tag amount will continue get lower, making it an even better value, and meaning even fewer players will get signed to big deals.

The franchise tag process was negotiated between the league and the players union. The tag amount represents the average of the top five salaries at the players’ position over time, and that makes sense. If a team wants to keep a player beyond their initial contractual requirements, they have to pay an elite price.

But what the franchise tag rules don’t take into account is the relative length of careers. Tackle Orlando Brown Jr. played under the franchise tag for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2022. He signed a four-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals this year. Brown still had plenty of time to cash in long term after playing out his one season under the tag. He’ll be 31 when the contract with the Bengals ends. Chances are, he’ll get yet another one.

Bengals Running Back NFL Joe Mixon

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, Oct. 4, 2021. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

That’s not the way it works for running backs. The average career length of an NFL running back is the smallest of any position group, at just 2.57 years, according to a 2022 study by The Sports Daily. Offensive linemen average a full extra year at 3.63.

That average contains all players, includes ones being released for lack of performance. When it comes to the kind of players that could possibly be franchise tagged, the difference is more stark.

Go back 10 years, to the 2013 season. The AP All-Pro running backs were LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy. Their careers ended at 31, 31 36 and 27. The tackles were Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Tyron Smith and Joe Staley. They played to 32, 40, 35 and Smith will be 33 this season. That’s nearly an extra four years.

So when a player like Brown has his earnings potential capped for a season by playing a year under the franchise tag, it doesn’t deal nearly as much harm to his career earnings as it will the three backs playing under the tag this season.

Furthermore, players can be hit with the franchise tag not once, but multiple times. That’s what caused Bell to hold out in 2018. He played under the tag in 2017, but was not willing to do it once again in 2018. Taking away the ability of teams to franchise players for multiple seasons would be a start to fixing the NFL’s issues with running backs. But that is a part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA, and while the players would undoubtedly like to see it removed, the league would likely need some type of concession from the players in order to do so.

However, there is another way to help solve this problem that won’t be so drastic.

The current formula for the value of a franchise tag is to take the average of the top five salaries in the league at the position from the previous five years. A tweak to that formula taking into account the relative value of the year of the career of a player would do a better job of accurately compensating what a player like a running back is missing out on by waiting a season to get a long-term deal.

If a quarterback’s career is 57% longer than a running back’s, then one season of his career should be worth that much less. The implementation of such a formula would likely be financially neutral for the NFL. Franchise tags would not go up or down league-wide, just the distribution across positions would change. So from a CBA standpoint, owners would likely not need significant concessions from players to make this happen.

If the franchise tag amount for running backs was higher, teams would be less willing to let them play out the season at that price and have a greater incentive to negotiate long-term deals with those players.

Several players of other positions made public statements in support of their running back brethren’s quest for equal payment. If they want to show that support in a meaningful way, they could push to make this type of change.

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