Which running backs have taken the league by storm in the last five years? Let me hazard a few guesses.
David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Todd Gurley and Kareem Hunt in 2017.
Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara in 2018.
McCaffrey and Derrick Henry in 2019.
I don’t want to waste too much time arguing this list but these are 10 individual seasons that I would say attracted headlines, drew significant interest to those teams, helped them win, and were exceptionally productive. And the only two players in there who are true “runners” are probably Elliott and Henry.
Elliott led the NFL in rushing in 2016 and 2018, Henry in 2019. But not even Elliott could match the interest, hype, and production that Henry had from Week 10 of last season up until his team’s loss in the AFC Championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs. Not only was Henry putting up insane numbers and helping the Tennessee Titans win every time he did, but he did so in an era where both fans and teams alike are driving the value of running backs way down.
There is little regard for the individuals playing the position and instead the position is seen as totally replaceable. Is that true? Could the Titans have opted to not give the franchise tag to Henry and instead started third round rookie Darrynton Evans or perhaps Dalyn Dawkins, Khari Blasingame, Senorise Perry, Shaun Wilson, and Cameron Scarlett, all of whom are real running backs on their roster? Is the difference too negligible to pay Henry a large sum of money over several years?
Tennessee wouldn’t say so.
On Wednesday it was reported that the Titans agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract with $25.5 million in full guarantees with Henry, avoiding the tag and ensuring that they have the right to keep him around until 2023.
It is great for Henry to see that he’ll be rewarded for all of his efforts over the last four years on a second round rookie contract. However it is hard to not notice that unlike the $503 million contract for Patrick Mahomes that was desperate to be a “record-breaking deal,” Henry’s pact seems to indicate that indeed running backs are going in the opposite direction. As I’ve noted before, the Arizona Cardinals recently had the highest-paid back in the NFL, 11 years apart, and they were basically making the exact same salary.
Well, here’s the contract Todd Gurley signed with the LA Rams two years ago: 4 years, $60 million, $22 million fully guaranteed.
Henry is the closest thing to a running running back in today’s NFL and his new average annual salary is $12.5 million, which ranks fifth overall. McCaffrey’s contract pays him $16 million per year, Elliott’s $15 million, and Le’Veon Bell’s is at $13.1 million.
McCaffrey signed his contract in April, Elliott did so last September, and Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal during 2019’s free agency period. Gurley’s $15 million AAV contract came in 2018, as did Johnson, whose $13 million salary is still more than Henry. Johnson also had more in full guarantees at $24.6 million.
Take the NFL by storm at running back and you may be rewarded with a lucrative new deal. But how lucrative seems to be getting smaller by the month.