Paying a operating again is so much like shopping for a bottle of wine. The distinction between a $20 field wine and a $100 classic is commonly neither taste nor subtlety, however merely 80 bucks. Similarly, the distinction between a longtime All-Pro operating again and an unheralded teen is never high quality or potential, simply the sum of money and cap house that’s squandered.
N.F.L. groups went on a operating again spending spree over the weekend. The New Orleans Saints and Alvin Kamara agreed on an extension reported to be value $77.1 million over 5 years, whereas the Minnesota Vikings and Dalvin Cook agreed to an extension reported to be value $63 million, additionally over 5 years. Those commitments got here after an low season wherein the Carolina Panthers’ all-purpose rusher and receiver Christian McCaffrey, the Tennessee Titans’ playoff hero Derrick Henry and others signed comparable multiyear contracts.
All of those gamers are younger, achieved and gifted. And all of their groups are prone to expertise almost quick purchaser’s regret, as a result of most N.F.L. operating backs age like an open bottle of low-cost zinfandel.
Take Le’Veon Bell, a two-time All-Pro and three-time 1,000-yard rusher from 2014 to 2017. After he sat out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 season due to a contract dispute, he signed a free-agent cope with the Jets in 2019. The contract was for $52.5 million over 4 years, despite the fact that Coach Adam Gase not so subtly hinted that he would reasonably spend that cash at different positions. Or donate it to charity. Or set it on fireplace.
Bell averaged 3.2 yards per carry in 2019 and rushed six instances for 14 yards in a loss to the Bills on Sunday as a part of an ineffective three-man rotation behind an offensive line filled with rookies and rain barrels.
Todd Gurley is one other instance. The Los Angeles Rams rewarded him with a five-year, $60 million extension after he led the N.F.L. in touchdowns and gained the Offensive Player within the Year Award in 2017. Nagging accidents started eroding Gurley’s skill quickly after. The Rams launched him in March and are consuming $11 million in cap house this yr whereas Gurley plies his commerce for the Atlanta Falcons on a extra modest contract.
This is all anecdotal proof, which is acceptable, as a result of that’s the solely sort of proof N.F.L. resolution makers settle for. The statistical analysis about operating backs is much more pessimistic, with the analytics neighborhood issuing more and more dire (and generally a little bit histrionic) pointers for the place yearly: Never supply a operating again a hefty contract; don’t draft one within the first spherical; don’t overwork them; don’t run the ball in any respect; take into account grinding them into Soylent Green to feed to extra vital teammates as a substitute of paying them.
No one actually denies that Cook, Kamara and the others are helpful gamers who assist their groups win. But the school ranks produce dozens of burly, speedy, decided and inexpensive rushers in each draft class, whereas the pains of plunging into the enamel of N.F.L. defenses shortly put on down all however the rarest backs.
The distinction in marginal worth between a 26-year-old All-Pro with 1,000 skilled carries on his odometer and the everyday midround rookie doesn’t come near the prices: roughly $12 million per yr for the veteran, lower than $2 million for the rookie.
Furthermore, the rookie is extra prone to produce optimistic outcomes. Of the 15 operating backs who rushed for over 1,000 speeding yards final season, 12 of them have been on their unique rookie contracts and 13 of them have been 25 or youthful. Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys was final season’s just one,000-yard rusher who was enjoying on a contract extension for the workforce that had drafted him. Thanks to his $90 million eruption of generosity towards Elliott, the Cowboys’ proprietor, Jerry Jones, is at present trying to find free change within the cushions of his salary-cap couch so he can afford to pay quarterback Dak Prescott.
Last weekend’s motion was filled with examples of the folly of overpaying operating backs. Cook rushed for 50 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, whereas his minimum-wage backup, Alexander Mattison, rushed for an equivalent 50 yards on six carries. Malcolm Brown, Gurley’s low-cost alternative for the Rams, rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns, whereas Gurley gained 56 yards and had one landing for the Falcons.
The Jacksonville Jaguars launched Leonard Fournette reasonably than pay him Cook-Kamara cash in late August; he rushed 5 instances for five yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, whereas the undrafted Illinois State rookie James Robinson gained 90 yards from scrimmage in Fournette’s place in a Jaguars victory.
General managers and coaches know that operating backs not often pay dividends on profitable contracts. Yet they proceed to persuade themselves that every state of affairs is an exception. Kamara is a key piece of the Saints’ Super Bowl puzzle, so why not threat mortgaging the long run? (Ask the Rams about Gurley.) McCaffrey and Kamara are versatile rushers and receivers, so they are going to age extra gracefully! (So is/was Bell.) As for Cook, nicely, the Vikings merely get pleasure from paying retail for identify manufacturers.
Some groups additionally simply wish to reward profitable workers like Kamara and Cook for his or her exhausting work. That’s a laudable coverage in a league that not often does something laudable. Young operating backs promote jerseys, spur the fantasy business, present thrills and encourage goals; it’s exhausting to criticize their large paydays with out sounding like a grouchy, myopic bean counter.
It’s simply unattainable to disclaim that the field wine is almost indistinguishable from the dear stuff, and that the cash is best spent elsewhere.