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What does the future of NFL RB contracts look like?

There’s no easy way to fix NFL running back contracts

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The running back contract landscape has finally hit a breaking point.

With the NFL’s deadline for reaching a long-term contract with players on the franchise tag passing without deals for standouts Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley and Tony Pollard, many RBs have spoken out against the unfair deterioration of value at the position.

Meanwhile, numbers and data get thrown out to argue that paying a RB is the worst thing you can do in team-building. There’s an idea that running backs are more replaceable than other positions, both because of the wear-and-tear on their bodies, and because running the ball is a less efficient form of offense compared throwing it downfield.

The question is, what has driven the loss of value in running backs, and when, if ever, will it return?

Earlier this offseason, I wrote about how NFL RBs have lost power at the negotiating table, despite the NFL seeming to trend back towards heavier personnel on the field. The run game could possibly be returning, but backs won’t see the fruits of their labor in their contracts. RB value isn’t a uniform thing across every front office: some teams value having a top flight back more than others, hence why two running backs were drafted in the first round in this years’ NFL Draft. Now what happens to those backs over the span of their career is a different story.

It’s probably a crude answer, but the reason why is simple: capitalism. In a cap-controlled league run by individual private businesses, everyone wants to win while staying clear of the constraints that come with paying good labor. Unfortunately, that comes at the cost of RBs, who see the most contact of any non-lineman position in the sport. Their peaks usually last during the years of their career when they’re controlled by one team on a rookie deal. When they hit the open market, it’s usually after having more tread on their bodies from the team that they played for.

There are a few potential solutions to this problem at the negotiating table for running backs, but all of them are centered around the system of the NFL and changing that for good. The problem there is this: the new CBA runs through 2030, according to CBS Sports, and a new CBA might not have these solutions in them specifically for one position only.

However, this is my theme park of imagination and I get to choose the rules here. So let’s see what we can do:

Idea 1: Get rid of the NFL Draft

The major issue for RBs when it comes to negotiations is that according to statistics, their value deteriorates at a quicker pace than any other position in the sport. I mean, it makes a bit of sense when you consider how many times the backs are slamming into people 50 to 100 pounds heavier than them, the body can’t hold up like that. So, a solution to this problem could be to eliminate the draft, where teams get to control the player’s future for four to five years.

In this scenario, players leaving college would immediately become free agents, and get to choose where they go and negotiate their own contracts without fifth year options. In this case, backs wouldn’t be on a cost-controlled contract and could see more guaranteed money without the assumption of wear and tear on their bodies past their athletic primes.

Idea 2: No salary cap

So this one would probably come with the most drawbacks, because it could just mean more outlandish contracts given to players like Daniel Jones. However, without the salary cap, teams wouldn’t be as inclined to work against a hard cap number. In the MLB, teams don’t have a salary cap, but the NFL could implement a salary floor to prevent tanking and make this work in the NFL.

There is a luxury tax threshold in the MLB, which is supposed to prevent teams from going over that number. If teams do go over, the money that gets spent over that threshold gets divided many different ways. Without a hard cap in the NFL, teams would be free to spend as much money as they want, and backs could end up seeing their value at the negotiation table rise.

In the end, any solution that comes up could end up being a minor fix, unless the NFL wants to dramatically change their salary cap and finances to raise RB value. Which, again, may not happen until 2030.