Shockingly low value of NFL running backs has roots with Rams

NFL running backs are like buffalo: wondrous, thunderous, but burdened by a sameness. Rarely anymore does one differentiate himself from the herd.

Furthermore, they are branded with early expiration dates. Exactly one of the 27 running backs who rushed for more than 800 yards in 2022 (the Miami Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert) had celebrated his 30th birthday.

Fifteen rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and teams deemed them interchangeable. Their peak years often are played for free in college, and they are drafted late and tossed aside just as they are due a big paycheck.

Result? The average salary of a kicker ($2.26 million) is greater than that of a running back ($1.81 million) in 2023, according to Spotrac.

Many teams seem to have learned from the Rams’ mistake with Todd Gurley in 2018, when they signed the running back to a four-year, $57-million extension even though he had two years remaining on his rookie contract.

The blunder meant the Rams paid Gurley $20 million more than they needed to, especially when knee problems limited his productivity. They cut him in March 2020, when he was all of 25 years old.

The plight of running backs triggered outrage Monday when the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs and the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley weren’t offered long-term deals and appear destined to play for the one-year $10.1-million franchise tag salary. Jacobs was the NFL’s leading rusher last season with 1,653 yards and Barkley was fourth with 1,312. The Cowboys’ Tony Pollard, who rushed for 1,007 yards and averaged a robust 5.2 yards per carry in 2022, signed a franchise tag deal.

Among the free agents awaiting an offer — any offer — are three-time All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott and four-time Pro Bowl pick Dalvin Cook.

Their fellow running backs expressed anger and dismay on social media. Referring to Jacobs, Barkley and Pollard, the San Francisco 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey tweeted, “This is Criminal. Three of the best PLAYERS in the entire league, regardless of position.”

The Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry tweeted, “At this point, just take the RB position out of the game then.”

The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, whose nose for the end zone makes him a fantasy favorite, tweeted: “Everyone knows it’s tough to win without a top RB and yet they act like we are discardable widgets.”

Ekeler, who has yet to rush for 1,000 yards but led the NFL with 38 total touchdowns the last two years, will be a free agent after the 2023 season. He requested a trade this offseason before agreeing to a restructured deal that added $1.75 million in incentives.

At 28, Ekeler is ancient by running back standards, and getting a franchise tag offer a year from now would likely be a favorable outcome for him. It’s been two years since a running back — Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns — signed a multi-year contract worth more than $10 million a year. Chubb’s three-year, $36.6-million deal will pay him $10.85 million this season, not much more than the franchise tag number.

After the Gurley episode, the Rams have given shoulder shrugs to running backs. Cam Akers and Sony Michel led the team with decidedly pedestrian rushing totals the last two years. They top the depth chart again, and Coach Sean McVay seems content, saying of Akers recently on Sirius XM radio, “Cam is going to be a central figure in this offense. I think he’s priming himself to have a great year.”

The Rams must be especially pleased with Akers’ contract. His minuscule four-year rookie deal of $6,173,035 expires at the end of the season — he’ll make about $1.8 million in 2023 — but he will be a restricted free agent because he didn’t play the minimum six games in 2021.

That means the Rams can elect to keep him for another year at a price in the neighborhood of $4 million should he perform as well as he did late last season, when he rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last three games.

And if they prefer to upgrade, there should be bargain buffalo aplenty on the market.