Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and the Death of the NFL Running Back

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Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and the Death of the NFL Running Back
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Jacksonville Jaguar running back Maurice Jones-Drew wants to be payed like one of the game's elite.

After weeks of speculation, Jacksonville Jaguar running back and last year’s league-leading rusher, Maurice Jones-Drew, officially decided to skip the team’s mandatory three-day mini-camp this week because of a heated contract dispute. After leading the NFL with 1,606 rushing yards last season, Jones-Drew wants to be paid like one the league’s premier backs and claims that he will not step foot on the field until his demands are met. But the Jaguars have stood their ground and have given no indication that they will give into their star player’s demands.

According to Spotrac.com, Jones-Drew’s salary ($4.45 million) does not even fall within the top 10 in the league for his position, and he is due to earn even less money this season than Miami Dolphins starting back Reggie Bush. (Sorry Reggie, but you’re not anywhere near MJD’s level.) After seeing other elite running backs such as Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy receive lucrative deals in recent years, Jones-Drew has every right to complain, especially after making three straight Pro Bowls by rushing for over 1,300 yards in each of the past three seasons. Unfortunately for him, though, the Jaguars seem to have the upper hand in this ugly battle due to the fact that the team has him under their complete control for the next two upcoming seasons.

This is certainly not the first time a player has skipped a mandatory mini-camp. Every year, NFL fans are forced to listen to many of their favorite athletes complain about their “measly” salaries and the “heartbreaking” story about how they are simply not paid enough. And while that last sentence certainly has a nice dose of sarcasm laid within it, I must admit that Jones-Drew does have a valid argument when his financial situation is looked at solely within the scope of the NFL.

In addition, two other star running backs have also decided not to attend their respective team’s mini-camps this week: the Chicago BearsMatt Forte and the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice. Much like Jones-Drew, they are elite running backs that feel as though they are being shortchanged by the team that employs them. Unlike Jones-Drew, both Forte and Rice are due to become free agents next offseason and are more focused on getting long-term security after they were both franchise tagged this offseason.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Much like Jones-Drew, Chicago Bear running back Matt Forte has been in the midst of a long contract battle with his current team.

Regardless, all three men are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That is because we have seen a bit of a paradigm shift in the NFL in recent years. Although the running back position will always be one of the most important positions to the game of football, we have seen the role of the “feature back” become less and less apparent in the league throughout the last decade. Instead of giving the ball to one player 25-30 times a game, more and more, teams are starting to implement a dual-back system in which two players share the majority of the touches throughout each game with the supposed superior back receiving a moderately larger percentage of the carries.

For years, an above-average starting running back was expected to be able to carry the ball well over 300 times in a season without any issue. In 2011, only two players, Jones-Drew and the Atlanta Falcons’ Michael Turner, were able to surpass this mark. In fact, throughout the last five seasons, there has been an average of only five players each year who have been able to reach this number of attempts, whereas in the previous five seasons, there was an average of 10.

This is not to say that today’s running backs are any weaker or less talented than those that came before them. The average NFL player actually averaged a slightly higher yards-per-carry average in 2011 (4.3) than they did in 2002 (4.2). It all comes down to the fact that teams have realized that they no longer need to spend massive amounts of time, effort and, above all else, money in order to find that one player needed to lead a successful running attack. Over the past few seasons, teams have realized that they can use a combination of players, from various backgrounds, to accomplish this very same goal.

For example, let’s look at newly-signed Cincinnati Bengals running back and former New England Patriots standout BenJarvus Green-Ellis to illustrate this point. Here’s a guy who was not even drafted coming out of Ole Miss in 2008, but managed to scratch and claw his way into a starting role for New England after just two seasons in the league. After backing up first-round bust Laurence Maroney for a few years, his grit and determination helped him rush for over 1,000 yards in 2010, becoming the first Patriot running back since Corey Dillon to do so.

Yet the very next season, Green-Ellis was only allowed to rush the ball 181 times and could only muster up 667 rushing yards. As a result, he was not re-signed by the team this past offseason, and instead, received a below-average contract from the Bengals.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Gone are the days when guys like former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Jerome Bettis would be relied upon to shoulder the entire load for his team.

Though Jones-Drew, Forte and Rice are far superior players when compared to Green-Ellis, the story of Green-Ellis demonstrates the tumultuous career of today’s average NFL running back. Teams have found it much cheaper and easier to replace average running backs with other comparable players via free agency or the draft instead of spending a great deal of money on one guy. And it is this same line of thinking that has caused the aforementioned trio to have so much trouble securing a new contract.

Of the three mentioned players, Rice is the one who is most likely to get his wishes granted. Not only is he the youngest of the three, but his team is the one that stands to lose the most if they were to somehow lose him. Rice is such a dynamic force for the Ravens in both the running game and the passing game that the Ravens offense would completely fall apart without his presence.

While both Forte and Jones-Drew are also vital components of their respective team’s offense, neither one is quite as valuable as Rice is to the Ravens. It may be true that Jones-Drew is all that the Jaguars have to look for on offense, but for a team that went 5-11 last season with very little to build around, they may be better off letting him play out his last two years and starting over. And with the Bears focusing more on their passing game this offseason along with adding the services of Michael Bush, a more than capable starting running back, Forte has very little leverage, if any at all.

The simple fact is that the NFL feature running back is a dying breed. Of course, there will always be a few backs that stand out above the rest, but there is no doubt that the NFL is now a league predicated on the passing game and shows no signs of changing.

In 2011, we saw three different quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford) pass for over 5,000 yards for the season, a feat that had been accomplished just twice before in the history of the NFL, and another player, Eli Manning, fell just 67 yards shy of becoming the fourth. Of the top 10 quarterbacks in terms of passing yards last season, seven of them made the playoffs, including everyone in the top five. Of the top 10 running backs in terms of rushing yards, only five of them made the playoffs, including only three in the top five.

And just to further prove this point, both of the teams featured in this past Super Bowl were lead by top-5 quarterbacks, and neither one possessed a running back that was able to surpass even 700 rushing yards last season, let alone the average benchmark of 1,000.

So as you can see, the numbers don’t stack up well for NFL running backs trying to make a case for more money. Even when you are as dynamic and talented as Jones-Drew, Forte and Rice, the current NFL landscape renders those talents moot. Where the quarterback is the steak and the wide receivers are the sides, most running backs today are simply the side salad that compliments the main course.

Like the African Lion, these three players will most likely continue to demonstrate immense pride as they defiantly hold out for what they believe in. But also like the African Lion, they will be forced to sit back and watch as their species falls further and further into extinction.

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