Is the Shelf Life of an NFL Running Back Getting Shorter?

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Is the Shelf Life of an NFL Running Back Getting Shorter?
AP Images

Money talks. 

When you're discussing the value placed on certain positions in the NFL, it's all about the money. 

In the case of the running back position, it's staggering how the value of this position has diminished over the past couple of years—and only looks to be going further down over the next couple of years. 

A lot of this has to do with the shelf life of players at the position. Sure, there are outliers like the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore or the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But it's interesting to note that both of these players seem like they've been around forever, especially Gore, who will just turn 31 in May.

It used to be that running backs weren't going to see any contracts past the age of 30 that weren't primarily incentive-laden, but from the recent look of free agency, that could be dropping even further. 

It's not that there aren't elite running backs in the NFL right now being paid handsomely for their work, but those contracts were signed a few years ago, and what's been happening recently may signal a change in the financial landscape of the position for the future.

The best reasoning for this has to deal with shelf life, which affects the financial investment teams make in players at the position.  

 

How old is too old?

The answer isn't completely cut and dry based on age, although it's a pretty good indicator. 

Some running backs who may have sat for a couple of years without taking a lot of hits may have a little more tread on the tires than those who have shouldered the load for their respective team.

The top 10 rushers in the NFL in 2013 had an average age of 26.6 years old, and three of those 10 players are currently playing under their rookie contracts.

Al Behrman

Those players would be Ryan Mathews, Eddie Lacy and Alfred Morris

Looking back 10 years ago, the number of carries for top running backs has also diminished significantly. 

Back in 2004, the average number of carries per season for the top 10 rushers in the NFL was 335. In 2013, that number was 284.

Are the carries shrinking because the game has become more pass-oriented, or because they're trying to extend the careers of their running back investments? 

Either way you look at it, the value of the position is diminishing either by money or by use. 

 

Money talks

In a fantastic article at OverTheCap.com, Jason Fitzgerald talks about the devaluation of the running back position, even comparing recent running back contracts to that of kickers:

Moving forward we are going to be looking at a position that at best may end up no higher than $5 million and year and could be capped closer to $4 million. When you think of all the great running backs who have played in the NFL and the one time importance that had to the team it’s pretty shocking to see the devaluation to a throw away position in the NFL.  But we are almost there and it sure seems to be just a matter of months before the market for Kickers, Punters, and Running Backs will be within just a few dollars of each other. 

If money talks, the information presented in that article screams. 

Many teams have been burned by overpaying running backs who simply break down physically into their late 20s. The Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson is one example we've seen recently, and we also might be seeing it with the Houston Texans' Arian Foster.

Johnson hasn't been the same player since signing that deal—not that he isn't effective, but he's not justifying base salaries of $8 million in 2014 and 2015, before $7 million in 2016. 

Just this past offseason, former Texans running back Ben Tate and the Denver Broncos' Knowshon Moreno were considered the two prized running back free agents. 

Moreno signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins with just $500,000 guaranteed, while Tate signed a two-year deal with $3.3 million guaranteed. 

Michael Perez

As Fitzgerald pointed out in his article, the large contracts currently on the books for players like Johnson, Peterson, LeSean McCoy and company will be off the books by 2015, or at least restructured.

So when free-agent running backs are looking for new deals in a couple of years, they'll have a much lower market to compare around the league when setting up that multi-year deal. 

The value is diminishing and the most recent CBA deal affects this as well when talking rookie running backs, via Andrew Brant at ESPN.com:

Further, there are no renegotiations of rookie contracts until after a player's third year, removing any holdout possibilities for a high-performing young player before his fourth year.

As the shelf life of running backs is diminishing, the NFL made it to where the age at which the team controls the dollars spent towards the position increases. This closes the gap on when running backs can get paid and for how long. It's a strategic business move that will be realized by the masses when the contracts for running backs are assessed in 2015 and beyond. 

 

Does this affect the future of the position?

Will high school and college athletes sway away from the running back position because of this change? Probably not in the widespread way some might think, but over time, there's no reason to think some things won't be affected.

While the NFL becomes more pass-happy and teams move to a running back by committee approach, the ability for running backs to catch the ball out of the backfield becomes that much more of a focus. 

Running back used to be the position young kids aspired to play because it was the focus of the offense. The stars of the league were running backs in the same way, or at least closer to than now, the quarterback was. 

There are still star running backs in the league and there will always be elite running backs, but if their shelf life continues to shrink and the value teams place on the position financially shrinks as well, the position will diminish.

What that'll look like, nobody knows, but either way, the way the next generation looks at the running back position will be different than yours.  

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