Running Back Depth in Free Agency, Draft Should Punish Loitering by Agents

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystFebruary 18, 2015

El running back DeMarco Murray (29), de los Cowboys de Dallas, se lanza en una jugada que culminó en touchdown durante la segunda mitad del partido de playoffs divisionales de la NFL frente a los Packers en Green Bay, Wisconsin, el domingo 11 de enero de 2015. Los Packers ganaron 26-21. (Foto AP/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

If you're familiar at all with the work of MLB agent Scott Boras, you know that he takes premium free agents and has them sign at what seems like the last moment. His most recent example, new Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, took home a seven-year, $210 million contract. This, despite Scherzer not signing until baseball was in spitting distance of spring training. 

I bring this up as part of a plea to the agents of free-agent running backs. Don't try to do this. You will get burned. You are not Boras, and your clients are not regarded as difference-makers.

One of the major storylines of the NFL over the past decade has been the devaluation of the running back. Part of this is because passing, over the long haul, is a more efficient way to get yards than running. Part of this is because the running back position as a whole takes such a beating that the lifespan of even a franchise guy isn't long. (In fact, by the time running backs hit free agency four years into their career, the risk-reward ratio is against them.) 

And, well, part of this is because NFL general managers can spot trends. Take, for instance, this group of the highest-paid active running backs:

Running Backs Making $7M or More Per Season
PlayerTeamAvg. SalaryDYAR post-extensionExtra comment
Adrian PetersonMIN$14.38 million675And he'll almost certainly rework this or be cut this offseason.
LeSean McCoyPHI$9 million388Brutal last season.
Arian FosterHOU$8.7 million373Fairly consistent numbers.
Matt ForteCHI$7.6 million411Fairly consistent numbers
Marshawn LynchSEA$7.5 million908Extra benefit baked in to numbers because of Russell Wilson R-O threat.
Jonathan StewartCAR$7.3 million39Often behind DeAngelo Williams. Or hurt.
Sources: Over The Cap, Football Outsiders
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Those numbers don't seem so bad on the surface. But that has a lot to do with survivorship bias. Names like say, Ray Rice, are released rather than on this list.

This isn't even counting busts of the recent past. Arizona's contract with Edgerrin James. Seattle's big deal for Shaun Alexander. Ahman Green with the Texans. There's a clear relationship where running backs used to get paid for what they were, rather than what they will be. 

Things have changed.

The biggest total compensation package a running back took home in 2014 free agency was $10.5 million. The highest per-year guarantee was when the Jets committed $4 million a season to Chris Johnson. Johnson fits in well with our theme. He received a four-year extension with $30 million in guarantees from the Titans in 2011. Per Football Outsiders, Johnson accumulated a total of 17 DYAR in his three seasons under the contract in Tennessee. 

2015 Free-Agent Running Back Class
Player2014 SnapsDYAR (Rk)DVOA (Rk)
DeMarco Murray800381 (1)14.7% (5)
Frank Gore665154 (10)6.3% (13)
Justin Forsett721148 (11)6.5% (12)
Ryan Mathews16532 (n/r)37.1% (n/r)
Mark Ingram477109 (13)2.9% (14)
C.J. Spiller19028 (n/r)8.1% (n/r)
Shane Vereen6065 (n/r)-7.1% (n/r)
Stevan Ridley188-5 (n/r)-9.7% (n/r)
Ahmad Bradshaw39226 (n/r)-1.7% (n/r)
Source: Football Outsiders

This year's free-agent class looks much better on paper than last year's. No offense to Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart. Rushing leader DeMarco Murray will look to buck the Curse of 370 somewhere new. Frank Gore has been an excellent back for many seasons. Mark Ingram is coming off a breakout season in New Orleans. You can go 10- or 12-deep in this running back class before you start breaking out terms like "system back."

But there's another catch. There's also an impressive collection of running back talent in this draft class. A scout told NJ.com's Mark Eckel that "in all [his] years this is the best group of running backs [he'd] seen from top to bottom." 

It says a lot about where we are with running backs in the NFL that a scout can say that and we're still not sure if any of the backs will crack the first round. But this leads to another question. Why would an NFL team spend big on a free agent when it could draft a back with the potential to be as good or better and have them on a rookie contract for four seasons?

Projected High-Round Running Back Picks
PlayerCollegeOverall RankProj. Draft Round
Melvin GordonWisconsin211
Todd GurleyGeorgia221
Ameer AbdullahNebraska472
Jay AjayiBoise State522
Duke JohnsonMiami562
Tevin ColemanIndiana602
T.J. YeldonAlabama772-3
Mike DavisSouth Carolina802-3
David CobbMinnesota883
Source: NFL Draft Scout

We've been running so many tables in this piece, so I'll just throw in one more, Family Feud style. We asked 100 (fictional) agents to answer the question. Here are the top answers on the board:

Why Agents Would Take Their Backs Over Draft Picks
Answer OrderAnswerSurvey
1Veteran experience or some such nonsense.48
2Hold on, I can't hear you over all the calls my cornerback is getting.27
3I was born in 1955 and am actually Dan Dierdorf.9
4Beats me, I'm not dumb enough to represent running backs.5
5I'm scared, hold me.3
Source: Rivers McCown's Creative Writing Degree

So, look, I'm not saying Murray is going to have to settle for Brown money. I'm not saying the entire institution of the running back is dead. (Though I will say running backs should start their own union.) 

But with only so many open holes on depth charts, and teams more aware than ever of the value of running backs, agents shouldn't dilly-dally on deals hoping the market adjusts their way. There are only so many dollars available for this position. Teams are going to weigh the costs of a back against this draft class and be even more inclined to wait out a good deal. 

My advice for the agents of these running backs? If you can sniff out what you feel is a fair deal right away, pounce on it. There's going to come a time in this process when even an established back like Stevan Ridley is going to be sniffing around, hoping to maybe double the veteran minimum. You don't want your clients to be a part of it. 

You aren't Boras, and running backs are not the most valuable parts of an NFL team anymore. Take what you can get. 

All DYAR and DVOA numbers cited are courtesy of Football Outsiders. Learn more about DVOA here.
 
Rivers McCown is the AFC South Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.