Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon Holdouts Spell Trouble for the Next Wave of RBs

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 17, 2019

Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott warms-up before an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The Cowboys' approach to this summer's Ezekiel Elliott holdout was too hot.

Six years and $90 million for a running back? From a team that still must figure out how to pay its quarterback? The Elliott deal is already starting to look like a costly mistake, especially after he had a limited impact in three straight Cowboys losses.

The Chargers' approach to this summer's Melvin Gordon III holdout was too cold.

The Chargers are the kind of organization that doesn't tip the Uber driver, so naturally they weren't going to budge on Gordon's contract demands. He returned in late September without a deal and has been nearly useless since, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry in a pair of losses. Austin Ekeler filled in exceptionally during Gordon's absence, but the always injury-riddled Chargers are 2-4 and have needed all the offensive firepower they could muster since the season began.

You know where this is leading, oh attentive reader: The Elliott situation was too hot, the Gordon situation was too cold, and NFL teams must find a Goldilocks zone where their handling of running back salary demands and holdouts is just right.

Because more holdouts are sure to be coming. Very soon.

"Running Backs Don't Matter" is a popular slogan on the internet these days. To state the RBDM position more analytically: Running backs matter (as do long snappers and assistant special teams coaches), but their career peaks are short, their injury risks are high and so much of their production is based on their offensive line, system and other factors that the difference between a Pro Bowler and a late-round rookie can be almost imperceptible in the win-loss column.

One need look no further than the seasons Elliott and Gordon have gone through for proof of the RBDM theory.

Elliott has played well, but so has fourth-round rookie backup Tony Pollard. Elliott has averaged 96.3 rushing yards and 5.25 yards per rush in the three Cowboys victories (against cheese-dip defenses), and 67.3 rushing yards and 3.48 yards per rush in three losses (against two tough defenses and the Jets). Those are the numbers of someone who is rising and falling with his team, not someone who's making his team significantly better.

The Chargers and Gordon are an even starker example of the low relative value of running backs. Ekeler has outperformed Gordon on a per-touch basis since he entered the league in 2017, averaging 6.5 yards per touch, while Gordon's career rate is 4.8 yards per touch. Ekeler averaged 122.5 yards from scrimmage per game in September but has averaged just 60.5 yards per game, mostly as a receiver, since Gordon's return. The attempt to reintegrate Gordon into the offense after his offseason away from the team appears to have hurt both backs.

Only a Moneyball extremist would suggest that Elliott and Pollard are completely interchangeable. But whatever the difference is between the two backs, it's not worth the $90 million that the Cowboys could spend elsewhere. Similarly, there are things the rugged Gordon can do that Ekeler cannot. But once you start splitting hairs between a first-round pick and an undrafted rookie from Western State University, you're essentially proving the Running Backs Don't Matter Principle: Don't pay a premium for a big-name "workhorse" when a guy who's making the NFL minimum can do the job almost as well.

The Chargers came out "winners" in the Gordon holdout by making him return with his tail tucked, except that they aren't playing well, and Gordon might have made a difference in their early close losses: Ekeler coughed up a costly fumble in the 13-10 Lions loss. Also, the Chargers are a penny-pinching team with an Airbnb stadium full of road fans, so they aren't the sort of franchise other teams want to emulate.

Melvin Gordon III has struggled to find his rhythm after he sat out the Chargers' first four games.
Melvin Gordon III has struggled to find his rhythm after he sat out the Chargers' first four games.Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

As for the Cowboys: They believe they are in a Super Bowl window, and everyone else believed that, too, three weeks ago. Elliott's contract is closer to a three-year, $50 million deal once the fluff is ripped out, so it's not a long-term disaster. Still, it could cause problems if Elliott is no better than your basic Pollard in a year or two and the Cowboys are forced to make hard roster choices because of salary-cap constraints.

We should also mention Le'Veon Bell and the granddaddy of all running back holdouts, even though as fairy-tale metaphors go, the 2018 Steelers were more like Hansel and Gretel (everyone tried to cook and eat everyone else) than Goldilocks. There were many extenuating circumstances in that conflict, but it's hard to argue that either Bell (now toiling for the Jets after losing year's income) or the Steelers (slouching toward a rebuilding phase) emerged as winners.

While the Chargers, Cowboys, Gordon and Elliott are still sorting through the ramifications of their summer holdouts, members of one of the greatest running back classes in history are in the middle of their third NFL seasons and nearing the ends of their rookie contracts. That makes most of the following players overworked, underpaid and very likely to expect lucrative new deals in the very near future:

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers: An MVP candidate and the focal point of the entire offense with Cam Newton injured.

Alvin Kamara, Saints: Like McCaffrey, he's a dangerous all-purpose weapon who does much of the heavy offensive lifting, whether Drew Brees or Teddy Bridgewater is under center.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings: On pace for 2,123 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns this year for a team that has figured out that quarterback Kirk Cousins looks best when asked to do less.

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars: Much-maligned by the RBDM crowd, he has averaged 28 touches per game for the last three weeks and 5.6 yards per carry, doing the dirty work as a rusher and receiver to facilitate Gardner Minshew II Mania. 

James Conner, Steelers, and Marlon Mack, Colts: Two more all-purpose performers who are carrying the load and helping their teams weather quarterback crises.

Aaron Jones, Packers: Leads the NFL with eight touchdowns and has seen his responsibilities increase as Aaron Rodgers' receivers fall to injuries one by one.

Chris Carson, Seahawks: Has averaged 27.3 touches per game over the last three weeks for a 5-1 team that's a little too enamored with establishing the run for its own good. Carson has made the most of his opportunities, averaging 107.3 yards from scrimmage per game. Per Sports Info Solutions, he leads the NFL with 3.5 yards after contact per rush. 

There's also a good back on an awful team (Cincinnati's Joe Mixon), some top-notch committee backs (Tarik Cohen, Matt Breida, Ekeler) and others. In total, more than one-third of the teams in the NFL must decide soon whether they will offer their young running backs new contracts. And those decisions are not as clear-cut at the RBDM crowd might suggest.

It's silly to argue that McCaffrey or Kamara is some interchangeable widget who can be swapped out for a seventh-round pick. But it's also true that many of these backs may be accumulating the wear and tear now that will result in a 2.5 yards-per-carry average in a few years. And while no team can afford to overpay for this year's heroics in 2023, most of the teams with great young running backs won't be able to shrug their shoulders at a holdout, either, unless they decide to rebuild their whole offense from scratch.

Though Christian McCaffrey's value to the Panthers' season is clear, the hits he is taking now may make the team skittish to re-sign him to a large deal that stretches far into the future.
Though Christian McCaffrey's value to the Panthers' season is clear, the hits he is taking now may make the team skittish to re-sign him to a large deal that stretches far into the future.Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the backs (and their agents) know they need to get paid before they are worn down to the nub; a few are certain to follow in the footsteps of Elliott, Gordon and Bell and use whatever leverage they have to get paid while they can.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for these cases. There are also no good Goldilocks-zone running back contracts to use as templates. The Elliott, Todd Gurley II (four years, $57.5 million) and Bell (four years, $52.5 million) deals all come with too high a risk of buyer's remorse, as the Rams are clearly feeling this year. Yet it's hard to imagine someone like Kamara or McCaffrey would settle for less.

Maybe the next crop of top running backs will force the NFL to figure out a new way of compensating them for their all-purpose workhorse efforts. But doing so will probably require a contentious holdout or two.

And if teams don't handle those holdouts just right, everyone could end up losing.

                              

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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