Should NFL teams stop giving running backs huge money? Lessons from eight recent deals

Should NFL teams stop giving running backs huge money? Lessons from eight recent deals

Giving running backs massive contracts generally isn't a good idea, but there are always a few who are seen as exceptions to the rule. But are they really? We look at eight recent ones.


If you play fantasy football, you've probably noticed that this hasn't been a great season for the league's most prominent running backs. This past week alone saw Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and Minnesota's Dalvin Cook leave games due to injuries, with the former now out for the season. The Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott limped in and out of the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Raiders. Tennessee's Derrick Henry and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara weren't in the lineup after suffering injuries earlier this season.

The rash of absences and injuries leads to another round of the seemingly endless debate surrounding one of the league's most conspicuous positions. Are NFL teams who pay running backs significant money doomed to regret their decision? The conversation gets folded into broader arguments about running backs in the NFL, some of which are bad faith, but it would be impossible to pay attention to the league and not notice how difficult it has been for running backs to sustain their production deep into their second contracts.

The more nuanced position that has popped up over the past few years, both inside and outside of the league, is to acknowledge that running back contracts are generally a bad idea but that a specific deal is likely to work out. Everyone knows the rules at this point, but backs routinely get held up as the exception to the overwhelming evidence that these contracts don't often work out.

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So today, I'll run through the highest-paid backs in football and evaluate what the arguments were for those players to be the "exceptions" at the time they signed their deals, as well as what has since happened. There are eight backs in the NFL whose contracts have an annual average value (AAV) of $12 million or more, with the next tier topping out at $8 million. It seems reasonable to focus on those top eight backs. It should be noted that this group doesn't include Todd Gurley II, Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson, each of whom signed deals for more than $12 million over the past three years, only for their teams to abandon those deals before the 2021 season.