NFL running backs are being hit even harder in their wallets than they are on the field.
As training camps opened recently, many of the most successful among them expressed frustration publicly about their compensation, decrying what they believe is the unconscionable behavior of teams in contract talks. In support of their position, running backs point to Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, Tony Pollard of the Dallas Cowboys and Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Barkley, Pollard and Jacobs, three of the NFL’s top running backs, were assigned one-year franchise tags instead of receiving the multiyear contracts they sought. The situation stirred such consternation that many standout running backs brainstormed about the financial state of the position on a Zoom call organized by Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers.
This season, the franchise tag for running backs is about $10.1 million. At that number, it’s fair to assume Barkley, Pollard and Jacobs won’t go hungry (Jacobs has not signed his contract and is holding out from Raiders camp).
However, the Giants, Cowboys and Raiders only reinforced the widespread belief among running backs that even elite players at their position will rarely, if ever, receive long-term security in today’s NFL.
For running backs in a league in which the average career of players lasts only 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association, that’s a big problem.
What, if anything, they can do about it is the question. N. Jeremi Duru has been mulling potential answers.
A professor of sports law at American University, Duru is a longtime observer of the NFL’s hiring practices. These days, he’s focused on how the league has devalued the running back position.
“What is happening with running backs is extraordinary,” Duru wrote in an email to Andscape last week. “Running back was a premier and valued position just a few years ago, and now the bottom is falling out.”
How did we get here?
In moves designed to increase scoring and, thereby, fan excitement and television ratings, the league implemented rules changes on offense that benefited the passing game. As the standing of quarterbacks increased exponentially in the modern NFL, the era of running backs being the focal point on offense ended.
Nowadays, clubs prefer to cobble together the position with relatively inexpensive options, often moving on from players after their rookie contracts expire. Even for elite running backs such as Barkley, Pollard and Jacobs, it’s more likely that they’ll be assigned the franchise tag multiple times and released than they will be rewarded with long deals.
In terms of compensation, the running backs’ ceiling isn’t one made of glass – it’s concrete, Duru said.
“The fact that elite backs in the league are calling for change and having organizational Zoom calls shows that this is a serious issue,” Duru wrote. “If they feel their particular needs are not being met by the NFLPA, which currently represents them as their union, labor law actually provides a path forward. But it is a narrow path.”
Under the National Labor Relations Act, Duru explained in the email, NFL running backs could pursue “unit clarification,” which means they could carve themselves out and essentially start their own union, providing they can show they have commonalties that have evolved in a way that makes them different from the other position groups. They could argue to the National Labor Relations Board that they are a discrete subgroup of NFL players because of the physical rigors of their position, their average career length, and the way elements of the collective bargaining agreement, particularly the rookie wage scale, uniquely impact them because of their unique jobs. If successful, running backs would be able to break away into their own collective bargaining unit, which would allow them to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreement with the NFL.
“In fact, in 2019, under the name International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs, an effort was made to do just that,” Duru wrote. “It was not successful. But arguably, running backs are even more set apart from other NFL players now than they were in 2019. So, another unit clarification petition is not unthinkable.”
Problem is, undoubtedly, the NFL and the NFLPA would oppose such a petition.
“And the National Labor Relations Board,” Duru continued in the email, “would likely give that opposition great weight in its decision-making.”
Also, as a practical matter, if running backs somehow succeeded in forming their own union, here’s likely what would happen: The league would still continue to devalue the position.
For many years now, Super Bowl-winning teams haven’t paid big money, by NFL standards, to their first-string running backs. Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. Rookie Isiah Pacheco, a seventh-round draft pick, was the Chiefs’ leading rusher. His 2022-23 base salary? Only $705,000.
The previous season, running back Sony Michel led the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams in rushing. His base salary was about $1.8 million.
Quarterbacks, edge rushers, wide receivers, and left tackles, respectively, are atop the NFL’s salary structure. And with running backs in a much different place, the position could face extinction one day, Duru believes.
“If, indeed, no legal path exists for running backs to form their own collective bargaining unit, their path forward is unclear,” Duru wrote. “They will continue to be paid less than they think they are worth, and I suspect young players coming up will avoid the position. It used to be a glamour position for kids learning the game. That will change.”
Trying to break free, running backs are coming up short. And it’s the NFL that’s taking them down.