The quarterback position is the highest-paid among all positions in the NFL. Colts QB Andrew Luck averages $24.594 million a year, and there are 11 other quarterbacks who make within $4 million of Luck's average annual salary.
Take a look at other key positions. Five safeties are within $4 million annually of Eric Berry’s latest deal, which makes him the highest-paid safety in the league. Five receivers make within $4 million of Antonio Brown's latest bank-breaking contract. But running back, one of the league’s glamour positions, is experiencing a huge gap at the top of the market.
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It’s not official until he signs his franchise tag, but Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell is slated to make more than $12 million in 2017, which would outpace LeSean McCoy’s $8 million average salary by more than $4 million. With Minnesota deciding not to pick up Adrian Peterson’s $18 million option and with Kansas City cutting ties with Jamaal Charles, the running back market is officially in a state of flux.
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In the drafts of the early-to-mid 2010s, the position lost some of its value, therefore placing a greater emphasis on locking up veteran running backs with second contracts. But with the recent success of Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, and the obvious talent of the incoming RB class, the position is experiencing a renaissance in the draft.
Before the draft comes free agency, and these newly released backs don’t have to wait until the official opening on March 9 to begin negotiations. But where do you start when you have two historically great running backs, both on the wrong side of 30 years old, hitting a market that isn’t yet established at the top?
Owed nearly $18 million in 2017, Peterson was always unlikely to play next season for the Vikings for that kind of money. That his option wasn’t picked up was no surprise, and according to ESPN he still hasn’t ruled out playing for Minnesota next year if the two sides can “find some common ground.”
Charles, who boasted an average annual salary of $9.05 million, was going to have a cap hit of $6.187 million in 2017 before the Chiefs released him Tuesday. He just turned 30 in December, and his 5.5 career yards per carry is the most in NFL history for a running back—outpacing Jim Brown’s 5.2-yard average.
So in the span of an afternoon, the highest-paid running back saw his option declined. The third highest-paid back (on the basis of annual salary) was released. And that left No. 2, Bell, alone in the eight-figure per annum salary, but even that isn’t guaranteed yet until he signs his tag. Bell and the Steelers will no doubt try to work out a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline, but projecting what that will look like just got even murkier.
Peterson has dealt with injury and suspension the past three seasons. Does he ask for, say, a $6 million base salary in 2017 with incentives? Charles has played in just eight games since 2015 due to an ACL tear and has fewer than 90 carries in that span.
In a more settled market, those contracts may be easy to draw up. But what about in an unsettled market where there are two historically great running backs available? Peterson was within a whisper of being the single-season all-time leading rusher, and no running back has gotten more yards per rush than Charles (5.5).
Matters become even more complicated when you take into consideration the fact that three running backs could be selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey are going to be placed under a microscope at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis. But given the current shakeups in the running back market, the trio might be discussed even more than the quarterbacks. Not only will teams look to see which of the three can provide the kind of offense Elliott brought to the Cowboys last year, but now these players are going to have to measure up against Charles and Peterson. It may even make a team loosen its morality when it comes to a red-flag prospect like Joe Mixon, a clear talent with a clear issue.
NFL teams in the market for running backs have a decision to make. Do you want a Peterson or Charles—a historically great back who has a recent injury history—and make your best guess at the market in hopes of not overpaying? Or would you like to bet on that important position with a 20-something-year-old rookie with your coveted first-round selection?
Tuesday’s events, and the week or so following, will have an enormous impact on the immediate future of one of the sport’s greatest positions.