When it comes to running backs, Christian McCaffrey is the rarest of the rare. First, he produced at a very high level during the early, low-cost years of his contract. Second, he parlayed that production into a massive, market-setting deal.
His $16 million deal, received after only three NFL seasons, bucks the trend at the position. It’s a trend he’d like to see bucked more often.
“No one’s asked me this question yet, but I do have opinions on it,” McCaffrey said Friday on The Rich Eisen Show, via Tristi Rodriguez of Yahoo Sports. “I think when you look back in history and look at what the running back position has meant to football, they touch the ball more than anybody. And I was a guy who liked Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, some of the best to ever do it, and these guys, they didn’t just play for a long time, they played well for a long time, and I look at Derrick Henry as another example. Derrick Henry is older than I am and that guy’s done nothing but produce.
“I look at what Saquon Barkley brings to the [New York] Giants, I look at what Josh Jacobs brings to the [Las Vegas] Raiders, all these backs around the league who have done so many amazing things for their team. They’ve been clutch, they carry the ball, they catch the ball into the backfield, they provide multiple threats, they create mismatches, they make defensive coordinators think, and I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
Indeed there is. But teams shy away from paying for it, mainly for two reasons. One, the supply of running backs outweighs the demand. Two, the injury risk for running backs is higher than it is for any skill-position players.
“Somewhere along the line, the running back position has been undervalued, in my opinion, for what they’re asked to do,” McCaffrey told Eisen. “And I think there are a lot of guys that are scared to speak up about that for multiple reasons. I don’t know when the value of a yard got diminished. . . .
“So there’s a lot of arguments multiple ways. But I definitely think somewhere along the line, the franchise tag and what the market did to the running back position, I think they’re definitely undervalued. And I think if you asked the running backs around the league, they would probably say the same thing.”
Indeed they would. Some running backs (like Ben Tate) have said they should have embraced a different position while growing up.
The shift happened right around the time Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson were in their heyday. The Seahawks gave Alexander a massive deal after his MVP season of 2005, his sixth year in the NFL. By then, the Seahawks were paying not for what he was going to do, but for what he had done. And, moving forward, what he did didn’t come close to what he’d done.
The proper fix would come from finding a way to fairly compensate the young running backs who become star players with low-level contracts that, for drafted players, can’t be renegotiated until after the player’s third season. Earlier in the offseason, when Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was looking for a new team and a new contract, Chris Simms had a great idea during an episode of PFT Live.
Similar to the league-wide fund that gives players who don’t make much money extra pay based on playing time. Last year, for example, Eagles safety Marcus Epps picked up another $880,000 from the performance-based pay program.
Why not have something similar for running backs? Young players making minimum salaries and gaining maximum yards and scoring many touchdowns should get a reward for that in the year they do it, because by the time they’re due for a new contract, their teams won’t want to pay them for what they’ve already accomplished.
It’s a simple concept. It would just need to become a priority for the NFL Players Association and the NFL. It should be. It’s a way to properly compensate those who make the game exciting (especially from a fantasy standpoint), in the year they generate the excitement — without forcing them to wait for a major payday that might never come.
Christian McCaffrey makes the case for running backs to get paid originally appeared on Pro Football Talk