NFL running backs are in a bind without recourse

The hottest NFL debate since the franchise tag deadline of July 17 remains nuclear.

After star running backs Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs were unable to negotiate long-term deals with their respective teams, it became tied to a larger point of contention across the league: Running back contracts are dwindling. The franchise tag for running backs has dropped to $10.1 million, the top players at the position are frustrated, there are warnings to kids against playing running back, and, perhaps the most frustrating part, there isn’t really a viable solution with how the system is currently set up.

When it comes to the livelihood of players taking on a disproportionate amount of punishment, emotions are going to run high. Running backs and running the ball are still a tremendously important part of football and that isn’t going to change. What has changed is how NFL teams view the position and their willingness to dip into a vast supply of running back talent over paying the top players at the position. Quarterbacks are the focal point of the sport, which is certainly a shift from the game's origins. Teams have realized that they can divest resources into the passing game and offensive line and still have a productive running game with a fraction of the asset costs. That’s where the NFL is right now.

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Of course, it’s also easy to see why these players are frustrated with their situation. Barkley is a good example. He was one of the key cogs in the Giants’ resurgence last season and played a major role in their wild-card victory over the Vikings, rushing for two touchdowns and totaling 109 yards on 14 touches. At times, Barkley was the Giants’ best hope of producing an explosive play last season and his presence helped quarterback Daniel Jones have his best season. It’s a completely defensible position for Barkley to want a contract that protects him financially based on his recent contributions to the team.

On the flip side, it’s easy to see why the Giants would be apprehensive toward giving Barkley the deal that he wants. Barkley spent a good chunk of 2020 and 2021 injured and not playing his best football before getting back to playing like a top-tier player in 2022. There isn’t a whole lot of incentive for the team to hand out a long-term deal when it has the power to keep slapping franchise tags on Barkley and putting him in this bind. It's projected to cost the Giants about $23 million if they franchise tagged Barkley for two straight seasons.

That’s not really a lot of money to shell out for a player who is vital to the Giants' offensive success —which is a huge part of the problem of how this tense space arrived in the first place.

Saquon Barkley and other star running backs play a position whose talent pool is deep and whose prime years are heavily cost-controlled. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Saquon Barkley and other star running backs play a position whose talent pool is deep and whose prime years are heavily cost-controlled. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The biggest thing working against these top running backs seeking paydays is the fact that this dilemma was collectively bargained by the NFLPA in conjunction with the league. It’s increasingly difficult for top running backs to hit free agency while they still have a value teams feel comfortable heavily investing in. Barkley was drafted in the first round in 2018, signing a contract that was in agreement with the rookie wage scale that was agreed upon during 2011 CBA negotiations. The Giants picked up his fifth-year option, giving him five cost-controlled seasons with the team before he could even think about hitting free agency. Then franchise tags come into the equation. With their current cost, it’s a no-brainer for the Giants to hold Barkley for seven seasons before he’s able to hit free agency, as long as he performs.

Now Barkley and Jacobs have to decide if they’re going to sit out the season and miss about $600,000 worth of game checks each week. Under the current CBA, they don’t really have much recourse to try and get their long-term deal done, and they have until Nov. 14 to sign the franchise tag or else they can’t play this year. It’s a terrible position to be in because there is no leverage unless the team really sinks without them on the field and even then, it’s too late to negotiate a long-term deal. All they can really receive is a “promise” that they’ll be able to enter free agency in 2024.

The most extreme solution to this would be to eliminate the NFL Draft and allow college players who declare for the league to be eligible in the free-agent class, immediately creating a bidding war for their services — but that’s not happening. That’s so far removed from where the current labor circumstances sit in the NFL. The draft and its imposed rookie wage scale aren't going anywhere any time soon. Perhaps the union can make progress on repealing franchise tags for the next labor negotiations. Sadly for Barkley, Jacobs and the current crop of top running back talent, that won’t happen until at least 2030 when they’re all past their prime.

This is the ugly business of the NFL that has turned one of the most prominent positions in the history of the sport into one of the least-paid at the top. There’s a whole lot of talented running backs waiting for a chance to play, and by the time some guys can finally hit free agency, it might be too late for them to cash in on past achievements.

Still, there should be a way to separate the on-field skill and appreciation of talents versus the financial disparities at the top of the position. This is still a position that young players should want to play growing up — no one other than quarterbacks and centers gets to touch the ball more than a running back, and the truth is the vast majority of people who play football will never sniff the NFL. Let that kid play running back, it’s fun!

Unfortunately, this is an issue within the most accomplished of the most accomplished players, and it’s a problem that doesn’t really have recourse outside of the imperceptible generosity of a few American billionaires.