- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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While running backs should be concerned with their decreased usage in today's NFL, what really should scare them is the diminishing contracts these players are signing.
In the past two weeks, we saw former Pro Bowler Chris Johnson go from $13.5 million a year in Tennessee to $4 million with the New York Jets. And that deal is $500,000 a year more than any other back received as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Looking ahead, the market is going to get worse for running backs. Only 11 backs are making at least $5 million a year, and that list may be vastly reduced in the next two seasons. Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers is on that list for now, but he's 30 and the 49ers hope to get Marcus Lattimore ready to replace him over the next year. Marshawn Lynch will make $7 million a year for the Seattle Seahawks, but he could be cut in 2015 if he experiences a decline.
It's hard to find many backs who will be in a position to command deals that average more than $4 million a year in the near future. C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills and Ryan Mathews of the San Diego Chargers are free agents next year, and there is good chance their teams will let them go if they're seeking a lucrative deal. The Chargers gave $3.5 million to Donald Brown this offseason, while Spiller, who shares carries with veteran Fred Jackson, will make $5.1 million on the final year of his rookie deal.
That's the issue on the horizon for running backs. With teams throwing the ball more, offensive coaches prefer to rotate two or three backs rather than have one workhorse getting 20 or more carries a game. As a result, 1,000-yard backs have dropped from 23 in 2006 to only 13 last year. Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the only back to average more than 20 carries a game, but he played only six contests due to injuries.
It's becoming a rarity for running backs to land big deals in today's NFL. Sure, if a young back gets hot and sustains great seasons for several years, a team will try to take care of him. Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers comes to mind after his breakout rookie campaign.
As of Sunday, the NFL average for starting halfbacks sat at about $3.896 million a year, but that number is inflated by Peterson's huge salary. A true reflection of the average for backs is what was doled out on the market.
While there is still great on-field value for running backs, it no longer translates into big money deals.
From the inbox
Q: Big Pats fan down here in Georgia. With this state being a huge college football base, I wonder if all the people wanting or thinking that college athletes should be paid realize the can of worms they would be opening as far as income tax issues go? If they are paid employees, wouldn't their scholarships be considered taxable? I am a parent of two, and am fortunate enough to have not had to pay tuition (scholarship paid for one and the other did four years and three deployments). I could go on a rant about which students deserve to be at the head of the line for college programs, but college athletes are coddled and way too pampered.
Dean in Monroe, Ga.
A: You raise great points. As an employee, the scholarship would probably be taxable along with the salary. I wonder if some of the extra food and amenities would count as benefits. All of a sudden, you might have an 18-year-old getting a tax bill for $60,000 or $70,000 of income and benefits. I would compare it to the servers at restaurants hoping to get a $15 an hour minimum salary. While the hourly raise would be great, it could come at the expense of tips. All of a sudden, a server making $300 a night might be making a lot less unless the restaurant gets tip credit. Plenty of stuff has to be figured out with this issue. College athlete deserve more, but getting too much too fast could be damaging.
Q: If the NFL is so concerned regarding player safety, why don't they allow all 53 players on the rosters to be active on game day? Won't this reduce the number of snaps a player would play? Also, since there is a salary cap, it is not going to cost the owners additional money or represent a competitive disadvantage. If a player gets hurt during a game, he is not likely to risk further injury since more backups are available.
Bob in San Mateo, Calif.
A: Good question. A lot of old-school owners believed it would be too much of a competitive advantage for a talented team that is healthy to have a 53-man roster against a less talented team with a lot of injuries. That thinking is outdated. At the very least, the league needs to have 49 players active. It's silly for teams to have only seven active offensive linemen because they have 46 active players. It's crazy to go into games with only four or five active wide receivers. I'm with you on this. If you pay them, play them.
Q: Can you talk about the fifth-year option a little? If the 49ers pick up Aldon Smith's option, when does it become guaranteed? Do they have some time to change their mind based on his behavior or recovery?
Greg in Portland, Ore.
A: First-rounders from the 2011 draft are the first to experience the fifth-year option. I went into that topic last week. Here's the way it works: The top 10 players from that draft can get a fifth-year option at the transition number (the average salary of the top 10 players at their positions in the previous year) if their team makes the designation by May 3. Players selected picks 11 through 32 are tendered at the average of the fourth through 25th highest-paid players at their positions. Here is another thing to understand: These offers are guaranteed only for injury. A team can pull the option before the start of the 2015 business year. That's why I'm a little surprised the 49ers might not put the fifth-year option on Smith, whose option price is $9.754 million. If Smith avoids suspension and has a 13-sack season, San Francisco would have to consider the franchise tag to keep him, which would be $3 million more than the option tag.
Q: Particularly when there is a relatively low-profile or low-cost signing in free agency (like Sidney Rice's one-year deal with the Seahawks this week), the contract details are very slow to come out. It seems reporters would be pining to get this information out to the public, but it seems to take days and days. Is this slow feed of contract specifics due more to journalistic lethargy, or is there some type of NFL-mandated precaution not to release this information too soon?
Miles in Seattle
A: The accurate number comes out the day after it's submitted to the NFL. Teams have to report their signings to the league offices by 4 p.m. ET each day, and a copy of the contract is sent to the players' association the next morning. Individual agents might leak out the number upon agreement, and that's why sometimes you get an immediate number. Rice's contract went out Friday afternoon. Because it was Good Friday, the contract details won't get out officially until Monday. From the beginning, we said it was probably a one-year deal at a little over $900,000.
Q: If teams are looking to draft a QB in the first round or two, why aren't more looking at AJ McCarron? He played in a pro-style offense with great talent around him and is a two-time national champion. Why is McCarron, who didn't get injured like Matt Barkley did his senior season, not the top QB or even among the top three QB prospects and barely in Kiper and McShay's lists this year when he could've easily been a top-five guy last year?
Landon in Aberdeen, S.D.
A: Good question. It could be because several teams have looked at past Alabama quarterbacks who didn't project well into the NFL and lumped in McCarron as just another one of those guys. That's wrong; he's better. McCarron is a winner and better than some of the game managers Nick Saban has had in the past. I compare McCarron to Cincinnati's Andy Dalton -- but maybe that's why there isn't a bigger buzz about him. Dalton went in the second round but has been to the playoffs three straight years. I'd be stunned if McCarron doesn't go that same round.
Q: Barring injury, I cannot see any team other than an NFC West team getting to the Super Bowl and I cannot see any team in the AFC beating them in a Super Bowl matchup. I think the last-placed team in our division may finish 9-7. The only two logical opponents to get to the Super Bowl are Denver and Patriots out of the AFC, and we both know those teams are soft. If anything was telling of the Super Bowl last year, it's you must not be intimidated by another team and the Broncos are still shell-shocked.
Matthew in Richmond, Va.
A: We are handicapping things in a similar way, but I think a division-winning NFC team outside the West could advance to the Super Bowl and win it all. I don't agree that the Broncos and Patriots are soft; I just consider them vulnerable. The AFC is now like the NFC when the AFC had more quality quarterbacks and, therefore, controlled the balance of power between the conferences. But you are right about the NFC West -- it's a beast.