Why are teams still paying running backs?

NY Daily News

I thought this article didn’t need to be written. I thought that everyone was in agreement that a running back shouldn’t be one of the highest paid players on a team. I guess not. In the 2020 NFL offseason, we saw 5 running backs sign multiyear deals each with an average annual value (AAV) of over $10 million per year. Headlining this list was Alvin Kamara who signed at 5 years for $75 million, Christian McCaffrey at 4 for $64 million, and Dalvin Cook at 5 for $63 million. 2019 saw Ezekiel Elliot sign 6 for $90 million and Le’Veon Bell sign 4 for $52 million. I’m not arguing that these aren’t some of the best running backs in the league. In this post I will show that running back’s don’t have the same value as other positions and the difference between the #1 and #2 running backs on each team isn’t as big as you would think.

If you read my previous article, you saw that the salaries for NBA players skews left on a histogram, meaning that there are far more lower priced contracts than higher priced. It’s the same thing with NFL running backs. The bins here are in $1.5 million increments.

For the 2019 regular season, using Football Reference, I looked at the top 50 running backs for scrimmage yards. Of these, the mean salary was $2.58 million, and the median was only $1.75 million, showing that a few very high salaries skew the mean upwards. The mean for 2020 will go up even more, as many running backs signed contracts for multiple times what they were making before. Logic would say that the more you pay for a running back, the more production you would expect. The scatterplot doesn’t show much of a correlation. Of the 8 running backs who had over 1,500 yards, 5 of them earned under $2 million. Of the 26 backs with over 1,000 yards, 16 of them earned under $2 million. That means 60% of the top running backs earned under $2 million… and teams are now signing backs to more 5-8 times that amount?

Not only is the running back position deep, but their peak years tend to be the first few. Looking at the top 50 running backs in 2019 by scrimmage yards, 74% of them were 26 or younger. Of those 50, the average amount of scrimmage yards for ages 23-24 was 1,256 yards. For ages 29+ it was 888. Keep in mind that Le’Veon Bell signed his 4 year deal at age 27, likely with his best years behind him. This graph shows the average yards from scrimmage in 2019 for each age group.

In the NFL there is no universally accepted statistic to compare the value of players across different positions, like there is WAR for baseball. Here is a great article written by Eric Eater and George Chahrouri from Pro Football Focus, where they create a WAR statistic for NFL. This table, taken from page 11, shows the 13 MVP’s from 2006-2018, their WAR and where they ranked among all NFL players. The QB’s who won tended to be among the top in WAR rankings for the NFL that year. The running backs weren’t seen as valuable. 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson had the 137th ranked WAR, and 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson was ranked 113. If you remember how electric 2006 LT was, this puts in perspective truly how valuable (or not) a running back is. This data isn’t perfect, and as the authors mention it can be difficult to assign a value to each player where there are so many different moving parts in each game.

In my next analysis, I looked at 64 running backs- the top 2 for each team in the 2019 regular season. Each team had a higher paid back and a lower paid back. I compared the average data between the 32 team’s higher paid and lower paid runners. The 32 highest paid averaged 9.3 carriers per game for 4.17 yards per carry. Their average salary was $3.6 million. The lower paid back on each team rushed for an average of 9.1 carries per game, for an average of 4.46 yards per carry. Their average salary was $1 million. The lower paid backs have almost the same amount of carries, and an extra 0.29 yards per carry, and cost more than 3 times less.

I’m not saying that Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara’s backups would have the same production as them (although Mike Davis and Latavius Murray both had nice weeks!) However, many teams in 2019 relied on their lower priced backs. For 13 teams, their more inexpensive back got more carries than their higher priced counterpart. I understand that looking at carries or yards from scrimmage isn’t the only way to look at a player’s success, as they can have an impact on blocking, special teams and in the locker room. I would love to hear in the comments if anyone thinks these running back salaries are justified, as I am always open to another point of view.

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