If I was a parent with a kid playing football right now I’d make sure that kid has skills to play positions other than running back. Diversify your portfolio, young men. Until this problem is fixed becoming a running back is absolutely foolish.

I touched on this a ways back in March, but the running back contract problem got renewed discourse when the contract deadline passed and Saquon/Josh Jacobs didn’t have new deals. The actual players started to chime in and give their thoughts on the matter. Austin Ekeler went off. Derrick Henry actually said words. Saquon eventually did sign his franchise tender but he’s headed for the same situation again next year. Runningbacks have a problem.

If you don’t really understand the concept of a systemic problem, the runningback problem is pretty much a perfect example. The problem, on paper: Runningbacks are not getting paid. They are not valued. So, why not?

-The rookie wage scale. I was in favor of this when it first came into the league because Sam Bradford making 40 million before playing a snap seemed absurd but I had no idea what kind of widespread effects it would have and I think it’s been a horrible development for players. RBs get rookie contracts, and the rookie contracts are 4 to 5 years long.
-The shelf life of RBs. Of course, as is well known now, RBs don’t have a long shelf life. They get hit pretty much every play they participate in. So by the end of their rookie contract, they are nearing the end of their productive years. For most positions, they mature through those rookie contract years. 25-29 is generally considered the prime for most positions. Not RBs. With all that damage they fall off a cliff, and so by the time they are up for that second contract, they have all kinds of red flags and are on the downside of production. What team is going to pay good money at that point?
-This incentivizes the teams to essentially run RBs into the ground while they are cheap. If you have a gifted RB like Saquon, you get him the ball as much as possible. You abuse the shit out of him and then discard him or franchise him when his payment is due.
-Of course, as teams discovered in the past decade, you can also get a fair amount of the production from a late-round running back who isn’t quite as good, or an RB committee. So that just further devalues the position if you can instead invest in other positions and throw bodies from the 6th round at the wall.
-RBs don’t control teams anymore. The old days used to have the bell-cow back you ran your entire team around and losing that back was devastating. Not anymore. Now teams have lots of dudes they can shove in there to play the role in more pass-happy offenses. Derrick Henry is arguably the only current FRANCHISE BACK we have, whose very presence can drag a team into the playoffs, and he’s fading too. Saquon never got the Giants anywhere until this season when Daniel Jones finally stopped being a dope. Josh Jacobs didn’t save the Raiders from hell. Christian McCaffrey never got the Panthers anywhere on his back despite his talent.
-Teams have no incentive to pay these guys after all this. Why would you pay for a position that breaks early and can be easily replaced (to a decent degree)? Having a top QB and WR is more valuable in today’s NFL. RBs are like pawns you can shove out there for cheap, and the good ones are still cheap and you can just franchise them into oblivion if you need to. They can’t hold out, look at what happened to Le’Veon Bell. They have no leverage. It is a good, smart business move to not pay any RB top dollar.

So what the hell can be done to fix this? I’ve seen a few ideas, like making the franchise tag apply to “skill positions” equally, so it counts towards WRs and RBs the same. But I think that might just devalue the other positions and make WRs cheaper. The rookie wage scale getting repealed would be great, but the NFL’s union is terrible and doesn’t have a chance at repealing something that owners are in favor of. Maybe they could make the rookie contracts shorter so that RBs have a chance to hit the market while still in their prime? They can’t do anything that only positively affects the contracts of one specific position because that’s not fair to other positions. Runningbacks are in a terrible place right now, and I feel bad for them. Teams still recognize that a good RB has value, but they know they can get away with abusing that ability in the window before they get paid. Bijan Robinson is probably going to be awesome in the Falcons running game and by the time he gets a chance to get paid for it he might be dead.

If I had a kid, or if I was still a kid and had a chance to develop my football skills, I’d try to be a punter. Not a ton of high-level competition, you can get paid a decent salary compared to the average American, very little contact compared to most positions, and the pressure isn’t nearly as high as it is for placekickers. Being a punter is a sweet gig.