Should running backs get paid more?

By Michael Voitek

“Just take the RB position out of the game”

This is a quote from Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, commenting on the low pay for running backs throughout the NFL. Henry, Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers) and more NFL running backs have come out saying that they are being robbed of money they should receive. Many are threatening to stop practicing and maybe even miss games until they get what they want. But how low are running backs getting paid?

A running backs franchise tag (franchise tag comes from averaging the top five salaries for each position from the previous year) is about $10 million where quarterbacks earn 29 million, and tight ends have an 11-million-dollar tag. The tag for running backs is the second lowest in the league, only ahead of kickers and punters. That’s quite shocking, considering that when you think of running backs, you think of them handling a large chunk of the offense, like a Derrick Henry who handles most of the work for the Titans (he gets paid 12.5 million/year, his quarterback, Ryan Tannehill gets 29.5 million/year).

At this point, you’re probably getting your pitchforks ready to storm Roger Goodell’s office and get your favorite running back more money, but, in the words of television football analyst Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.

When you take a look at the last 20 years of running backs on a team that won the Super Bowl, there have been only three, yes you heard that three, that have been selected for the Pro Bowl. Those three were Corey Dillon (Cincinnati Bengals, 2004), Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens, 2012), and Marshawn Lynch (Seattle Seahawks, 2013). So, if you look at the last 10 years, there has not been a single Super Bowl team that had a Pro Bowl running back on the roster. This speaks to the changing of the game. Football is no longer hand it off for two downs and then hope your quarterback can convert on third down. The game now is keeping the ball in the hands of your quarterback as much as possible. Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens), Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles), and Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) can all essentially do what a running back can do with their legs (there were five quarterbacks with over 700 rushing yards last year), but they also give you the chance to pass the ball, so why not have more options?

Most teams now have a system of paying a few running backs less money and having a running back by committee approach, which keeps fresh legs on the field, reduces the chance for injury and saves them money. It works, as seen by the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, NewEngland Patriots and Los Angeles Rams over the last six years.

You might say running backs put people in the seats, but do they? Last year, not a single running back was in the top 10 for jersey sales.

The fact is, the game has changed, and the pay is changing with it. Could you make an argument for higher pay for a select few like Henry or Ekeler, sure, but the smart approach as shown by Super Bowl winning teams is doing running back by committee and paying your quarterback!

We’ll see what happens in 2023, but signing your kid up to be a running back might not be the best financial decision these days.

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