By Bob Morris
(247 SPORTS) – Running back is a position that isn’t as highly coveted as it once was in the NFL. It’s a reason why many teams prefer to look for value when acquiring such players.
But with running backs, it’s not as simple as getting better value by drafting one. That all depends at what point you draft a running back.
The Denver Broncos are one of the teams that isn’t committing a lot of money to the running back position this season. They were committing a fair amount of money when C.J. Anderson was on the roster, but when the Broncos cut him prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, they were free of the $4.5M base salary he was to receive.
That left the Broncos with two running backs and one fullback taken on day three of previous drafts. Then, during the 2018 Draft, they selected a running back on day two, one on day three and signed one undrafted rookie.
As a result, the Broncos are committing hardly any dollars to the running back position. Here are the backs currently on the roster — five traditional running backs and one fullback — and their average salaries per year.
Royce Freeman: $864,255
Devontae Booker: $680,848
David Williams: $638.945
De’Angelo Henderson: $636,291
Andy Janovich: $626,077
Phillip Lindsay: $575,000
It’s worth noting that the salaries for Williams and Henderson aren’t that much less than the salary for Booker. Part of this is because the salary cap increased from 2016 to 2017, and again to 2018. When the salary cap increased, so did the rookie pay scale and, thus, the salaries for each player depending on what round they were taken.
But it shouldn’t surprise most Broncos fans that Freeman will get the highest average-per-year (APY) salary because he was drafted earlier than any other back on the roster. It’s tough to compare their salaries to those of other running backs, though, because the rookie pay scale means the player will get the salary in accordance with his position and the round he was drafted. However, one might think they are in line with what a veteran player signed for depth should get.
Is that the case? A quick check of running back salaries shows that, for example, veteran running back Stevan Ridley is getting $790,000 on a one-year deal he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another veteran back, Alfred Blue, will receive $880,000 on a one-year deal with the Texans. So it would be fair to say that the salaries for the Broncos running backs are comparable to a veteran depth player.
But what about the top running back salaries? Let’s look at the top-10 average-per-year salaries for NFL backs, regardless of whether they are on rookie or veteran contracts, and see what we can determine.
Le’Veon Bell: $14.5M
Devonta Freeman: $8.25M
LeSean McCoy: $8M
Saquon Barkley: $7.79M
Jerick McKinnon: $7.5M
Leonard Fournette: $6.7M
Lamar Miller: $6.5M
Ezekiel Elliott: $6.2M
Giovani Bernard: $5.1M
Carlos Hyde: $5.08M
Bell is playing under the franchise tag for the second straight year. Though one might argue he is the best running back in the NFL, it remains to be seen what his APY salary will look like should he sign an extension with the Steelers. If he doesn’t, the Steelers will have to ask if it’s worth using the tag for a third straight season, using the transition tag or just letting him walk.
Freeman signed his extension after coming off a strong 2016 season, but didn’t have as good of a year in 2017. McCoy signed his extension back in 2015, shortly after the Buffalo Bills traded for him. He will be 30 this year and, while he had a solid 2017 season, it’s fair to ask if he can keep playing at a high level and if the Bills might part ways with him after the season.
Then we come to three backs in which two are a lesson in the risks that come with taking a running back in the top-10. Leonard Fournette had a good rookie season, but wasn’t quite the game changer people thought he might be. Saquon Barkley hasn’t taken an NFL snap yet and is already ranked fourth in terms of APY salary.
In between is McKinnon, who the Niners overpaid on the theory that he would be a good fit for their offense. Perhaps McKinnon will break out, but until that happens, it’s easily the worst value contract among running backs.
After that, we find one running back under a rookie deal who proved to be a game changer as a rookie (Elliott) and three veterans. Two of the vets, Miller and Bernard, haven’t lived up to the extensions they signed. The other one, Hyde, is coming off two solid seasons but it remains to be seen if he can live up to the deal the Browns gave him this offseason.
In terms of veteran backs who represent good value, the Saints’ Mark Ingram didn’t appear to be good value at the time he signed his extension back in 2015, but he’s been productive the past two seasons. His teammate, Alvin Kamara, was a third-round pick in 2017 and was one of the top rookie running backs last season.