It could be argued that the best contract in history for an NFL player was the three-year, $2.1 million deal O.J. Simpson got from the Buffalo Bills in the 1970s.
It doesn’t sound like much today but at the time, it was close to double the salary of the second highest-paid player in the league, New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning.
While Simpson was making $733,000 a year, Manning was making in the $400,000 to $450,000 range.
Never again will there be that much of a difference between the two highest-paid players.
And it is likely again that no running back will ever be the highest-paid player in the league.
Running backs are now devalued. Teams are reluctant to give them big second contracts.
The Los Angeles Rams made Todd Gurley the highest-paid running back in the league last year at $14 million per season and he had knee problems at the end of the year. He was a non-factor in the Super Bowl and was replaced by C.J. Anderson, who rushed for over 100 yards in the last two regular-season games and the playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The Rams then released Anderson, and he is now in Detroit — his fourth team in the last two years.
The Rams are counting on Gurley to rebound. NFL running backs have to be rooting for him, too, so that he isn’t used as an example of why giving running backs a big deal can backfire.
Teams are now figuring they can replace a running back with a younger player.
The Cowboys did that with DeMarco Murray, replacing him with Ezekiel Elliott instead of giving Murray a big contract.
And now Elliott is going into his fourth season and also hasn’t gotten a new deal. Yahoo Sports reports he is thinking of holding out. Elliott is due to make $3.85 million.
Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers, who is due to make $5.6 million, has already announced he will be holding out.
Last year, Le’Veon Bell held out the entire season in Pittsburgh, although not many players will do that. Especially since Bell cost himself $14 million from the franchise tag last year.
And the Steelers did just fine with James Conner replacing Bell, although Bell’s holdout was likely a distraction and the Steelers probably should have let him leave a year ago.
Regardless of whether Gordon and/or Elliott get new contracts, it won’t change the fact that running back is no longer a premium-paid position.
It will be interesting to see if Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants can get a big deal in two to three years.
But the fact is that only three running backs are currently making more than $8 million a year. By contrast, 28 wide receivers are.
And even though salaries keep going up, the second-, third- and fourth-highest paid running backs in career earnings – Edgerrin James at $69 million, Reggie Bush at $63 million and Emmitt Smith at $61 million – are retired. Adrian Peterson, who is nearing the end of his career, is tops at almost $99 million.
As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, this trend isn’t likely to change.
This is not the best era for running backs.