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HomeinvestmentDid Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs deals signal change in way NFL values...

Did Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs deals signal change in way NFL values RBs?

Though it might have taken longer than anticipated for a couple of the NFL’s top running backs, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs, to secure long-term contracts, their deals didn’t necessarily result in a market correction for the position as a whole.
It seems for at least a brief moment this offseason, the negotiating power swung in their favor, and they capitalized — Barkley with a three-year, $37.7 million deal ($26 million guaranteed) with the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacobs with a four-year, $48 million deal ($12.5 million guaranteed) with the Green Bay Packers.
But unlike the league’s premium positions, at which the price tags have risen annually, running backs still haven’t met the value of the bigger pacts from a few years ago.
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The San Francisco 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey ($16 million) and New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara ($15 million) still pace the position in average annual value, and both of their contracts were signed in 2020. Jonathan Taylor, who secured his new deal with the Indianapolis Colts last season after a trade request, ranks third at $14 million annually. Beyond that, it was the first time in two years a running back had signed a multiyear extension worth at least $10 million annually.
Barkley ($12.6 million), Nick Chubb ($12.2 million) and Jacobs ($12 million) are the only others averaging north of $10 million, and Barkley and Jacobs found their deals in free agency.
For comparison, nine running backs in 2023 were playing on contracts worth more than $10 million annually, although Jacobs and Barkley negotiated slight raises from their franchise numbers and Tony Pollard played on his tag.
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Eight running backs in 2022 were on deals worth at least $12 million, but that’s when the shift started. McCaffrey was traded midseason, Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook were released after the season and Aaron Jones took a pay cut. Eight running backs in 2021 also had deals worth at least $12 million, and it was seven in 2020.
Though a drop to six $12 million backs in 2024 isn’t necessarily a massive shift, the combination of the timing and circumstances is noteworthy. Taylor, Barkley and Jacobs held out last summer with the hope of revitalizing the running backs market, especially with free agency on the horizon.
“I’m surprised they got paid,” said an NFL executive, granted anonymity so he could speak openly about the market. “I didn’t see anything to alter recent history this offseason.”
In 2022, Jacobs led the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage, and Barkley finished in the top five in each category. Both were first-round draft picks still in the prime of their careers, and they couldn’t get more than a pay bump from their original teams.
Last month, both had to find new destinations to get better deals. As the contracts around the league have shown, they weren’t able to raise the tide around them. Rather, they continued to be the exceptions at the position.
“For select guys like Barkley, it’s about adding a piece to win the whole thing,” a coach said of the Eagles’ addition. “I think it’ll go back to being the relatively lowest-paid spot.”
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Barkley, Jacobs and Taylor all missed a few games last season due to injuries, which doesn’t help alleviate teams’ greatest concern with that position. Generally speaking, relying too heavily upon one back, financially and on the field, is viewed as a gamble for injury reasons. All things being equal, teams would prefer a budget-conscious approach and a backfield rotation to keep the offense in rhythm if a player goes down.
“(All the) more reason to continue (conducting business) as is, being that the two main drivers who received the tag last year didn’t stay healthy,” an executive said.
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There was one slight shift in the position’s favor, though. Derrick Henry ($8 million annually), D’Andre Swift ($8 million), Pollard ($7.25 million) and Jones ($7 million) all boosted the upper-middle class.
In 2023, there was a gap between the $10 million backs and James Conner, who ranked 10th in average annual value at $7 million. Now, 12 backs are earning at least $7 million, and there’s no longer such a void between the upper and middle class at the position.
Barring some type of major swing in player leverage, the recent trend makes it seem unlikely top backs will again routinely command $15 million annually. But if they can maintain their value in the upper-middle tier, it should help the financial depth of the position as a whole.
Of course, quarterbacks have set the bar from a financial perspective, and wide receivers, edge rushers and cornerbacks have also continued to one-up each other in the race to get paid.
In 2020, 10 quarterbacks played on deals worth at least $30 million annually, but there will be at least 16 at that number in 2024, including a dozen at the $40 million mark. At receiver, four players were making an average of $20 million in 2020, but there are 16 who are set to hit that bar in 2024.
At edge rusher, the $20 million players jumped from five in 2020 to 12 in 2024. There were two $19 million cornerbacks in 2020, compared with eight now. At offensive tackle, there were two $20 million players in 2020 but 13 now.
The point is, teams have adjusted their payrolls to better reflect the modern strategies of the game. And surely, though the salary cap has increased over the years, it’s still telling that the financial dynamics have evolved with passing-specific positions as the running backs’ contracts have deteriorated.
It was still a beneficial offseason stretch for running backs, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for an about-face in teams’ financial investments. The league’s elite haven’t been pulling in the same contracts as they had been several years ago.
(Photos of Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley: Kirby Lee and Kyle Ross / USA Today)



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