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  • The Steelers' running back couldn't agree on a long-term contract and will likely hit free agency in 2019, which doesn't bode well for the next wave of top running backs.
By Conor Orr
July 16, 2018

At 4:01 p.m. eastern on Monday, an underpaid collective of talented NFL running backs turned their eyes to the next generation in hopes of something better.

As the deadline passed on a long-term extension for Steelers dual threat star Le’Veon Bell, the grim reality of a running back market still slow to embrace total production and grant long-term stability hardened yet again. Bell, who accounted for more than 30% of Pittsburgh’s offense, nearly one-quarter of its touchdowns and 20% of its receptions over the previous two seasons, will play (or sit) the 2018 season under the franchise tag.

Whether or not Bell’s impending threats of training-camp absence or long-term sabbatical solve anything in the long run, the fact that time is running out on the offense-propelling running back is undeniable. And the ripple effect will continue into the next generation until RB values are realized.

If Todd Gurley does not get paid following his option year in 2019 than who will? When?

A look at all of the league’s talented running backs show players who are also effective slot receivers and blockers, but are still compensated at about 58% of the rate of their offensive counterparts. The average NFL running back makes about 25% of the average quarterback salary, 70% of an average wide receiver and 85% of an average tight end. Still, teams are taking chances—and benefitting—from a wave of next generation stars at the position. Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Gurley, Leonard Fournette, David Johnson and Christian McCaffrey have all helped transform the makeup of their collective franchises but still see significant roadblocks ahead, aside from the fact that most of their production will be bundled inside their rookie contract years anyway—a fact which continues to make teams nervous about the prospects of a long-term commitment.

Gurley, for example, is still under team control through 2019 and will be 25 by the time he’s eligible for free agency or the franchise tag. In terms of running back mileage, that could mean another 600 carries between now and payday. All the while, he’ll be competing against the cap-crippling potential of a Jared Goff extension, a long-term Marcus Peters deal or a new Brandin Cooks contract in addition to whatever Aaron Donald ends up commanding. Wouldn’t it be far easier for the Rams to simply play out the string like the Steelers have with Bell?

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Johnson, despite coming in striking distance of a 1,000-1,000 season in 2016, sustained a wrist injury in the first game of the 2017 season and was out for the remainder of the year. Without Bruce Arians or a close-to-prime Carson Palmer on the field this year, Arizona’s offensive numbers will likely take a dip, meaning that Johnson will either be ridden heavily or fall off a bit as the Cardinals decide what a scheme powered by Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen looks like. He won’t be out of team control until after this season, but he will be 27 years old before reaching the open market.

In nearly each and every scenario, there is a grim counterweight to the stellar production.

All of this leads to the brick wall into which everyone at the position has been smashing: Either continue accepting deals below what their production dictates, or continue to risk long-term injury for a high-end, one-year deal that more adequately matches up with the talent. Blanket positional guidelines, which teams have used to muzzle salaries for breakout players in the past—Jimmy Graham is still just a tight end, not a receiver. Victor Cruz is only a slot receiver and not an outside threat—are still incredibly effective, even if players like Johnson double their receiving output from Year One to Year Two, or triple it between their first and third seasons, like Gurley.

Falcons’ Devonta Freeman is currently the league’s highest-paid running back at an average of $8,250,000 per season. Then comes a 30-year-old LeSean McCoy, whose long-term health and placement on teams that relied heavily on his services has been nothing short of remarkable over the past decade.  Beyond that, it seems, the safest bet is to have a generational college career and secure your spot as a top 10 pick in the NFL draft. For players like Elliott and Fournette, it still doesn’t match the total production, but at least for a few years, you know where the check is coming from—or that it’s coming at all.

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