NFL Stars Hold Abrupt Players-Only Meeting: Frustrations Rising Around Financial State of Key Position

For NFL fans over the age of 30, it’s not that hard to remember an era where running backs were gridiron kings. As recently as the early-to-late 2000s, the NFL celebrated running backs like perennial MVP candidates LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson. Even the star running backs who never sniffed MVP contention weren’t just good, they were great players like Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Curtis Martin and Eddie George. Go back a little further and the running back dominance was even more pronounced. Legendary players like Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, and yes, even Orenthal James Simpson, were featured acts (if not the act) of their respective teams. Fast forward to 2023? There probably isn’t a less valued position than running back — and the star backs in the league needed to air their grievances out about it in a players-only Zoom call. A large contingency of NFL running backs attended a Zoom call for the purpose of discussing, according to ESPN, “the depressed market for players at their position.” The meeting was arranged by Los Angeles Chargers standout running back Austin Ekeler. The reported attendees of the meeting reads as a veritable who’s who of modern NFL running backs:

• Cleveland Browns All-Pro running back Nick Chubb.
• New York Giants two-time Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley.
• Tennessee Titans superstar running back and 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry.
• San Francisco 49ers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.
• Las Vegas Raiders All-Pro running back Josh Jacobs.

It’s unclear if any other running backs joined the emergency meeting, but even if nobody else did, the five aforementioned names (plus Ekeler) largely make up the consensus top six running backs in the league. If those guys are struggling to find contracts commensurate with their perceived value, then what chance do lesser players have? “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” Chubb said Sunday, per ESPN. “We’re kind of handcuffed with the situation. We’re the only position that our production hurts us the most. “If we go out there and run 2,000 yards with so many carries, the next year they’re going to say, you’re probably worn down. It’s tough. … It hurts us at the end of the day.” For the unaware, there has long been an unofficial (but largely true) rule that anytime a running back carries the football more than 300 times in a season, he will fall off the following season. Is there an element of “churn and burn” at the modern NFL running back position because of that unofficial rule? Without question. Since the days of Tomlinson, Peterson and Brown, teams have adopted a different philosophy when it comes to the position — namely, quantity over quality. The basic thinking is as follows: It’s far more prudent to have three above-average running backs (oftentimes with diversified skillsets) making $4 million each than a lone superstar running back making over $12 million a year, no matter how good that star is. Because of that mindset, teams have been incredibly loath to give running backs lucrative deals this year (it’s also why the average number of running backs drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft has rapidly dwindled.) Indeed, of that aforementioned “top six” NFL running backs, here’s where each player currently stands:
  • Ekeler is in the final year of his contract, which pays him a base salary of $6.25 million, per Spotrac. He is seeking a long-term extension.
  • Chubb is signed through the next two seasons at $10.85 million and $11.775 million, respectively, per Spotrac. ESPN notes that Chubb has no guaranteed money after this upcoming season.
  • Barkley and Jacobs have both received a franchise tender offer from their respective teams, but neither has signed yet. The franchise tender for running backs is worth $10.091 million.
  • Henry’s contract is the most complicated due to restructuring, but he is effectively in the final year of his contract that will pay him $10.5 million, per Spotrac.
  • McCaffrey, according to ESPN, is the highest-paid running back in the league, averaging over $16 million a year on a deal that runs through 2025.
While those salaries are positively exorbitant for non-athletes and professional hockey players, those figures do lack in comparison to their NFL peers — and downright pale in comparison to the mammoth contracts doled out in the NBA and MLB. Running back issues first began to noticeably bubble when a meme was shared by former NFL star Dez Bryant that claimed NFL kickers make more (on average) than running backs: Those numbers were confirmed by CBS Sports, painting a stark picture that kickers (a position that some, like sports pundit Skip Bayless, don’t even consider a real football position) are more valuable to NFL teams than running backs. That’s a crazy reality to grapple with, especially for NFL fans over the age of 30. Imagine making the case for why Martín Gramática deserves a more lucrative contract than fellow Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warrick Dunn back in 1999. And yet, as evidenced by this emergency zoom call of the NFL’s elite running backs, it does indeed appear to be a reality that’s settling in. This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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