With the recent holdouts of star running backs Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le’Veon Bell, the NFL world has witnessed running backs receive record-setting contracts. Players like Todd Gurley and Elliott have reset the market for star running backs, as superstars are now paid a premium at an increasingly-valued position. Unfortunately, NFL teams are making the mistake of paying a premium for running backs rather than saving that money for more valuable positions.
Why Melvin Gordon Isn’t Worth the Money
Melvin Gordon: Another Running Back Holdout
Melvin Gordon’s holdout has been highly publicized, as the Los Angeles Chargers have refused to meet his reported demands for around $13 million per year. While Gordon has been away from the Chargers, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson have held down the running back position in Los Angeles. Both are averaging over four yards per carry, and Ekeler has dominated as both a rusher and receiver to the tune of four touchdowns over their first two games.
This brings the question: do the Chargers even need Melvin Gordon? While they are 1-1 in two close contests to start the season, Gordon’s departure has had little effect on their record. Woes in the kicking game without the injured Michael Badgley kept them from overcoming the Detroit Lions in Week Two, and it was Ekeler who was the hero in Week One with a game-winning touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.
Coming out of Penn State, Saquon Barkley was viewed as a generational prospect. Thus, he was selected second overall to the New York Giants, over highly-touted quarterback prospects like Josh Allen and an elite offensive line prospect in Quenton Nelson. While many praised the Giants selection, the value of Barkley’s contract puts a negative spin on the pick. As a rookie, Barkley was immediately paid like a top-ten running back due to his draft slot. While Barkley certainly broke out as one of the leagues most dynamic backfield players, there were other players in his draft class who made massive contributions for far less money. While Barkley is certainly a top-ten running back in the NFL, he is earning more than Nelson, who was an All-Pro as a rookie and is certainly a top-tier offensive guard. However, Nelson is paid less than over 35 other offensive linemen simply due to draft slot.
One of the ways for NFL teams to get value out of the draft is to select players who play at a premium position and sign them for low, draft-slot contracts. This is why players like Nelson are considered underpaid for their position, while Barkley is instantly one of the highest paid rushers in the league. A way for NFL teams to take advantage of the draft is to take players at a valuable position like offensive line, quarterback, cornerback, or linebacker and sign them for far less than they would command on the open market. Running backs are not a premium position, and smart front offices take advantage of getting solid rushers for cheap contracts through the draft.
Take the New England Patriots selection of Sony Michel: he was paid just over a million dollars last season. Despite making a fraction of what Barkley earned, Michel put up nearly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns for the Super Bowl LIII champions in his rookie year. With the money saved on Michel, the Patriots were able to pay difference makers like Matthew Slater who ultimately assisted the team in their quest for their sixth ring. Michel put up some great numbers, but without the massive contract that players like Gordon command.
When it comes down to it, are running backs a premium position? For two straight seasons, perceived backup rushers have dominated when a superstar has held out. Last season, James Conner became a Pro Bowler with 13 total touchdowns in the absence of Le’Veon Bell. This year, the aforementioned Ekeler has been playing extremely well, with change-of-pace back Jackson averaging nearly nine yards per tote. While this production may not keep up, the question remains: are running backs worth over $10 million annually?
Jackson and Ekeler combing to earn just over one million dollars this season and have been incredibly productive in Gordon’s absence. By not paying Melvin Gordon the $13 million he commands, the Chargers can use this cap space to acquire a player like Jalen Ramsey, who plays at a premium position and would be an incredible addition to the Chargers secondary.
To put other running back contracts into perspective, Jerick McKinnon is being paid more than Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins this season, despite the fact that McKinnon has yet to play a snap since 2017 and Collins was a Pro Bowler last year. Jackson and Ekeler making a fraction of what Melvin Gordon commands just goes to show how having an elite running back is not nearly as valuable as having an elite cornerback or linebacker. The New York Giants secondary has been abysmal since Collins departed for the Washington Redskins, and the New York Jets were shredded last week without star linebacker C.J. Mosley.
To put it simply, running backs are not a premier position in the NFL. Missing a superstar running back is not nearly as important as missing a star at a premier position. This has been exposed over the past two years, as the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed afloat for most of the season without Bell and the Chargers backfield hasn’t missed a beat without Melvin Gordon. Not only is Gordon not worth a massive contract, but no star running back is worth over $10 million per season.
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