Packers fans have been quipping that the running back is the most fungible position in the NFL; I’ve said it, my colleagues here on the blog have said it and tons of you have said it in your comments (yes we do read your comments). In truth, it’s an easy thing for Packers fans to say simply because the Packers aren’t the type of team that revolves around running the ball; with Mike McCarthy at the helm, Aaron Rodgers behind center and Ted Thompson on top of the front office, the Packer’s have been a pass-first, pass-second, run as an afterthought type of franchise.
On the flip side, ask any Minnesota Vikings fans what they think about the running game and I’m sure you’ll get a completely different response. Outside of a miraculous 2009 season, there hasn’t been much for Vikings fans to hang their hat on; sure the defense has been occasionally good but their football identity is running the ball with Adrian Peterson. However Peterson is a once in a generation type of player and the simple fact is that running backs are not very valuable in the NFL; they’re production has plateaued lower than their receiving counterparts, the massive toll playing the position takes on their body and future production and the shift from the workhorse back to the running back by committee approach means you don’t need to find a running back that can do it all. As a result, less and less running backs are being drafted, especially in the first round.
Packer’s fans might just have to start rethinking about the value of the running back position as the Packers might have a real star on their roster with Eddie Lacy in green and gold. While Lacy was a godsend for the Packers last year and was essentially the offense while Aaron Rodgers recovered from his broken clavicle, Lacy was paid a mere $405,000 for perhaps the best season a running back has had since Ahman Green in his heyday. Keep in mind this is after winning rookie of the year honors; when Charles Woodson won defensive player of the year honors in 2010, the Packers responded by giving him a huge increase in pay even though he still had plenty of years left on his contract.
The dichotomy is that running backs like Lacy are at they most productive essentially right out of the gate and yet their earning potential is also at it’s lowest; I’ve been quite vocal that I’m not convinced Eddie Lacy gets a second contract from the Packers simply due to his running style and the sheer amount of punishment his body has already taken. Had Lacy been healthy his per game averages would have put him at 349 carries, which is getting dangerously close to the “curse of 370″ that football outsiders preaches .
Keep in mind news coming out of Green Bay sounds like Lacy will be given a bigger workload this year and that Lacy only needs about 1 extra attempt per game to hit this mark. Simply put, Lacy should be paid at market value, meaning well now and not later when his effectiveness starts to wain; you only have to look at the situation with Marshawn Lynch and Seattle to see the inherent issue. Lynch is the lynch pin of the Seattle offense and just won the Super Bowl and yet the Seahawks have been bullish in not giving into his contract demand because of his age (29) and the number of punishment.
Unfortunately, rookies were thrown under the bus by the NFLPA during their last round of negotiations during the lockout and now rookies are stuck making less money than before but are playing a more vital role in the NFL as it becomes an increasingly young man’s sport. While this is essentially a problem for all rookies, its obviously compounded with running backs. I’ve thought about possible solutions to the matter and frankly there isn’t an easy fix:
Provide shorter contracts for running backs – An opinion piece on NFPost essentially highlighted the same issues with running backs and proposed that running backs be allowed to sign shorter contracts or at least a specialized rookie contract since their shelf life is so short. This is a slippery slope in my opinion since the shelf life of all NFL players is exceedingly short and its hard to rationalize why running backs should get preferential treatment when cornerbacks for instance (another position with a relatively short career life) do not. Also I feel that this would actually hurt the earning potential of running backs on the whole, while the superstar running backs would indeed be able to cash in earlier while their production is at their peak, it also would likely shorten the already short careers of average running backs even further. The NFL would like fight against this as well since they want to lock their young talent to team friendly contracts for as long as possible.
Allow 1st round rookies to void the 5th year option – While this doesn’t apply to Lacy specifically since as a 2nd round pick he doesn’t have a 5th year option, it does seem quite apparent that even the 5th year option does not make up for the huge discrepancy of pay in a rookies contract (Just look at JJ Watt). This might be tied to performance clauses where if a player hit certain “superstar” metrics (20+ sacks, 2,000 yards rushing/receiving etc) the player can choose to void his 5th year option. While this is likely a great idea for players there really is no reason why the NFL would agree to something like this.
Allow rookies to renegotiate their contracts early – Another great idea for the players that the NFL would never agree upon. It is however an interesting concept that it is quite standard for veterans to go to their GMs and ask for a pay raise after a good season (just as it’s common for GMs to go to players and ask for a pay cut for a bad season) and yet players on their rookie contracts are not given the same option. Obviously NFL teams don’t want to set precedent essentially disregarding the rookie salary cap that they fought to implement so I highly doubt they would agree upon this possibility.
Allow market forces to correct for themselves – In a pseudo lassez faire market that is the NFL, sooner or later teams will figure out positional value and adjust accordingly. One prime example is with safeties, who for the longest time were considered less important than cornerbacks and were often paid considerably less. However as the NFL became more pass happy safeties became increasingly important to the point where Eric Berry because the highest paid safety simply by being drafted 5th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. The concept is that as the NFL continues to devalue the running back position and teams increasingly focus on defending against the pass, running backs will offer a more attractive value and thus will be selected higher, thus at least earning more. However, it’s impossible to predict exactly what the NFL will look like in the future and it’s very possible that running backs could end up like fullbacks, morphing from focal point on the offense to the point that some NFL teams don’t even carry a single fullback on their roster.
Incentivize rookie contracts – This is a staple of veteran contracts, namely if a player hits a certain threshold of production, his base salary increases in lockstep with his performance. Rookie contracts do have some incentives written in, David Bakhtiari for instance received nearly a quarter million dollars for starting at left tackle throughout last season. This in my mind is the best solution, teams get their investments locked up for the long term but it allows players to at least get some more value out of performing early. However, how incentives would factor into the rookie pay scale, how much total extra money players could gain with incentives and whether or not incentives would all be the same for rookie contracts are definitely hurdles.
In the end, the Packers are an organization that tries to keep it’s players happy; they know that happy players who are compensated appropriately are likely to display more team loyalty and thus will have more incentive to stay with the organization. It doesn’t do Eddie Lacy or the Packers organization any good if Lacy continues to have a fantastic career at a cheap price, only to hit the market at demand the moon since Lacy knows he has to maximize his value on his second contract. From the Packers perspective I think it would be easier to pay Lacy more now and even out the cap hit as opposed to paying him cheap and then have to fork over a ton of cash when Lacy demands top 5 running back money should they decide to resign him (again presuming his career mirrors his rookie season). It is a tricky subject to answer and if anyone has any suggestions write them in the comments below.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.