When will NFL teams learn to stop spending big on running backs?
Let's call it the Todd Gurley puzzle.
As the Los Angeles Rams rolled through the NFL in 2017, fans and executives alike identified Gurley as the driving force behind the offense.
So do the Rams. In the summer leading up to the 2018 season, the Rams signed a four-year deal with Gurley worth $ 60 million that reset the running back market. He appeared to be locked up as a franchise player for years after finishing second behind Tom Brady in the 2017 MVP voting.
Three years later, Gurley is no longer with the Rams. It's now a cautionary story about what not to do with returns.
This is no mean feat to Gurley. He had an arthritic knee in college that caused production to decline as he got older, but it's an honest assessment of the state of the position and why paying second contracts for running backs is a mistake.
This is not just a Gurley problem. As of 2019, Gurley, David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Lamar Miller, Devonta Freeman, and Ezekiel Elliot were the highest-paid running backs in the NFL. Only Elliot and Bell stay on the same teams a year later, and no player on the list led their teams to the playoffs last season.
Gurley, Freeman and Fournette were all released from their respective organizations after 2019 due to the lack of production and their exhaustive costs not being covered. Johnson was also traded after the Arizona Cardinals dropped out, and that deal was a major reason why Bill O’Brien was fired from the Houston Texans last week.
At the other end of the scale, teams found it increasingly important to run back from unannounced players. Chris Carson finished the Seattle Seahawks as a top 5 player and his salary for 2019 was less than $ 1 million. The two second rounds in the Super Bowl for Kansas City and San Francisco - Raheem Mostert and Damien Williams - both made the league minimum close. Mostert was vacant and jumping through the league while Williams signed off the streets as a free agent who was on multiple teams prior to landing in Kansas City.
The same trend has continued through 2020.
The Carolina Panthers made Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid player in NFL history, signing a $ 64 million extension last April. He's an elite talent that fits the modern game, but as great as McCaffrey is, he doesn't help Carolina win games.
According to SB Nation's Geoff Schwartz, the Panthers franchise has 15 games in its career with more than 10 receiving targets, and the team is 1-14 during those games. He has five games over 100 yards and the team is 0-5 over that distance.
The Panthers were 5-11 in McCaffrey's breakout season last year. They are 2-0 with him in the line-up this year and 2-0 without him. There is no doubt that Carolina could make better use of her resources. Mike Davis, a veteran street free agent playing in the league minimum, has delivered a quality production since McCaffrey was injured and the offense has been more productive overall.
The same problem occurs in Minnesota. Dalvin Cook leads the NFL in a rush but the Vikings are 1-3 and last in the NFC Nord with a decreasing offensive line. Cook signed a new contract worth $ 12 million a year ahead of the season.
Cook and McCaffrey are fantastic players individually, but there is no evidence that handing out big money to running backs correlates with winning on the field. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case as contracts become prohibitive.
After spending $ 15 million a season on Gurley, the Rams couldn't afford to keep security guard Roger Safford, who is still a good starter in Tennessee. As a result, the Rams' offensive line worsened, which ironically led to Gurley's own production dropping dramatically. This year, the Rams are far more productive in the game without Gurley.
The Jaguars also seem to have learned their lesson after switching from Fournette, a top 5 draft pick, in 2017. In his absence, rookie James Robinson, an unknown player who stepped into the season, was far more efficient than Fournette's previous years at a fraction of the cost.
Not only do running backs have short shelf life due to physical position, teams are better off allocating resources to areas that affect passing - as advanced analysis shows, which are more likely to correlate with winning - and players who maintain their performance get older like offensive linemen or defensive backs. A better line of scrimmage makes the ball easier to run regardless of who is running back.
Business leaders need to learn from cases like Gurley and make better informed team building decisions going forward.
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