Veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew finally got his long-awaited crack at the open market in 2014.
And his new contract pays, on average, little more than half of what he made in the final year of a contract with the Jaguars that prompted a lengthy (and ultimately unsuccessful) holdout in 2012.
But Jones-Drew doesn’t believe there has been a fundamental change in the tailback market.
“There was no one proven on the free-agent market but me, and I am 29,” Jones-Drew recently told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am 29, coming off a major foot injury, and people say I had a bad year, ‘He’s done.’
“I don’t think the running back position has been devalued. It’s the toughest position in the league, and people saw again last year in the playoffs how important the running game is. Running the ball is all that matters.”
While the running game arguably takes on greater importance in the postseason, it’s hardly “all that matters.” Regardless of the extent to which it matters, the performance of LeGarrette Blount against the Colts in prime-time on a Saturday night should have gotten him a lot more on the open market than a deal that averages less than $2 million per year in Pittsburgh, if the position hasn’t been devalued.
It’s important to agree on what “devalued” means in this context. The position itself remains valuable. The men who play it, however, have increasingly become viewed as interchangeable in recent years. First-round running backs will be fewer and farther between. Top-10 tailbacks will be a thing of the past, especially after the Browns’ misadventures with Trent Richardson.
Ditto for big-money free agents. The truly great running backs typically won’t become free agents until the tread has flown off the tires. Which means that the only young tailbacks available in free agency typically will be guys who have yet to get a full and fair chance to show they can carry the load.
Jones-Drew specifically mentioned Ben Tate and Toby Gerhart when pointing out that their lack of experience translates to a lack of significant compensation.
“Why would a team give them a bunch of money?” Jones-Drew said. “I guarantee the money will go back up for running backs next year. It’s just a down year.”
Jones-Drew’s remarks overlook the fact that Chris Johnson, one of the very best running backs in the league over the last six seasons, had minimal serious suitors and ultimately got only $4 million per year on a two-year deal in New York. Those figures confirm that the market currently is bad for veteran tailbacks, and that it will stay that way.
Not because running backs aren’t important. But because there are plenty of guys flooding the market every year, as rookies and as veterans, who will move the chains if the offensive line blocks for them.
Like anything else, it’s about supply and demand. Despite the physical demands of playing the position, the supply of guys who can do it exceeds the number of available positions. And so only a very small handful will get huge money — and that likely won’t last for very long for any of them.