Under The Cap
FO's Salary Cap Analyst looks at the economics of the NFL

Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.I. Halsell

Last week, we started off our weekly analysis of the biggest contracts by position with the most lucrative position in the sport: quarterback. This week, we examine the top ten starter contracts at the running back position.

Keeping in mind that this analysis is ranking only those players who are starters for their respective teams. It is interesting that the most lucrative contract at running back does not even belong to a starter. New Orleans running back Reggie Bush's 2006 rookie contract has an average per year value of $8.75 million; the player that Bush backs up, Pierre Thomas, ranks 32nd among starters, with an average per year value of $373,333 on a contract that he signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Illinois. Bush also leads all running backs with a guarantee of $26.25 million; slightly ahead of Oakland's Darren McFadden, who has a guarantee of $26.04 million. The Bush and McFadden contracts once again illustrate how lucrative contracts given to the top three picks of the draft are relative to those contracts paid to veterans.

In looking at the two marquee running back contracts signed this most recent offseason -- those signed by the Giants' Brandon Jacobs and Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew -- one will notice that both players' contracts expire before the player turns 30. It has been widely documented that there is a greater likelihood of diminished performance as running backs turn 30 and older. With this in mind, it appears that the Giants and Jaguars, by limiting the term of these contracts, are trying to refrain from over-compensating a player who has hit the proverbial running back wall.

In last week's analysis of quarterbacks, we brought attention to Drew Brees' ranking among quarterbacks (17) in average per year. Just as Brees is currently one of the most prolific passers in the game, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is one of the best, possibly the best, running backs in the league. Coincidentally, Peterson also ranks 17th in average per year, with a value of $3.71 million. Peterson's contract expires after the 2011 season (assuming there is a 2011 season, given the possibility of a lockout), and he, based his outstanding productivity early in his career, could be in line for an extension as soon as after the 2009 season. If Peterson were to receive an extension, he has clearly made a resounding argument for becoming the highest paid running back in the game. Based upon the current top ten starting running back contracts, Peterson could potentially expect an average per year deal in excess of $10 million per year and a guarantee per year in excess of $6 million per year. On a five year deal, using those numbers, Peterson could, conservatively, sign a $50 million extension with $30 million guaranteed.

Speaking of guaranteed money, the top three starting running back guarantees are (not including Bush's amount): McFadden, $26.04 million; the Rams' Steven Jackson, $20.5 million; and the Chiefs' Larry Johnson, $19 million. Maruice Jones-Drew's $4.36 million guarantee per year, however, leads all starting running backs.

Here are the top ten starting running back contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Running Back Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
Prev. Year
1 Johnson, Larry KC 27 8/22/2007 5 $19.0m $3.8m 44.0% $43.2m $8.6m $22.5m 5
2 Jackson, Steven STL 25 8/21/2008 5 $20.5m $4.1m 47.6% $43.1m $8.6m $23.6m 36
3 Westbrook, Brian PHI 28 8/11/2008 6 $11.5m $1.9m 23.2% $49.5m $8.3m $19.5m 1
4 Tomlinson, LaDainian SD 25 8/13/2004 6 $16.5m $2.8m 34.5% $48.0m $8.0m $25.3m 2
5 Portis, Clinton WAS 26 3/3/2008 6 $9.33m $1.6m 20.2% $46.1m $7.7m $19.4m 26
6 Jones-Drew, Maurice JAC 24 4/15/2009 4 $17.5m $4.36m 57.2% $30.5m $7.6m $25.5m 18
7 McFadden, Darren OAK 20 6/6/2008 6 $26.0m $4.3m 62.0% $42.0m $7.0m $27.5m --
8 Gore, Frank SF 23 3/3/2007 4 $13.7m $3.4m 49.5% $27.6m $6.9m $18.2m 8
9 Barber, Marion DAL 24 5/20/2008 7 $16.0m $2.3m 35.6% $45.0m $6.4m $21.0m 3
10 Jacobs, Brandon NYG 26 2/26/2009 4 $13.0m $3.3m 52.0% $25.0m $6.3m $20.0m 2

Next week, we'll analyze the top ten starter contracts at wide receiver.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


16 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2009, 4:29pm

1 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Beyond the obvious salary cap considerations, the lack of a CBA has an impact on how to structure guaranteed money. Can signing bonuses be recovered if a player gets himself suspended? Retires? A prolonged labor dispute really is not in the interest of players or owners, but the owners' interests may be too divergent to avoid it. The players are really negotiating with as many as three, or maybe even four, different blocs of owners.

2 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

It seems like the peak of play for most RBs is actually much sooner than 30-- more like 26-28.

In fact I said at the time of Jacobs' signing that it was a slight overpay because we'd already seen the best of Jacobs and I think I can comfortably stand by that statement.

6 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

30 isn't the peak. 30 is the age at which, unless you're Tiki Barber, your skills go into a serious decline. I'd say the peak is closer to 23-24, but someone who peaks that early is still productive through their 20s. There are very few 30something backs who can be considered formidable.

10 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

I'd say the peak is closer to 23-24

That's certainly WRONG for top running backs. Taking the top 3 of a random "best nfl running backs" google hit: Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk.

All peaked in the 26-28 range.

Looking up a couple more recent running backs generally considered very good, if not great: Tomlinson and Portis. Tomlinson peaked in 2006, the year he turned 27. Portis is a bit more difficult, since his productivity dropped when he switched from Denver to Washington. However, he may well have peaked in the 2005-season, the year he turned 24.

If you average all NFL running backs, you are correct in your assumption, due to the simple fact that the average NFL career is only a few years. Since pretty much all players enter the league around their 20th/21st birthday, the "peak" would necessarily be within a few years of that.

For "real" NFL players, i.e. those who manage to stick around long enough to make a "peak" evaluation even remotely meaningful, the peak most certainly occurs in the second half of their 20s (on average). The GP's 26-28 is, as far as I can tell, spot on.

12 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Um, no. Most players enter the league at 22 or 23. Some are 24 or even older. It's very unusual for a 20 year old to be playing in the NFL.

What the above list, coupled with the Bush/Thomas phenomenon, really brings home for me is just how seldom it is that giving a running back big money is a good idea. By the time you know they're good they probably won't be for much longer, and it's not difficult to find decent ones on the cheap.

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

I'd think the pre-30 term date of the contracts also works to the RBs' benefit: If the contracts rolled and they were 31, good luck getting a new deal of significant size. But if they are 29/30, they have a decent shot at getting a 3-year deal that pays well, with option years if they defy mother nature.

It's rare, but this may, in fact, benefit both sides.

4 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Very, very pedantic quibble:

The Bush and McFadden contracts once again illustrate how lucrative contracts given to the top three picks of the draft are relative to those contracts paid to veterans.

McFadden was picked fourth overall. But your point stands.

5 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Does anyone actually think portis, LJ, steven jackson or westbrook arent washed up? I would hate to have those runningbacks eating up my teams salary cap.

7 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

In order of 'washed-upness' (most to least) I'd go LJ (definitely), Portis and Westbrook (partway) and Jackson (not yet).

LJ has been ridden hard, and I was never that convinced of his talent to begin with. Portis likewise has accrued some serious mileage, but he probably has a couple years left. Westbrook is a harder read, since he spent his early career in time share mode - he might have a year or two left. Jackson, on the other hand, isn't all that aged yet, but unfortunately plays for a really, horrendously bad team. Marshall Faulk would be lucky to average more than 3.8 yards per carry on this Rams team.

9 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

It's funny - I look at that list and it seems like every back is suspect in one way or another. They're either older and clearly in decline (LJ, LDT, Westbrook, Portis), unproven young players (McFadden) or young players with injury issues that may or may not turn out to be meaningful (Jacobs, Barber). Gore is a slightly older version of that kind of injury history risk. Jackson seems like he could easily go into non-crappy-team-related decline at any moment or simply never recover from being on shit teams for so many years. MJD seems like the least risky prospect, but it would be hard to make a case that he's better than several of the other folks on this list. In a lot of ways, this list seems to confirm the argument that running backs are a bad place for a team to spend their money...

16 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Going by the DYAR numbers provided, I'd say LJ and Westbrook wouldn't be washed up, Westbrook even being #1 in the league last year....strictly based on FO's numbers. Although you certainly have room to argue that FO numbers leave out certain aspects of usefullness (i.e. blitz pick up ability). I'll take Westbrook on my team if you don't want him....

11 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

Tailbacks are easily replaced. I'd prefer to put the money into my line. High draft pick tailbacks always strike me as literally the last piece of the puzzle.

15 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

But dominant freak of nature lineman aren't always so easy to come by, and some of them don't even turn out that good.

Look at the Giants. People say they have the best line right?

Snee is a pro bowler, Mackenzie is a dominant road blocker, but nobody really likes the other 3 lineman. Yeah I know O'Hare made the pro bowl, but how much interest did teams have in him? Was he a good lineman last year because he was smart, or because he's just stronger and more physical than the guys in front of him?

If Dave Diehl and Rich Seubert were free agents, how many teams do you think would line up for them? Do you remember how "screwed" the Giants were when Luke Petitgout left the team?

Offensive lines depend a lot on coehesiveness and often times the skilled position players around them.

Theoretically the Giants line could outperform a line with 5 pro bowlers that don't know their assignments.

You can't always just throw draft picks at your line to fix it. It's not like there are always a ton of Marcus Mcneil's and Joe Thomas's out there waiting to be drafted.

13 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

The key is to get the RIGHT back. I dont care how high or low you pick them. Remember when everyone was arguing over Cadillac, Ronnie Brown and Cedric Benson? The best RB in the draft was Frank Gore, 3rd round pick. GMs arent geniuses, they take who they think is going to be good but in no way where someone gets picked determines how good of a football player they are. Its how good someone thinks they can or will be. And the right high pick back can turn your franchise around. Edge or Ricky, LT over Vick, Adrian Peterson falling to 7. Can you imagine if Arizona had taken AP? Or Oakland instead of Russell?

14 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Running Backs

And people are severely under estimating Bush's affect on Drew Brees. They still use Reggie as a decoy because people will not cover him one on one anymore after the play against the Bears in the NFC chip. I agree he hasnt been as good as he probably would like, but to say he is a scrub or a bust is not understanding the game of football. Watch how much attention he gets every play. Bush would actually be a WHOLE lot more effective on a team w/o a traditional drop back qb. If he was with a guy who could scramble and make something happen, Ben for ex, it would be deadly with a guy like Bush. Just my two cents.