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2014 Running Back Free Agent Market

The free agent running back market has been as peculiar as it’s been quiet. There have been no big contracts doled out and only a few sizable ones of note, although some of the ensuing narrative about the demise of the running back position has been overblown. Today I want to look at the ten biggest free running back signings1 of 2014 and see what conclusions we can draw.

Player contracts are notoriously complicated to analyze; I won’t pretend that we can truly and fully measure contracts handed out by ten different teams. But I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the great: armed with the understanding that this analysis is not perfect, we march onwards. Over The Cap publishes detailed salary cap information, including the total value of the contract, the average per year, the amount of guaranteed money (which is never as clear as it sounds), the guaranteed money per year, the percent guaranteed, and the number of years.  I’ve added one additional column: the approximate value of the contract in the first two years, which in itself is pretty tricky to calculate.2 It’s not close to perfect, but no method is, and I thought this was a better metric by which to sort the table than any other. Take a look:

Running back
2013 team
2014 team
Total
APY
Guarantee
GPY
Perc G
Years
2 Yr
Toby GerhartMINJAX$10.5$3.5$4.5$1.542.9%3$7.0
Donald BrownINDSD$10.5$3.5$4$1.3338.1%3$7.0
Rashad JenningsOAKNYG$10$2.5$2.98$0.7529.8%4$5.25
Maurice Jones-DrewJAXOAK$7.5$2.5$1.2$0.416%3$5.0
Ben TateHOUCLE$6.2$3.1$2.5$1.2540.3%2$4.35
Knowshon MorenoDENMIA$3$3$1.25$1.2541.7%1$4.25
LeGarrette BlountNEPIT$3.85$1.93$0.95$0.4824.7%2$2.4
Anthony DixonSFBUF$3.5$1.17$0.75$0.2521.4%3$2.35
James StarksGBGB$3.25$1.63$0.73$0.3622.3%2$1.99
Darren McFaddenOAKOAK$1.75$1.75$0.10$0.105.7%1$1.85

Toby Gerhart and Donald Brown received the two biggest deals? That seems a bit… odd, doesn’t it? Players like Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden are bigger names but have injury and durability concerns. And Knowshon Moreno has the system back label. Ben Tate, widely considered the top free agent running back, has the injury-prone label. I get all that. But seeing Gerhart, Brown, and … Rashad Jennings emerge with the top three contracts has to take most NFL observers by surprise, right?

Let’s compare the resumes of these running backs, along with new free agent Chris Johnson. The table below shows each player’s number of career rush attempts and age as of September 1st of this season, along with their production over the last two seasons in the following categories: rushing yards, yards per carry, rushing touchdowns, and receiving yards, success rate (as measured by Advanced NFL Stats) and Pro Football Focus overall grade.

Runner
2Yr Val
Car Rsh
9/1 Age
2Yr RshYd
2Yr YPC
2Yr TD
2Yr Rec
Succ Rt
PFF
Toby Gerhart$7.0027627.44525.26324343%-0.6
Donald Brown$7.0055127.49544.54730743%5
Rashad Jennings$5.2538729.510163.85842238%2.5
Maurice Jones-Drew$5.00180429.512173.8640035%4.9
Ben Tate$4.354212610504.27618941%2.3
Knowshon Moreno$4.2584627.115634.111471546%15.4
LeGarrette Blount$2.4057927.89234.7694042%6.9
Anthony Dixon$2.35148271342.7343045%-0.3
James Starks$1.9932228.57484.68412045%1.8
Darren McFadden$1.858832710863.29736630%-29
Chris Johnson--17422923204.181257737%-12.4

Career rush attempts

Ostensibly, this is the reason that the Jaguars preferred to go with Gerhart over Jones-Drew despite having to pay a premium for that preference. McFadden has more career carries than most of the other backs on the list; when you factor in his durability concerns and poor production in recent years, it’s easy to see why he received the worst deal.

On the other hand, players like James Starks and Anthony Dixon didn’t seem to benefit from bearing the low mileage label the way Gerhart and Jennings did. Even Ben Tate, who may be the most talented of this quintet, was stuck with a middle-level contract. And LeGarrette Blount, who presumably has a good amount of tread life on his tires, came in with an unimpressive deal. The question becomes, what have Gerhart and Brown shown that Blount and Tate (and to a lesser extent, Dixon and Starks) have not?

Age

The players here are roughly in the same age bracket; Tate is the one outlier, as he doesn’t turn 26 until August. On the older side, Jennings and Jones-Drew both just turned 29. Jennings is a good example of an older player with a light workload, although that still seems like a pretty generous contract for an older back. He’s a good player, but I don’t see how the Giants can justify his contract in this market.

Two Year Rushing Yards

Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing in 2011, so he strenuously objects to the use of a two-year window. The big outlier here is Moreno (although we’ll see where Johnson winds up), who is coming off a 1,000-yard season. But the real takeaway is that teams do not seem to place much of a premium on recent production, as Gerhart has the second fewest yards of this group and the best deal. Obviously he has a reasonable excuse, as nobody would be expected to produce behind Adrian Peterson. But can’t Anthony Dixon use the Frank Gore excuse? In any event, the reason players like Gerhart and Brown are receiving good deals has to be tied to their efficiency metrics, right?

Two Year YPC Average

It seems like yards per carry is the metric most correlated with contract size, which is a very risky proposition when you consider that the statistic holds little predictive value. Gerhart averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 50 rush attempts in 2012; paying him for a 7.9 average on 36 carries last season strikes me as exceptionally risky. Much of the same applies to Brown, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year on 102 carries after averaging 3.9 yards per rush on 108 runs the year before. In light of what other running backs made this offseason, it’s hard to defend the contracts doled out by Jacksonville and San Diego to these backs.

Moreover, the market doesn’t seem to be consistent: if we like Brown and Gerhart because of their YPC averages and low wear-and-tear, why don’t we like Blount or Starks? Blount in particularly seems egregiously underpriced as this analysis ignores his monster playoff performance against Indianapolis (although, to be fair, it ignores his monster dud against Denver, too). Up until the 2012 season, McFadden and Jones-Drew had excellent career YPC averages. It looks like the market assumes that these players are now washed up: with two years of sub-par YPC averages and significant wear and tear and/or injury histories, teams were not willing to shell out big bucks to either player.

Two Year Rushing TDs

With the exception of Moreno, none of the players stand out in this department. And it seems safe to say that no organization was willing to pay Moreno for scoring touchdowns in a Peyton Manning-led offense.

Two Year Receiving Yards

Moreno excels here, too, but again does not appear to get credit for that production. This is the area where Blount, Dixon, and Starks all take a hit. The simplest way to justify the contracts might be using this category: Gerhart, Brown, and Jennings got paid because they are capable receivers, which means they can add value on all three downs. But with the possible exception of Gerhart, it seems unlikely that any of these players will be three-down backs. All will be members of a committee, and in that context, I’m not sure why Blount’s skillset would be less valuable than Brown’s. Even more, one could argue that those two signed with the wrong team: San Diego, with Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead, might benefit more from Blount, while Pittsburgh, with Le’Veon Bell, could have used a more complete player like Brown.

Two Year Success Rate

Both Gerhart and Brown fare well here, although obviously the sample size is limited. Moreno again looks great, but much of his success came against nickel defenses. There’s always the question of how much blame goes to the back and to the line, but the success rate numbers here don’t do anything to dispel the notion that Jones-Drew and McFadden are washed up.

PFF Grade

With the exception of McFadden, whom PFF hates, the contracts don’t correlate well with PFF grade. Moreno again stands out, while Gerhart was slightly below average.

Conclusion

As for Johnson, it seems NFL teams share my skepticism that much is left in his tank. He’s really an outlier on this list: he’s got a heavy workload and age concerns, but he’s also been much more productive the past two seasons than Jones-Drew. His skills as a receiver will help, but his success rate is below-average. It’s always possible that a team will overpay, but Johnson’s resume puts him in line for a deal only slightly richer than Gerhart and Brown.

Of course, those two backs seem overpaid. The steal of this group appears to be Blount, while I still can’t quite understand the contracts given to any of the top three backs. In a vacuum, none of the contracts are bad, because the amounts are still pretty small. But on a relative basis, Gerhart, Brown, and Jennings seem overpaid. Moreno and Tate probably deserved to sign the best deals, but both misplayed the market, and wound up signing later in free agency when their leverage was gone. As a result, the winners appear to be Miami and Cleveland, who are paying only three million per year for two talented, young backs.

  1. Excluding Joique Bell, who was a restricted free agent. []
  2. For players on one-year contracts, I averaged the guaranteed amount and the total amount, and multiplied that average by two. For players on two-year contracts, I averaged the guaranteed amount and total amount. For players on three- or four-year contracts, I treated the first two years as fully guaranteed and ignored the remainder. []
{ 6 comments }
  • Andrew Healy April 12, 2014, 3:09 am

    For Blount, he may be getting appropriately discounted for playing behind the best line in the league (by a healthy margin). And much as you don’t usually win by betting on a bounce-back for a middle-aged RB given the data (also see Turner, Michael), Jones-Drew was running behind a truly awful line in Jacksonville. Only 3.13 Adjusted Line Yards. He might be serviceable with a decent line in Buffalo.

    Reply
  • Jason April 12, 2014, 7:49 pm

    This is a good look at the position. Its one of the positions I have the hardest time grasping. Most of the time if I want to go and look at players at almost any position, use a three year weighted average in a few categories to try to pinpoint comparables at time of signing(with age ranges being important), possible red flags, and possible shining lights among players. Running back is near impossible to do. The only other position I have as much trouble with is the 43 linebacker positions because there are some teams that put great value on the position (Miami last year) and others who don’t (Bengals for instance).

    I’ve tried breaking RBs down into line generated yards vs player yards before contact, yards after contact, yards on pass routes, usage, etc… and really come up with nothing. If this was 10 years ago and you had a former 1st round draft pick on his first ever contract extension coming off a 1000 yard year he was going to get paid big money. Actually probably even three years ago it would have happened though there would have been more drama involved in the signing possibly going through the franchise process. Denver had no intention of keeping Moreno and Moreno ran out of options.

    Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary in Denver were problem the first two “system” guys to make people really think about things, but they were the exception to the rule and usually a team would go and sign such a player (such as Clinton Portis). Now I think if you played recently in Denver, New England, Washington, Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle you get dinged as a “system back” or “system beneficiary”. For Denver and New England that clearly carries over to receiver as well.

    And from there, which I think your research points out, is that teams just have very random sets of criteria that they use to evaluate. YPC is probably one of over-reliance and its kind of scary to see the limited snap guys get credit for that. Id guess the Jaguars are looking at the low usage and decent performance in the last season as a sign that he can play well now in a role with more use. That said he should have been paid closer to Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson, but when you have cash minimums to meet you may overpay. One thing I have seen more of is that the low payroll teams have a tendency to shy away from the big money player, even if it’s a reasonable market deal, but they have no qualms about overpaying a low level player by $1-$1.5 million. Id guess Ivory and Danny Woodhead might have been a player brought up in some of these deals as examples of low cost deals that paid off and justified more investment in players like Gerhart. I also did not get the fit of Brown in SD unless they are looking to move one of their backs this offseason, which is always possible.

    I think Johnson will have a hard time and I think that line of thinking was justified when he went unsigned this week after so many people said he would get a deal no later than Wednesday. There are a lot of dings on him ranging from all the things you pointed out all the way to his ability to accept a diminished role. He was incredibly unhappy when they brought in Shonn Greene because it would hurt his carries. He doesn’t shy away from blaming those around him for failure. That’s not a guy you bring into a foreign locker room without trying to knock the ego down a peg through his contract offer. My gut feeling is he comes in between Bush and Sproles at $3.75M per year, but I would not be surprised if he ends up lower if teams don’t like the act when they meet with him to discuss a deal.

    Reply
  • Richie April 14, 2014, 2:40 pm

    Seems like you need to come up with a metric to summarize the true value of a contract.

    Reply

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