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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- Excluding Joique Bell, who was a restricted free agent. [↩]
- 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. [↩]