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Are running backs worth top dollar?

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With the Jets set to have a ton of cap space in the 2019 offseason, a potential need at running back, and star workhorse Le’Veon Bell set to hit the market, there has been speculation the Jets could be in the market for him. Is it worth paying top dollar for free agent running backs? Here are a few numbers I compiled to consider before making a wish for your favorite team to sign an expensive ball-carrier.

  • The 49ers sold out for former Viking Jerick McKinnon in free agency this year. McKinnon will have a $10.5M cap hit in 2018, second highest among RBs to Bell, and he is guaranteed a total of $18M over his 4 year, $30M deal.

McKinnon posted a career best 61.9 scrimmage yards per game last year.

Bilal Powell has posted more than 61.9 scrimmage yards per game in each of the last three seasons. He has made $8.7M from the Jets through the first seven years of his career, less than McKinnon will make in 2018.

Yes, age is a factor as McKinnon is 26 and Powell will turn 30 during this season, but the point here is that the Jets have gotten production for cheap over a long period of time out of a Day 3 draft pick, whereas in the current market they’d be paying substantially more for similar production. It emphasizes the value a successful mid-round selection can have, especially at running back, a position as dependent on others for success as any.

  • Here is a quick snapshot of how recent Super Bowl champions acquired their leading rushers.

The chart below displays where the running backs of the last 20 Super Bowl teams have ranked in cap hit.

The average leading rusher on a Super Bowl team since 2011 has ranked about 34th-35th in cap hit at the running back position. The highest ranked back over the past nine years was Marshawn Lynch at #4 in 2013, and that was from an extension that he proved he deserved after the Seahawks gave up peanuts to acquire him from the Bills a few years prior.

Edgerrin James ranked 2nd for the NFC Champion Cardinals in 2008, but James posted only 514 yards that year, and that Cardinals team was an extreme outlier of a Super Bowl participant at 9-7 with a +1 point differential.

Reggie Bush led running backs in cap hit when his 2009 Saints reached the Super Bowl, though he ranked only third in rushing on that team.

Only three of the backs were free agent pickups, James, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, and the latter two were classic Patriots scrapheap-to-stars pickups.

All-in-all, since James in 2008, a team led in rushing by a top-3 paid running back hasn’t cracked one of the last nine Super Bowls or even made a Conference Championship game in that span. James’ 2008 Cardinals and Bush’s 2009 Saints are the only teams to make a Super Bowl with a top-3 paid running back on their roster as far back as data is available (the 2000 season), and those teams did it in spite of those players.

  • Of the top 13 rushers in 2017, 11 were still with the team that drafted them. The other two, LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore, were acquired for the jaw-dropping assets of Kiko Alonso and a $3.5M contract, respectively.
  • Kareem Hunt, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, David Johnson, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alex Collins, Derrick Henry, Tevin Coleman, the list goes on and on. All of these running backs who stand out as good-to-superstar level players were all drafted past the first round over the past three years. The middle rounds of the draft have become an absolute gold mine for talent and production. It hasn’t taken many swings to hit one out with running backs over recent years.

Back to Bell, he is a phenomenal, generational player that I would call the best running back in the NFL today. No player has ever accumulated more scrimmage yards per game over the first five seasons of their career. He’s a two-way threat that can make defensive coordinators think about him regardless of where he is lined up. If the Jets added him, I would no doubt be psyched about the potential of that offense - considering mileage hasn’t caught up to Bell yet (another question mark - 1,635 touches over 5 years is a ton).

However, he is going to demand a contract that will redefine the market value of the position. Considering the enormity that his price tag will encompass, the potential inflation of the market afterwards, and the strong current trend for drafted running backs, there has never been a better time to buy low or look to the draft at the position. Think about it - which would you rather the Jets have? a $20M running back or a $10M tackle and a $10M edge rusher? That is just one vague example, but there are a variety of better ways to spend big free agent money than on a running back, especially considering it is perhaps the easiest position to find plus contributors with low-level assets.

What do you think?


Should the Jets pursue Le’Veon Bell in 2019?

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