With Todd Gurley’s Contract Extension, a New Market for Running Backs Emerges in the NFL

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Of the 20 highest-paid offensive players in the NFL in terms of practical guaranteed money, the first 11 are quarterbacks. In total, fourteen of the top 20 throw passes for a living.

So on Tuesday, when Rams star Todd Gurley inked a four-year, $60-million extension, which will keep him in Los Angeles through a running back’s prime years and allow him a chance at a third contract before 30, it was more than just an aggressive business move from a franchise trying to gauge an unknown market. It was a recognition that such a market existed in the first place.

With his new extension, Gurley is in 17th place, on par with Ryan Tannehill and just ahead of Joe Flacco. The only non-quarterbacks ahead of him? Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry and Julio Jones.

In the shadow of a broken-down Le’Veon Bell deal, Gurley earned $45 million in guaranteed money, and while the practicality of that guaranteed money remains to be seen, the early indication is that Gurley will receive more in guarantees than any running back in NFL history.

Bell, who reportedly turned down $33 million in guarantees a week ago, Tweeted moments after the Gurley deal was announced:

Yes and no. For years, NFL general managers have been able to squeeze value out of certain positions simply by stuffing unique players onto prix fixe menus. Slot receivers earn less than outside receivers. Nickel corners earn less than outside corners. Guards earn less than centers, who earn less than right tackles who earn less than left tackles.

Running backs, who, before Tuesday, earned less than tight ends and wide receivers on average, often got the worst end of the deal. Because of the physical nature of the position and the blocking responsibilities, their careers are shorter and the inherent risk of a long-term deal is greater. However Bell, Gurley, David Johnson, Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott are not true running backs.

They’re physical and, for the most part, are big enough to sustain hits from the modern defender. They’re also catching a lot of passes and not leaving the field. Gurley was 33rd in receptions and 36th in receiving yards in 2017, and he had as many touchdown catches as Larry Fitzgerald, Keenan Allen and Jordy Nelson.

The deal could force some interesting long-term cap planning for teams like the Giants, Panthers, Cowboys and Bengals (Joe Mixon). Before long, the franchise tag number for a running back ($9.63 million for first-time tagged players in 2018) could slowly drift out of the realm of practicality. Teams with versatile all-pro backs will have to budget them in just behind, or maybe on par with their No. 1 wide receiver.

Of course, many teams aren’t going to have to worry because of the scarcity of these players. Gurley has been a revelation not only because of his pass-catching ability and broken tackles, but because of his good health. By the time Bell was Gurley’s age, he’d already lost almost an entire season’s worth of games to an MCL injury and a suspension.

All attention may shift next to Johnson, though the Cardinals dual-threat star doesn’t have age (26), injury history (15 games lost in 2017) or original draft position leverage (Round 3, pick 86) on his side. Maybe the fight for a fair market deal gets a little easier, though. For one NFL news cycle, running backs aren’t ending the day wondering why they bothered to play running back in the first place.

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