Were the Washington Commanders ahead of the concerning recent trend surrounding running backs and how they're perceived beyond their rookie deals?
1967. That's the last time the Washington Commanders franchise used a first-round pick on a running back, selecting Ray McDonald at No. 13 overall. To put that into context, Josh Harris was just a toddler at the time.
Yes, Washington did trade for Clinton Portis in 2004, who was the highest-paid running back at the time. However, since then, the Commanders have been less willing to dole out big money for the position. Were they actually ahead of the current NFL curve?
The deadline passed for franchise-tagged players to sign extensions this week and Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, and Tony Pollard were left without new deals. The three of them were first, third, and 16th in the league last year in rushing yards, respectively, albeit the Dallas Cowboys star shared the backfield with Ezekiel Elliott.
Earlier this offseason, Austin Ekeler wanted either a new deal or to be traded by the Los Angeles Chargers. He got neither.
Commanders saw the changing RB tide earlier than most
Times have changed. Running backs anticipating making large money once their rookie deal expires have been left waiting. Ten years ago, a team wouldn't bat an eyelid before signing a free agent like Dalvin Cook to a new contract. Better yet, he would never have been released.
With teams writing off running backs like a depreciating asset, the market may never be the same.
Over the last few years, the Commanders have done a good job of finding running backs on the second and third day of the draft (Antonio Gibson - 2020, Brian Robinson - 2022, Chris Rodriguez Jr. - 2023). This model of adding a backfield threat every year may help save them money once a player's rookie deal expires.
Washington has also leveraged this model in the past. Alfred Morris is Washington's single-season rushing leader, gaining 1,613 yards in 2012. His salary was a measly $513,100.
The only player with more rushing yards that year was Adrian Peterson, who made $12.7 million - more than Morris earned his entire career.
Morris had three straight 1,000+ rushing yard seasons before seeing his numbers drop off in 2015. Instead of re-signing him, Washington let him walk, replacing him with a tandem of Robert Kelley, an undrafted free agent, and Matt Jones, a second-year player drafted in the third round.
In 2017, Samaje Perine was drafted and led the team in rushing. In 2018, the team brought in Peterson for a little over $1 million. He was re-signed and earned $2.53 million in 2019 before being released as the team drafted Gibson. Do you see the pattern here?
Not saying this is the correct way to do it. But let's take a look at some of the recent big contracts given out to running backs and why those decisions might be giving teams buyers remorse.
Alvin Kamara signed a five-year, $75 million contract before the 2020 season. He has yet to play a full season since he signed the deal. After having a great 2020 campaign, his numbers decreased over the next two years, and he got in trouble off the field.
The New Orleans Saints signed Jamaal Williams this off-season. Overall, the results don't match the contract given.
Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension with the Carolina Panthers in 2020. This made him, at the time, the highest-paid running back in NFL history.
While dynamic when he's on the field, health has been a major issue for McCaffrey. He only played three games in 2020 after suffering a high ankle sprain and then a shoulder injury. It was a similar story in 2021 - he suffered a hamstring problem and then missed time with an ankle injury, only playing in seven contests.
Derrick Henry signed a four-year, $50 million contract in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans. He went on to win NFL Offensive Player of the Year, amassing more than 2,000 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
In 2021, Henry was on pace to break the NFL rushing record before suffering a Jones fracture, limiting him to only eight games.
The Titans were 6-2 with Henry starting and still managed to go 6-3 the remainder of the season with D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hillard filling in for Henry. The duo combined for 916 rushing yards compared to Henry's 937 for the season and averaged a solid 4.85 yards per carry between them. The duo made less than $1.5 million combined compared to the No. 1's $13.5 million cap figure.
It has become evident that a lot of running backs have issues staying healthy after their rookie deal. This is why teams have been thinking long and hard before handing out extensions.
The Commanders have plans to utilize Gibson more in the receiving game. If that doesn't pan out, don't be surprised if he does not receive a contract extension either.
That just seems to be the new normal for the running back market.