Watching last Sunday's playoff game between the Texans and Ravens, I was drawn to the fact that both teams rely heavily on superb workhorse running backs playing in the final year of their contracts. Arian Foster and Ray Rice are free agents in six weeks and (although unlikely) could find themselves in different uniforms next year. Let's examine:
Talk is cheap
2011 was a tough year for NFL running backs. Although Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson inked contracts that set a new standard for the position, guaranteeing each over $30 million, Peterson suffered a gruesome knee injury and Johnson had a down year by his own standards. These case studies do not help, and may even hurt the prospect of clubs allocating big money to the running back position, the position with the shortest career longevity in the NFL.
And, while there a few running backs that voiced low rumbles of discontent with their individual contract situations -- Matt Forte, Fred Jackson, and Peyton Hillis -- Foster and Rice remained professional and silent despite making league minimum salary, letting their play speak for itself.
Numbers never lie
Rice and Foster -- making salaries of $600,000 and $525,000, respectively, were in the top of the rankings in the NFL in the following categories:
Receiving yards (RBs)
Yards from scrimmage
% of Total Offense
These are not limited sample sizes, either. Rice posted gaudy numbers in 2009 and 2010 while Foster likewise took the NFL by storm last season.
After a stagnant several years, Peterson and Johnson moved the running back market. Over the first three years -- the true marker for any deal -- Johnson will earn a $10.3 million APY (average per year) and Peterson a $13.3 million APY. DeAngelo Williams, also signed in 2011, secured a five-year $43 million contract ($8.6 million APY) that included $21 million guaranteed.
Expect the agents for Foster and Rice to utilize Williams' deal as a baseline for guaranteed money with the hope of securing an APY between Williams and Johnson.
Foster and Rice will quietly seek long-term deals in the offseason. In the event that they cannot agree to terms, both the Texans and Ravens can resort to other means to retain these players' services.
Foster is a Restricted Free Agent (RFA). Thus, the Texans can tender a qualifying offer, giving them the ability to match any offer sheet he would receive from another team. There are a number of different tenders (original draft round, second round, first round) that teams may extend to players. The first and third round tender -- which was the highest tender in the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement -- no longer exists in the new CBA.
A more expensive (but more secure) avenue -- available to both the Texans and Ravens -- is to apply the Franchise Tag (Tag) to Foster and Rice. The Tag number for running back for 2012 will actually reduce from be $9.5 million in 2011 to approximately $7.7 million in 2012. The Tag will definitely be in play in negotiations for Foster and Rice.
Year of the running back
With continuing issues concerning Foster, Rice, Forte, Jackson, and Hillis, the 2012 offseason will have its share of running back issues. Having been on both sides of the issue, I empathize with both sides.
I understand the players' desire to receive their money as soon as possible due to the wear and tear inherent with the position. These players, more than any others in football, find it very hard to be paid value commensurate with their production. A valid question to ask is whether their production and heavy workload helps or hurts towards a long-term contract?
For the exact same reasons that running backs want their money as soon as possible, teams are reluctant to do so. There is a graveyard of bad second and third contracts for running backs who have played past their prime, an age that seems to come earlier every year. Teams want to go year-to-year with this position if they can, unwilling to commit large guarantees and contracts difficult to "get out of" to a position where production that, when it drops, it drops significantly.
Foster and Rice are terrific players. There will be many cries to "Pay the man!" as there was for Johnson this past summer. If only it were that easy.