ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell looked at the shockingly stout 2017 running back draft class. The players, including Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Marlon Mack, Leonard Fournette, Chris Carson, Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, and many other very impressive backs. Most of these players will enter the final year of their deals in 2020, making them prime candidates for contract extensions.
Should these players get paid? Running backs have most recently struggled in later years. There are very few Adrian Peterson types who can still churn out positive yardage into their 30s. It is rare to see a team sign a veteran running back and have them lead the league in rushing. There is a chance the last back to do that was Michael Turner.
Barnwell summed up the more recent change.
Many of those backs are going to get paid. The 2017 class becomes eligible for extensions for the first time this offseason, but it’s a strange time to be a running back. Running back salaries were grossly depressed before a recent run, but in 2019, virtually every back on a significant long-term contract has struggled to reproduce his prior form. Contracts few would have argued with at the time they were signed are now underwater. Backs who looked like stars have turned into ordinary, replacement-level runners.
Barnwell looked at deals signed by Ezekiel Elliot, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, David Johnson, Jerick McKinnon, and more looking for that Michael Turner payoff. He did not find it. The players have dealt with ineffectiveness, injury, and in Freeman’s case, both.
Freeman spent 2015-16 as the primary back in a Kyle Shanahan offense, which is a license to print money. After racking up 3,175 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns during those two seasons, the Falcons locked him up by giving him $17.3 million in guarantees and just over $22 million in 2017-19.
Over that time frame, Freeman has totaled 1,926 yards from scrimmage, with 11 touchdowns and seven fumbles. After a lost 2018 season, he was averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season before going down because of a foot injury. He already has missed 17 games over the past three seasons and might miss Sunday’s game with the Bucs.
Freeman’s deal received a lot of attention, especially after his agent pushed for a deal during the Super Bowl run. The Falcons also had Tevin Coleman in the wings, with a clear chance to address running back in the draft. Additionally, fans had seen the problem with paying running backs in recent years. They do not pay off.
The Falcons were fresh off of their best season ever and were happy to pay Freeman and other players they probably should not have, including Levine Toilolo. It makes sense they want to keep the band together, but it is odd to overpay multiple players then allow coaches leave without interviewing them for vacancies.
Yes, I’m still mad about Matt LaFleur. No, I still do not understand the plan after 2016. The team let talented coaches leave for underqualified replacements while running up expensive contracts for replaceable players.
Freeman ultimately becomes an example of a disaster deal for running backs. The team paid Freeman about $22 million for three bad seasons. Most shockingly, the Falcons turned down a trade offer for Freeman in October, despite the fact he will be cut in the offseason. Freeman has suffered a foot injury and is missing multiple games since that decision .
The Falcons made a foolish move extending Freeman. His replacement could have been any of the talented backs from the 2017 draft class. Instead, the team helps teach the rest of the league an essential lesson about overpaying at the position.