Ezekiel Elliott Holdout: How The NFL Continues To Devalue Running Backs

Ezekiel Elliott Holdout: How The NFL Continues To Devalue Running Backs

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 13: Former Ohio State Buckeye and current Dallas Cowboy Ezekiel Elliot watches … [+] the Ohio State Life Sports Spring Game presented by Nationwide at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on April 13th, 2019. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot is not the first player at that position to hold out in recent years. He certainly won’t be the last.

The cases are widespread. They are also obvious. It tells us a story of NFL team’s devaluing running backs in the modern era. The premise is simple. In today’s pass-first league, running backs take on less importance than they did just five seasons ago. Go back 10-15 years, and that’s magnified further. If we were to look at the 1980s and 1990s, the difference is pretty darn alarming.

Here, we look at Elliott’s holdout and what it tells us about the devaluation of running backs in today’s NFL.

Usage Is Down

Back in 2013, a total of 22 running backs put up 200-plus carries. That number dwindled to 14 this past season. Going back even further, the number of backs who reached that plateau in 2009 also stood at 22. This tells us a story of a league that relied on a running game as much late last decade as it did five years later.

The days of running backs putting up 430-plus touches like Emmitt Smith (pictured) are surely over. … [+] (Photo by James Smith/Getty Images)


Unfortunately, 2009 represented a dramatic turn from just a decade earlier. Back in 2000, 38 running backs hit the century mark in attempts. That number Stood at 50 in 2009 and 49 this past season. What does it mean? More teams are going with a running back by committee approach.

Take the top-five rushing offenses from last season as a recent case study. Of those teams in this group, four went with committee approaches or have running quarterbacks. Check them out. Parenthesis indicate total touches.

  1. SeattleSeahawks: Chris Carson (267), Mike Davis (146), Rashaad Penny (94)
  2. Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson (147), Gus Edwards (139), Alex Collins (129)
  3. Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley (315), Malcolm Brown (48), C.J. Anderson (47)
  4. Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey (326), Cam Newton (101)
  5. New England Patriots: Sony Michael (216), James White (181)

Notice the presence of teams led by running quarterbacks in Seattle, Baltimore and Carolina? Previous outliers might have included Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick, but this is more of a modern trend.

Sure running games are important. Four of the five teams listed above made the playoffs last season. In fact, of the teams with the top-10 rushing attacks, seven earned playoff spots.

On the surface, this seems to counter the point that running backs are devalued in today’s NFL. That’s just on the surface. Once again, it’s more about a committee approach with younger and cheaper backs. That lessens the value of a true three-down back looking for elite pay.

Market Deficiency

Phillip Lindsay is a prime example of teams getting production at running back on the cheap. (Photo … [+] by Dougal Brownlie/Getty Images)

Getty Images

The number of elite-level running back prospects entering the NFL has increased in recent years. Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott are prime examples of this. However, teams are finding much more value later in the draft. It leads to a market deficiency early on during the annual event.

Sure this trio ranked in the top three in rushing last season with Elliott leading the way. But what we found after that was rather interesting.

  1. Ezekiel Elliott: (First Round)
  2. Saquon Barkley (First Round)
  3. Todd Gurley (First Round)
  4. Joe Mixon (Second Round)
  5. Chris Carson (Seventh Round)
  6. Christian McCaffrey (First Round)
  7. Derrick Henry (Second Round)
  8. Adrian Peterson (First Round)
  9. Phillip Lindsay (Undrafted)
  10. Nick Chubb (Second Round)

Half of those in the top 10 were drafted outside of Day 1. In fact, Lindsay earned Pro Bowl honors for the Broncos as an undrafted rookie free agent — making history in the process.

The previous season saw six running backs within the top 10 that were not first-round picks. It’s a story that has repeated itself.

2016: 7

2015: 6

2014: 9

2013: 8

2012: 8

The moral of the story? Teams have found out that they can get production from cheaper and younger running backs while having a tremendous amount of success on the field. That lessens the need to either draft a running back high or spend top dollar on a veteran at this position.

The Salary Cap

If NFL teams weren’t hard-capped like Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association, running back pay likely wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately, teams must find the best way to allocate their limited cap. That typically doesn’t include paying running backs top-end money.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – JANUARY 20: James White #28 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball … [+] against Kendall Fuller #23 of the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half during the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 20, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Getty Images

There’s a number of examples we can focus on to drive this point home. The defending champion New England Patriots head into the 2019 season allocating less than five percent of their cap to the team’s top-three running backs. This has been a continuing theme for the Patriots throughout their dynasty. The numbers are clear. Bill Belichick and Co. don’t value that true lead back. Just look at the percentage of their cap the Pats have allocated to this position during their three title seasons this decade.

2018: 3.95 percent

2016: 2.03 percent

2014: 2.76 percent

New England has acted as a blueprint for other successful teams around the NFL in recent years. Only the San Francisco 49ers are allocating 10-plus percent of their cap to running backs this season. That includes two free-agent signings in that of Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman. Add in undrafted free agent Matt Breida, and San Francisco represents a committee approach in the truest sense of the definition. This number also includes a $5.95 million cap hit for Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk — a position that’s being eliminated by a number of teams.

San Francisco represents an outlier. The Buffalo Bills are the only other team with a combined running back payroll of $15-plus million this season. Their backfield is also of a committee approach with veterans LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore as well as rookie Devin Singletary.

Though, this could very well be short lived. Rumors out of Western New York suggest that the Bills are looking to move on from McCoy and his $9.05 million cap hit while giving more touches to Singletary, who is slated to count a mere $754,000 against the cap in 2019.

Notice a theme here? Moving on from more expensive and aging backs in favor of those who offer more upside and come a lot cheaper. Once again, it’s the Patriots’ way.

Even more interesting is the fact that the Los Angeles Chargers are allocating the second-least amount of their cap room to the running back position in 2019. That comes in at 2.03 percent. The reason? Los Angeles has pushed back against giving in to running back Melvin Gordon’s contract demands as he joins Elliott on the holdout list. Gordon’s stance on the value of running backs has cost him during this holdout.

It’s all about finding the right mix to have success while keeping flexibility under the salary cap. Good teams have pushed back against allocating too much to this position. The 12 that earned postseason trips last season pretty much magnify this to a T.

Based On Percentage Of Cap Allocation

Indianapolis Colts: 1.89 percent

Los Angeles Chargers: 2.03 percent

Chicago Bears: 2.71 percent

Dallas Cowboy: 3.10 percent

New Orleans Saints: 3.60 percent

Philadelphia Eagles: 4.02 percent

New England Patriots: 4.21 percent

Seattle Seahawks: 4.23 percent

Kansas City Chiefs: 4.41 percent

Baltimore Ravens: 4.55 percent

Houston Texans: 6.64 percent

Los Angeles Rams: 6.98 percent

Los Angeles and Houston represent the outliers here. The Rams bit the bullet and signed young running back Todd Gurley to what remains a record four-year, $57.5 million extension back in July of 2018. As for the Texans, they are still rostering expensive and under-performing back Lamar Miller and just recently traded for Duke Johnson.

The majority of the 10 other playoff teams from a season ago have added even more fuel to the idea that running backs are being devalued in today’s NFL.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders runs with the ball during practice at the NFL … [+] football team’s training camp in Philadelphia, Friday, July 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


The Philadelphia Eagles might have traded for Pro Bowler Jordan Howard. But the former Chicago Bears back is set to count just $2.03 million against the cap in 2019 — the final year of his rookie deal. Philadelphia will more than likely let him walk in free agency after selecting a younger and cheaper Miles Sanders in the second round of April’s draft. It also exhausted a mere sixth-round pick to add Howard. That, too, tells us a story of how little teams value running backs.

As for Howard’s former Bears squad, the team replaced him with rookie David Montgomery. The Iowa State product will team up with explosive Pro Bowler Tarik Cohen, who is playing under his rookie deal. The two are set to count a combined $1.6 million against the cap in 2019 — $400,000 less than Howard alone.

In New Orleans, the Saints let Pro Bowler Mark Ingram walk in free agency instead of matching the three-year, $15 million offer he received from the Baltimore Ravens. New Orleans then decided to replace Ingram with fellow veteran Latavius Murray, who is set to count just $1.9 million against the cap in 2019. Add in young Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara’s mere $1.05 million cap hit, and it’s hard to ignore the MO of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. Don’t pay the backs.

We can go up and down this list. The trend is real. Even successful non-playoff teams are following this blueprint. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. They pushed back against giving in to Le’Veon Bell’s contract demands last year — leading to him holding out throughout last season’s 16-game slate. Then second-year back James Conner stepped up big time in his stead with a Pro Bowl performance. Bell is now on the Jets earning a cool $52.2 million over the next four seasons while Conner is slated to count a combined $1.78 million against the cap over the next two seasons.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

As Market Expands, Running Back Pay Hasn’t

Jimmy Garoppolo’s massive pay day is a prime example of the NFL being a quarterback-driven league. … [+] (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)


We’ve previously covered just how much the market has reset itself at the quarterback position over the past two calendar years. From an unproven Jimmy Garoppolo to Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson, signal callers continue to break previously held records on a near-monthly basis.

The same thing can be said about running backs, but it’s to a much smaller extent. At the very least, financially. It’s also important to note that a multitude of players at wide receiver, tight end, tackle, guard and center on offense continue to expand the market at said positions. All the while, running back pay in general remains stagnant.

Of the 30 biggest cap hits in 2019, the positional breakdown is pretty darn staggering.

Quarterbacks: 18

Running Backs: 0

Wide Receivers: 3

Offensive Line: 3

Defensive Line: 4

Linebackers: 1

Defensive Backs: 1

In fact, we have to go all the way down to No. 138 to find a running back on this list. That comes in the form of recently-extended Arizona Cardinals veteran David Johnson. A total of 137 players at other positions with a higher cap hit than any running back. Let that sink in for a second before attempting to push back against the fact that runnning backs are being devalued in today’s NFL.

It’s alarming.

Back in 2011, 13 running backs ranked within the top 130 in terms of cap hits. One decade before that, the number stood at over two dozen. The gradual decline of the running back market has been some time in the making. But it’s been ramped up some in recent years due to the holdouts of Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon.

The Conclusion Is Not Great For Elliott And Co.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) walks off the field after NFL football practice in … [+] Frisco, Texas, Wednesday, May. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)


We’ve all heard of Occam’s razor. The idea is that the most simple explanation for something is usually the correct explanation. Under this guise, the watered-down running back market is not simply limited to Elliott because of his off-field issues or Gordon due to injury concerns.

A simpler explanation is that running backs in general are no longer viewed as vital to team-wide success. Front offices around the league have made that clear by moving on from high-priced veterans in favor of cheaper options. The days of 400-touch backs are over. They have been replaced by committee approaches — further devaluing running backs in an NFL that’s still hard-capped.

Elliott will get his money. To a lesser extent, Gordon will, too. The issue here is that it’s not going to represent the broader market. It’s not going to lead to record pay days far outpacing previous contracts, much like we’ve seen at ever other position on the gridiron.

Elliott’s situation is a prime example of this. He might very well reset the running back market. Once eligible, Saquon Barkley will follow suit. Just don’t expect massive increases in overall pay or guarantees.

Back to the Occam’s razor anology. Supply and demand. In a market that does not demand top-dollar backs, the supply is limited to a handful. Teams are not going to pay a premium for a position they don’t value. In turn, those demanding record pay days can’t use their status as premium ball-carriers to up their value.

Sadly, that includes Mr. Elliott and whatever he might receive in his first veteran deal in the NFL.

  Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Outlook 2023: Should you draft the Patriots' RB handcuff?