Agent’s Take: Inside Todd Gurley’s groundbreaking deal and what it means for the RB market

A long overdue reset of the running back market has finally occurred thanks to Ari Nissim of Roc Nation Sports. Nissim, a former long time executive with the Jets responsible for negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap before switching to player representation in 2014, negotiated a four year, $57.5 million contract extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically achievable salary escalators) for Rams running back Todd Gurley.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the best chance for a reversal of the steady decline the running back market has been experiencing since 2013 went out the window last week when the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell were unable to reach an agreement before the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals. Gurley’s new deal is surprising considering he was under contract through the 2019 season. He was scheduled to make $2,319,978 this season and $9.63 million on his fifth year option in 2019.

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Gurley is the only 2015 first round pick who has gotten a new contract. First round picks selected under the rookie wage scale implemented by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement typically don’t get new deals after three seasons. Just 13 first round picks have gotten extensions at this juncture of their NFL tenure over the last four years. Nobody from the 2014 first round did.

At $14.375 million per year, Gurley becomes the highest paid running back in NFL history. He surpasses Adrian Peterson, who signed a six-year extension with the Vikings in 2011, averaging $14,213,333 per year. Gurley’s $45 million in overall guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. The previous record was Peterson’s $36 million.

The deal establishes new standards in practically all key contract metrics. Gurley’s $21 million signing bonus is also the largest ever for a running back. Another $13.5 million of the guarantees don’t have an offset. A player receives his salary from the team that releases him in addition to the full salary from his new contract with another club when there isn’t an offset (also known as “double dipping”). An offset clause allows a team to reduce the guaranteed money owed to the player if released by the amount of his new deal with another team. The $21.95 million fully guaranteed at signing eclipses Peterson’s veteran running back contract record of $20.25 million.

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The first three new years of Gurley’s contract average just under $15.7 million per year. Professionals within the industry (agents and team negotiators) typically value deals by new money, which is the amount of compensation in a contract excluding what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal. This specific number is derived by subtracting the $11,949,978 in money Gurley had on the remaining two years of his contract from the $59 million five year total of the new deal (through 2022) and dividing the figure ($47,050,22 million) by three.

Gurley’s $40 million three year cash flow (through 2020) is more than he would have made by finishing his rookie deal and playing on franchise tags in 2020 and 2021. Gurley’s 2020 franchise tag would have been $11.556 million, a 20 percent increase over his 2019 option year salary. A second franchise tag at another 20 percent increase would have put him at $13,867,200 in 2021. Gurley would have made slightly under $37.375 million this way over the four year period, which is about $2.625 million less than his actual three year total.

Nissim, who also represents 2017 fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette, has dramatically changed the financial landscape for running backs. Gurley’s deal is almost a 75 percent increase over Devonta Freeman’s contract with the Falcons, which had been the benchmark for running backs. Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with slightly over $22 million in guarantees last August. Gurley’s total guarantees are more than Freeman’s entire contract.

Nissim has put the top of the running back market back in line with where it was in 2011 relative to the wide receiver pay scale. The Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald was the NFL’s highest paid wide receiver seven years ago. His seven year extension averaged $16,857,142 per year. Peterson’s average was just under 88.25 percent of Fitzgerald’s. The $17 million per Antonio Brown received last year in a four year extension from the Steelers is currently the top mark for pass catchers. Gurley’s average yearly salary is slightly more than 84.5 percent of Brown’s.

Here’s a look at the running backs in the best position to reap the benefit of Nissim’s efforts over the next couple of years.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

Gurley’s contract validates Bell’s decision to reject a five-year deal reportedly in the $14 million to $15 million per year range containing a $10 million signing bonus. Slightly over $33 million of the money was in the first two years. The three year cash flow was $45 million. Instead, Bell is playing his second straight season on a franchise tag. He will be making $14.544 million this season once he signs his franchise tender to bring his two-year haul to $26.664 million.

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Bell is probably playing his last season in Pittsburgh. Barring a serious injury or major regression, Bell won’t have any trouble landing a contract in free agency with significantly more than the $10 million fully guaranteed Pittsburgh was offering. The odds of Bell signing a deal that exceeds Gurley’s average yearly salary have increased. The dramatic change in the market for elite running backs should make those teams who will need to upgrade the running game and have an abundance of salary cap space, such as the Jets and Colts, more comfortable meeting or coming close to Bell’s asking price. He was reportedly looking for the same $17 million per year Brown got from the Steelers. Bell also alluded to needing $15 million per year in a rap song last year.

David Johnson, Cardinals

Johnson wisely decided to report on time to Arizona’s training camp after skipping the mandatory minicamp in June. Any holdout would have been relatively brief because a year of service towards free agency (i.e.; an accrued season) isn’t earned when a player doesn’t report to his team at least 30 days prior to the NFL’s first regular season game. The reporting deadline this year is August 7. Missing this August 7 deadline and Johnson playing out his rookie deal after a failed holdout would have made him a restricted free agent in 2019. Getting the year of service isn’t a concern for holdouts with four or more years of service since these players already have enough service time to qualify for unrestricted free agency.

Gurley’s contract is an important salary benchmark for Johnson, who is making $1.907 million this season in the final year of his four year rookie contract. Reaching an agreement before the start of the regular season may have become more difficult especially if Johnson’s representatives view Gurley’s deal as his salary floor. There had reportedly been constructive dialogue about a new deal during the offseason.

Johnson arguably became the NFL’s best dual threat running back during a breakout 2016 campaign in which he led the league with 2,118 yards from scrimmage while earning first team All-Pro honors. Johnson’s value to Arizona’s offense is apparent after missing almost all of last season due to a broken left wrist. The rushing attack was anemic. The Cardinals had the NFL’s third worst running offense only generating 86.6 rushing yards per game and ranked next to last with 3.4 yards per carry.

Johnson’s age and injury could be used as a justification against giving him a comparable contract. Gurley, who turns 24 next week, is nearly three years younger than Johnson. He will be 27 in December. Johnson has less mileage than Gurley despite the age difference. Johnson’s 551 career touches (combined rushing attempts and receptions) are essentially 60 percent of Gurley’s although both players were 2015 draft picks.

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Teams sign players to contracts primarily based on their expected contributions. The Cardinals will be expecting Johnson to produce like he did in 2016 for the foreseeable future.

Johnson will be a prime candidate for a franchise tag in 2019 if he doesn’t get a new deal. Assuming the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million neighborhood, Johnson’s franchise tag projects to $11.325 million. A second franchise tag in 2020 would be slightly over $13.5 million. An unwillingness by the Cardinals to offer a contract averaging at least in the vicinity of $12.5 million per year, could put Johnson on the same path as Bell where he is a year-to-year proposition. This number approximates the average of two franchise tags for Johnson.

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

The fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft will be eligible for a new deal once the 2018 regular season ends on December 30. The Cowboys aren’t strangers to rewarding first round picks early. Offensive tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick were made the highest paid players at their respective positions after their third NFL seasons.

Elliott’s situation is more complicated. The 2016 first team All-Pro is accumulating mileage at an almost unprecedented rate. He is averaging 22.56 carries a game in his two NFL seasons (564 rushing attempts in 25 games). Only three running backs in NFL history have had a higher usage rate during their first four seasons. Eric Dickerson, Edgerrin James and Earl Campbell are at 23.62, 22.98 and 22.7 carries per game.

Elliott could have an increased workload this season because of a bigger role in the passing game. The Cowboys don’t have a clear cut primary receiving option with wide receiver Dez Bryant’s release and tight end Jason Witten’s retirement.

The Cowboy were unwilling to make a substantial commitment to DeMarco Murray after an outstanding contract year in 2014 in which he broke Emmitt Smith’s single season franchise rushing record by gaining 1,845 yards on the ground in 392 carries. It was the eighth most rushing attempts ever in an NFL regular season. Murray had another 44 carries in the playoffs to bring his total to 436 carries.

There were concerns about Murray’s future productivity because of how running backs performed historically after a season with an extremely heavy workload. The Cowboys belief that Murray benefitted from running behind a great offensive line, which Elliott also has, was another mitigating factor.

It remains to be seen whether the Murray standards will apply to Elliott with sustained heavy usage. The six-game suspension Elliott served last season under the personal conduct policy because of domestic violence accusations could also be a cause for concern.