Todd Gurley and The Declining Value of Running Backs

We are living in strange times.  Obviously the international health crises, quarantine and potential collapse of global financial markets are in the forefront of our minds.  Typically when serious global events occur we have the respite offered by our daily tasks, and sports and competition.  From the point of levity and the feeling of basic normalcy, we at the very least have the NFL off-season.

Perhaps the reason for the shock directed at the Rams decision to cut Todd Gurley was related to the fact that there simply isn’t a ton going on for Sports fans to react to.  When I saw the move, I wasn’t entirely surprised.  Firstly, and I know that typical sports fans don’t pay attention to this, the Rams were pinned up against the salary cap in oppressive fashion.

In the summer of 2018, the Rams committed to a four year, 57.5-million-dollar extension to the former UGA standout. The deal was structured so that in the third year of the contract Gurley’s salary would balloon by nearly 8 million dollars to 17.3 million dollars against the team’s salary cap.  Other teams knew that the Rams needed to make a decision on Gurley by last Thursday The Rams would have owed Gurley his earnings for 2020 and that would have been after paying out bonuses for him appearing on the 2019 roster that totalled more than 7 million dollars.  Given the money that has already been guaranteed to Jared Goff the team had a lot of money devoted to their running back and quarterback.

I got a lot of texts and messages from people asking why the Rams couldn’t trade Gurley rather than cutting him.  This is where the story gets a little more intricate.  Firstly, any team that traded for Gurley would have owed him said guarantees.  This is a financial burden that teams may not be willing to pay in 2020.  There is no doubt that at his peak, Todd Gurley is an absolutely transcendent talent. The events leading up to his release also occurred at one of the strangest times in our lifetime. 

Given that Gurley would have had to been traded during the Covid-19 pandemic it meant that teams would have had to make said trade without him submitting a physical.  As problematic as this would have been for any running back this is worse in the case of Gurley as the Rams 2018 Super Bowl appearance was marred with reports that Todd Gurley’s arthritic knee and his loss of reps to NFL journeyman CJ Anderson. With special measures in affect for the pandemic there was no way for a team, who would be asked to fork over tens of millions of dollars to examine the severity of this potential injury concern.

This begins to raise questions about the monetary value of a running back in 2020.  The position has historical significance and obviously has a huge impact on our fantasy teams.  However, professional football is not fantasy football.  Let’s take a look at the salaries of the starting running backs of last 10 Super Bowl winners (courtesy of

  • Pierre Thomas, 2009: $460,000
  • James Starks, 2010: $420,300
  • Ahmad Bradshaw, 2011: $6.5 million
  • Ray Rice, 2012: $17 million
  • Marshawn Lynch, 2013: $7.0 million
  • LeGarrette Blount, 2014: $1.85 million
  • C.J. Anderson, 2015: $585,000
  • LeGarrette Blount, 2016: $1.5 million
  • LeGarrette Blount, 2017: $1.25 million
  • Sony Michel, 2018: $1.75 million
  • Damien Williams 2019: $1.05 million

You’ll notice a few things.  Firstly, you’ve forgotten that Pierre Thomas and James Starks were Super Bowl winning running backs. Secondly, Other than Ray Rice (who had a giant signing bonus), the bulk of these running backs were making very pedestrian salaries for NFL players.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer (via ESPN Daily’s podcast with Mina Kimes). A running back’s production has a lot more to do with scheme, offensive line talent and the efficiency of the passing game.  The Cowboys broke the bank to extend Zeke Elliot’s contract.  However, given that their offensive line is known to be dominant, this may prove ot be an equally catastrophic contract.  This is while I believe running backs need to get as much money as they can before their rookie deals expire otherwise, they risk never maximizing their value.  Still, this doesn’t guarantee team success.

A counter example to the Cowboys is the 2019 Miami Dolphins who were lead in rushing by 37 year old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.  The Dolphins were statistically proving to have an abhorrently terrible offensive line last season.  Another example of how these other factors play a bigger role has to do with Gurley’s newest team, the Atlanta Falcons.  Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator at the time of the Falcons rise to the Super Bowl.  Since his departure we have seen the Falcons offense return to mediocrity and Shanahan return to the Super Bowl on the back of ex-Miami Dolphins running back (who was cut by the team) Raheem Mostert.  We will see if Gurley’s return to the Falcons proves fruitful. 

What we know for certain is that the landscape for the league’s once most prestigious position has changed.  Those who were shocked were simply not paying attention to the Rams truly most egregious act, changing their historical, and elegant logo to something that looks like it was designed by someone using Photoshop for the first time.       

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