The market for NFL running backs has dried up significantly over the years, as the position has been greatly devalued into today’s pass-happy NFL.
Heading into the 2020 season, only five running backs will make $10+ million annually in comparison to quarterbacks (20), wide receivers (24) left tackles (16), right tackles (7), right guards (8), centers (8) and left guards (7) in terms of offensive players.
Then there’s the issue of guaranteed money. Only 10 running backs currently have $10+ million in total guaranteed money in their deals, three of which are rookies (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Leonard Fournette), and another is Derrick Henry, who was franchise tagged and is expected to play under it this year with no long-term extension).
Even with the limited number of teams who still use a run-heavy attack strictly with running backs (so not counting Ravens/Lamar Jackson or Bills/Josh Allen), many go with a committee of backs, not just one bell cow who does the majority of damage.
For the few great bell-cow backs like Joe Mixon, it’s tough sledding when it comes to getting that first non-rookie contract, as well as actually keeping it.
Recently, we’ve seen Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley sign huge extensions, only to be cut within the first three years of those contracts. Others like Melvin Gordon (2 years for $16 million) ended up signing deals below what their true value was.
The latter is likely going to happen to at least a few big-name running backs, possibly even Mixon, if things don’t change in the coming weeks and months in terms said backs signing extensions.
As ESPN highlighted, Mixon is one of many top-tier backs set to hit free agency in 2021.
The potential free-agent RB class of 2021 is .... pic.twitter.com/RgEDpEPkVY— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 14, 2020
Mixon, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette all finished in the top 11 in rushing yards among backs last year, and Alvin Kamara ranked fourth in receiving yards among them. All of them finished in the top six in total scrimmage yards.
Marlon Mack, Phillip Lindsay and Kenyan Drake also have the potential to command sizable contracts with big 2020 seasons. And that’s not even accounting for what guys like James Conner, Kareem Hunt, Chris Carson and Matt Breida could command next year, making this one of the worst years in recent memory to be a free agent running back.
Now, several of these guys will likely either wind up signing extensions or get franchise tagged, so it may not end up being quite as loaded as it looks on paper. But for now, this is the kind of year Mixon should not want to be a free agent in.
It certainly doesn’t help that the 2021 NFL Draft is set to feature a great class of backs, which could make it easier for teams, like potentially the Bengals, to pass on paying their veteran back and opt for a cheap rookie in the early-middle rounds of next year’s draft.
And so is the RB draft class of 2021. Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, Chuba Hubbard, Trey Sirmon, Brian Robinson, Rakeem Boyd, B.J. Emmons, Elijah Mitchell, Larry Rountree, Chris Evans, Trey Ragas... https://t.co/uFKa4vuRz1— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) July 14, 2020
All of this, along with the looming threat of being tagged next year, could make Mixon more willing to sign an extension now, even if it’s more of a team-friendly deal. Or, perhaps he’d like to hit the market then and let what other big-name backs make dictate how much the Bengals should pay him.