It’s no secret the Vikings have been blessed by great running back play throughout the course of the franchise. From Robert Smith and Chuck Foreman to Dalvin Cook and Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have a knack for finding solid running backs. However, over the course of the last few off-seasons, the position as a whole has started to see a decline in their “value” across the league, thus starting the downfall of the running back.
What does that mean? Well let’s put it this way… Back in 2016, quarterback Andrew Luck signed a five-year contract extension to make him the highest paid player in the league at an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $23.2 million. That number alone caused panic and outrage, with some showing frustration with Indianapolis on their inability to build a championship team due to his large cap hit. Seven years later and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson just signed a extension that made Luck’s contract look laughable, with an AAV of $52 million. For the running back position, let’s look at franchise legend Adrian Peterson, who’s best contract (2011) landed him an AAV of $14.2 million, which is without incentives. As of 2022, only three players have topped that number in an extension: Christian McCaffrey, Ezekeill Eliott, and Alvin Kamara at $16.0 million, $15.0 million, and $15.0 million respectively. Though there have been individual years with higher marks (AP in 2015 and Zeke in 2022), the AAV sits lower than it should be with salaries still in the same range as the mid 2000s. Guys like Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Derrick Henry, and Nick Chubb have been in the same talent ballpark as Peterson at their best points, but it’s still nowhere near the growth their teammates have seen.
In over a decade (using 2011 to 2023 as a benchmark), the downfall of the running back position is evident and the position as a whole has only seen a percentage increase of about 13% as compared to others, which are far greater. As the leader of the offense, quarterbacks have seen a 122% increase. Wide receivers hover around 40%, defensive backs sit at 75%, tight ends are at 79%, and even kickers have seen a greater increase at 22%. Every position has increased more and the only position that hasn’t seen a significant uptick above running backs are punters and they are still higher at 14%. No wonder players like Melvin Gordon, Saquon Barkley, JK Dobbins, and Austin Ekeler amongst other veterans are frustrated, they should be because as the league has gotten bigger and more lucrative, they’re contracts and chances have not.
Enter the Dalvin Cook situation from this off-season and you find the issue. Dalvin wants to be paid like a superstar and Minnesota didn’t feel the price tag matched and the league has a similar mindset. Since McCaffrey’s contract extension in 2020, the highest paid players in free agency at the position each of the following year were Kenyan Drake ($5.5 million), Leonard Fournette ($7.0 million), and Miles Sanders ($6.25 million), nowhere near McCaffrey’s AAV or Cook’s desired AAV. Are they the same player, not really but it’s the principle. Truly, once McCaffrey’s contract bounces, the highest AAV may plummet rather than raise and Dalvin hasn’t signed yet for a reason.
It’s rough and understandably, the flip side of the argument is the age of decline and wear-and-tear the position takes on. Mix that with the youth ready to get on the field and there’s a host of counterpoints to choose from. However, there are players that change the game, and their presence would be missed if they weren’t there. That said, there is always someone waiting in the wings and for younger stars like Breece Hall and Bijan Robinson, those come in the form of Michael Carter, Israel Abanikanda, Tyler Allgeier, and Cordarrelle Patterson. In Minnesota, Mattison (at a much cheaper price tag) has played well in the opportunities he has had to start but Chandler and McBride are also there. Cook matters, but in the analytics of it, he got lost in the shuffle. It’s pretty easy to understand why Kwesi moved on but as a whole, the downfall of the running back position has started and when and how it stops, who knows. It’s a league-wide issue and with the rise of a committee approach (not a coincidence), there is an uphill battle to break that ceiling for whoever fights this fight next.