Running backs meet as changes to the franchise tag are long overdue

Running backs meet as changes to the franchise tag are long overdue

Disgruntled NFL tailbacks are on the counteroffensive against unfavorable market forces and a collective bargaining agreement that leaves them with few options have spent the last few days discussing their current predicament amongst one another and appear to have emerged from their Zoom meeting with a few actionable items.

Najee Harris comments on Saquon Barkley and the value of RBs

Najee Harris comments on Saquon Barkley and the value of RBs

One of the pushback methods suggested was discussed by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris. Speaking before reporters as he showed up for training camp on Wednesday, Harris suggested that they look into adjusting the franchise tag thereby eliminating the positional designations and creating more general classes of franchise tag designations.

Austin Ekeler doubled down on the concerns running backs have with the franchise tag during an exclusive interview with USA Today’s Tyler Dragon.

“I want to attack it. I think it’s detrimental to us as players. You can look at any of the statistics. Our average career is three years. If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to have success, and now you’re able to be locked in for more than one year, one year, one year and not have to share any of that risk with the organization then it’s just not a great situation,” Ekeler told USA Today. “It’s very one-sided.”

Of the six players franchise tagged this offseason, three were running backs, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard, who were finally due for big paydays. Now they rank seventh in average annual compensation.

While it’s not a wholesale elixir, a general franchise tag would solve the relatively meager franchise tag figures team’s use in their favor to acquire cheap labor from running backs. This week, Saquon Barkley inked a one-year $11 million contract that barely outpaces the franchise tag New York forced on him when the two sides hit an impasse during contract negotiations.

For Harris, this is about to hit close to home. After the upcoming season, the Steelers will make a decision on Harris’ fifth-year option. After that, Pittsburgh will have the ability to tag him for two more seasons. Front office types look at running backs at 25 through a Leonardo DiCaprio-colored lens and are already looking to draft a younger model. After Harris’ fifth year, the Steelers could tag Harris twice and keep him under their thumb until he’s 29 years old.

The trade compensation for franchised non-quarterbacks and quarterbacks are the same, so it stands to reason they should operate under equal compensation packages.

Each position’s non-exclusive franchise tag stems from the average of the top five cap hits at each position for the previous five years, then adjusted for the cap. Below are the franchise tag amounts for every position in 2023, in order of lowest to highest. As expected, running backs are brushing the franchise tag pay scale floor. In parentheses is what their positional non-exclusive franchise tags were a decade ago, followed by the percentage each position’s franchise tender has increased since 2013.

  • Kickers/punter: $5.4 million (2.9 mil) +86%
  • Running back: $10 million (8.2 mil) +21%
  • Tight end: $11.3 million (6 mil) +88%
  • Safety: $14.4 million (6.9 mil) +108%
  • Cornerback: $18.1 million (10.8 mil) +67%
  • Offensive linemen: $18.2 million (8.7 mil) +109%
  • Defensive tackle: $18.9 million (9.8 mil) +92%
  • Defensive end: $19.7 million (11.1 mil) +77%
  • Wide receiver: 19.7 million (10.5 mil) +87%
  • Linebacker: $20.9 million (9.6 mil) +117%
  • Quarterback: 32.4 million (14.9 mil) +120%

Just add this to the sundry of metrics illustrating how much running backs have taken it on the chin. In addition to having the second-lowest franchise tag number of all positions, they’ve seen the smallest increase since 2013 by a whopping 46 percent.

Quarterbacks might have something to say about this, but they’re outnumbered by thousands of NFLPA plebeians. Removing the positional divisions from franchise tags could drive the quarterback tag down, but every other position will either benefit or see negligible differences.

How many quarterbacks are actually playing on the tag anyway? The answer is zero. Lamar Jackson evaded the tag like it was a pursuing tackler in open space, but he wound up signing the richest deal in NFL history until Justin Herbert’s became the new benchmark this week. Meanwhile, the last time a franchise quarterback played the regular season on the non-exclusive or exclusive franchise tag was Kirk Cousins during the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the then-Redskins. In 2018, Cousins entered free agency and was awarded with a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Leave it to Dan Snyder to become the only team owner to lose a franchise quarterback in his prime to free agency without a viable starter waiting in the wings.

There is no running back contract derby. They just get franchise-tagged until their put out to pasture. The franchise tag needs more bite to it and the best way for running backs to garner support would be for the tag formula to be an average of top five players regardless of positions. As usual, those are all quarterbacks.

The mechanism for how they could enact that is unclear given the current CBA doesn’t expire until 2030. Unfortunately, most of the running backs discussing these changes may never benefit from these talks.

Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.