What happens when you won’t accept the NFL’s franchise tag and miss the deadline for an extension? As training camps return, let’s talk tenders.
On March 15, the Dallas Cowboys cut bait on franchise running back Ezekiel Elliott, preferring to eat millions in dead salary cap money rather than continue to pay him. Eight days later, backfield brother-in-arms Tony Pollard accepted the franchise tag, officially making him the team’s RB1 for 2023 even as he sought a long-term contract extension to put down roots in Big D.
On July 17, the deadline came and went for Pollard, as well as every other player given the often-controversial tag, to agree to a bigger, longer deal, pegging his salary number at a $10.091 million figure predetermined for running backs and kicking his free agency down the road an extra year.
The offseason’s other two franchise-tagged RBs received no such clarity, however: Saquon Barkley of the Giants and Josh Jacobs of the Raiders not only did not find common ground with their teams on extensions, but continue to refuse to accept the franchise tender, placing them in limbo heading into the 2023 NFL season as training camps begin to open up around the league.
So, how did we get here?
Under the immutable salary rules of the NFL, what can and cannot happen next for Saquon and JJ?
In the bigger picture of the league, what does all this say about the depressed state of the salary market for running backs?
Time to get into some details and hard truths. Let’s talk tenders — but not the crispy, juicy kind.
The Franchise Tag and What it All Means for Barkley & Jacobs
1. Neither Josh Jacobs nor Saquon Barkley are under-contract NFL players as of this time.
They’re not full-on excommunicado, but them’s the rules. They can play on a one-year agreement or not at all.
With that in mind, it’s widely expected that neither player will report to his incumbent team’s mandatory training camp when each begins on July 25.
2. Meanwhile, the Giants‘ and Raiders’ training camps are going to be rife with distractions that could have been prevented.
Not every team is legitimately afraid to pay running backs, but the vast majority of teams do not consider them candidates for long-term, robustly guaranteed contract extensions due to durability/longevity concerns. It’s gotten to the point that it’s increasingly rare to see a running back selected in the first round of the NFL Draft at all; there are several reasons for this, but it shouldn’t go unmentioned that first-rounders’ rookie contracts are all 100% guaranteed as of 2023. (In fact, Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson actually has this year’s highest salary number at the position.)
And here we are.
3. The league’s current CBA allows players less recourse in contractual standoffs than the previous one.
Remember when practically every player under the sun who wanted a bigger bag simply held out from training camp? Well, those days have been over for more than a decade now, and the league’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement made fines for unexcused absences from mandatory camp untenably accumulative.
Notably, these two running backs in question aren’t under contract, so they cannot be fined for missing camp. Alas, a player does not magically become a free agent if he refuses to sign for long enough — say what you want about the franchise tag being anti-labor (it is) and suppressive to the free movement of talent (it is), but such a glaring loophole would defeat the entire purpose of the mechanism as such.
4. If they remain unsigned, inactive players by the start of the regular season, Jacobs and Barkley are not eligible to receive weekly game checks.
The respective teams that drafted them still control their rights, but with no contract in place, neither is eligible to receive an NFL check.
5. NFL players continue to hate the franchise tag nearly unanimously.
This is easy to understand. While other top leagues have measures in place to postpone or conditionalize free agency in order to help teams keep their own players — the NBA and NHL have restricted free agency with matching rights for first-timers; Major League Baseball requires six years of “service time” — only the NFL allows a team to prevent a player from entering free agency fully against his own will when he otherwise would have been eligible.
Consider this episode a clear snapshot of the difference between a league like the NFL in which team owners undisputably run the show and a “player power” league like the NBA.
6. The salary market for NFL running backs is at a low point compared to other position groups.
This relates directly to why the value of the 2023 franchise tender for running backs is just $10.091 million compared to $32.416 million for quarterbacks, $19.743 million for wide receivers, and $11.345 million for tight ends. This value is determined by averaging the top five salaries within that position group over the past five years, adjusting for changes in the NFL salary cap.
So, there’s a direct through-line we can draw from the bottom dropping out of the overall salary market for running backs to the franchise tag reinforcing the trend.
7. With that in mind, it’s hard to argue that the league’s best running backs are asking for the world here.
Or, as Jacobs put it:
We never tried to reset the market— Josh Jacobs (@iAM_JoshJacobs) July 17, 2023
8. Let’s conclude with four words: Todd Gurley’s Rams extension.
Ahead of the 2018 NFL season, the Los Angeles Rams inked Todd Gurley II to a four-year contract extension worth up to $60 million, including a healthy $45 million guaranteed. At the time, it was the largest contract for an NFL running back by both average annual value and guaranteed money. It was easy enough to justify — he had just won NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and he turned right around and helped his team make the Super Bowl in the deal’s very first season.
After injuries limited Gurley to just 3.8 yards per carry in 2019, the Rams released him halfway through his record-setting contract, preferring to eat just over $20 million in dead cap money merely to get him out the door.
Since Gurley signed that fateful deal, only one running back has received more guaranteed money:
- The Cowboys extended Ezekiel Elliott in 2019 for six years and $90 million. Following his least-productive NFL season to date, Dallas released him earlier this year.
Over the same period, only Alvin Kamara (Saints), Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) have received bigger contracts by total value:
- Kamara tied a career high with 13 starts in 2022, but missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career and recorded a career-low two rushing touchdowns
- Injuries limited McCaffrey to just 10 regular season games over the first two years of his extension. In 2022, he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
The NFL’s Highest-paid RBs of 2023
Based on total cash compensation as noted by Spotrac.
1. Bijan Robinson (Falcons): $13,719,844
2. Christian McCaffrey (49ers): $12,000,000
3. Alvin Kamara (Saints): $11,000,000
4. Aaron Jones (Packers): $10,965,000
5. Nick Chubb (Browns): $10,850,000
6. Jahmyr Gibbs (Lions): $10,728,276
7. Derrick Henry (Titans): $10,500,000
8. Joe Mixon (Bengals): $10,100,000
9. Tony Pollard (Cowboys): $10,091,000
10. James Conner (Cardinals): $8,445,000
NOTE: If Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs sign their franchise tenders in time for Week 1, they would be tied for ninth on the above list with Tony Pollard at $10.091 million.
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