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The Austin Ekeler Conundrum: Assessing the Value of Hybrid Running Backs

How much should an NFL team pay a hybrid running back who catches the ball? Boardroom explores recent trends to try and answer that question.

There was once a time when pass-catching running backs were essentially nonexistent. But these days? They’re the league’s biggest commodities while also being some of the league’s most underpaid players.

In 2000, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had a vision. He implemented Kevin Faulk as a hybrid running back, who suddenly emerged as one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets, mostly in the flats where he feasted.

Faulk won three Super Bowl rings with the Pats, and finished his career with more receiving yards (3,701) than rushing yards (3,607). It started this trend we’re seeing in today’s NFL with some of the most valuable backs being primary pass-catchers, particularly in a pass-heavy era of football.

One of the leaders in this trend in recent times has been Austin Ekeler, who propelled the Chargers to a Week 6 victory with 10 catches for 47 yards. The seven-year veteran is still on his first contract extension following a rookie-scale deal with LA worth just $1,670,000 over three years.

But his success catching the ball poses a bigger question, and therefore, a bigger debate: What is the market for pass-catching running backs such as Ekeler? The hybrid running back position is already severely underpaid as it is. Scroll through the NFL’s highest-paid players by annual salary and, well, eventually you’ll find some. Just might take some time.

The first name that pops up on the list is Christian McCaffrey, the 95th-highest-paid player by AAV at $16 million. Now, of course, McCaffrey’s career has been plagued by injury — the biggest cause for the low earnings of others at the position.

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In a study done in 2021, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that NFL running backs are at risk more than anyone else on the field with the highest percentage of injuries accounted for among all positions. They also have reportedly the shortest-lived NFL career on average (2.57 years).

So, how will the new landscape of running backs change negotiations in the future when teams also have to take these factors into account? Perhaps agents will start using Deebo Samuel’s contract as a reason to fight for more money and years. The hybrid WR, who’s often utilized as a rushing option, signed a three-year extension worth up to $73.5 million this last offseason. To further illustrate the crossover of positions, Samuel’s contract is littered with rushing incentives. Would adding pass-catching bonuses be something hybrid running backs push for in negotiations?

Time will tell what future RB contracts will look like. For now, let’s take a look at a few of the elite pass-catching backs and their current deals to try and evaluate their true value.

Austin Ekeler

Ekeler leads all backs in receptions this year with 41, averaging close to seven receptions per game. With Keenan Allen sidelined (hamstring), Ekeler has been one of Justin Herbert’s favorite and most efficient targets, garnering 49 looks from his QB. It’s just one less than the 50 targets WR Mike Williams has gotten over the first six weeks of the season.

Additionally, Ekeler’s not only leading running backs in receptions but he’s also tied with Chiefs TE Travis Kelce for the sixth-most catches among all positions. Throw in the fact that Ekeler, thanks to his natural shiftiness as a running back, leads the NFL in YAC with 346, and the waters muddy even further when it comes to assessing proper value. 

The 27-year-old is still underpaid while on his first extension signed ahead of the 2020 season following his rookie contract, but negotiations could get interesting — whether the team plans on extending him this summer or letting him test the free-agent market in 2024.

  • Years: 4
  • Total value: $24,500,000
  • Guaranteed at signing: $13,750,000
  • Total guaranteed: $15,000,000
  • Free Agency: 2024

Other Recent Pass-Catching RB Contracts

  • Christian McCaffrey has the second-most receptions by a running back this year with 33. He signed a four-year, $64 million extension with $38 million guaranteed prior to the 2021 season. Now, he’s reportedly on the trade block after another horrid season for Carolina.
  • Leonard Fournette is right behind CMC with 32 catches. Though he’s less dominant than Ekeler and McCaffrey in this category, he’s still Brady’s favorite pass-catcher with eight more receptions than $83 million superstar WR Mike Evans. Fournette signed a three-year, $21 million contract this past offseason.
  • Alvin Kamara has been injured most of this season, but he’s another dual-threat RB who signed a five-year, $75 million deal in September 2020. He ended up leading all running backs that following season with 83 catches (T-13th in the NFL).

Outlook

As Boardroom’s Randall Williams so eloquently put in his piece about the next generation of wide receiver contracts, he emphasized how the NFL’s salary cap jumped by $25.7 million ahead of the 2022 season. That led to a massive surge in contracts for wideouts.

It’s expected that the salary-cap figure will jump even more entering 2023, but agents representing runnings backs still have their work cut out for them. The top-five highest-paid RBs by total value are either underachieving and/or playing on losing teams. Besides how injury prone some are, running backs very rarely carry a team that might warrant the big bucks that quarterbacks and wide receivers are getting. So teams have to ask themselves just how much they believe a RB is worth when some of the best in the league haven’t shifted the tides all that much when it comes to winning titles.

That said, the whole point is this: Players like Ekeler, McCaffrey, Fournette, and Kamara are just as much wide receivers as they are running backs. And that should mean something when negotiating.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.