Gone are the days when running backs were the highest-paid non-quarterback position (Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings; Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans). That phenomenon went by the wayside as the NFL flipped from a run-oriented league to a pass-happy one. Now it’s all about winning games through the air. And while running backs remain integral to today’s game, they aren’t recognized as they once were.
ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller ruffled some feathers with a July 17 tweet suggesting a simple running back cycle the NFL should adopt. Titans’ Derrick Henry caught wind and retweeted with the response, “At this point, just take the RB position out the game then. The ones that want to be great & work as hard as they can to give their all to an organization just seems like it don’t even matter. I’m with every RB that’s fighting to get what they deserve.”
It’s hard to imagine the game of football without running backs. A solid run game keeps defenses honest, can balance the game’s pace, or help a team hold onto a lead in its waning minutes.
Top running backs, including Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Najee Harris, are fighting to get what they deserve. They’re hoping to reverse the perception that they don’t deserve the big bucks due to their short shelf lives.
Henry’s retweet started a chain reaction, with Harris replying, “I agree with my running back brothers around the NFL- history will show that you need running backs to win- we set the tone every game and run through walls for our team and lead in many ways- this notion that we deserve less is a joke.”
A dozen disgruntled running backs gathered on a Zoom call on Saturday, July 22, to discuss the declining value of their position, of which Harris was one.
Najee Harris’ Future With the Pittsburgh Steelers
Now in the third year of his rookie contract, Najee Harris is a year away from when negotiations for a second deal could start. But if Pittsburgh goes the route of the New York Giants and Saquon Barkley, he’ll be offered a fifth-year option (2025) and potentially be franchise tagged for a sixth season in 2026.
According to Spotrac, the non-exclusive franchise tag figure is calculated at a 120 percent hike from the previous year’s amount. In 2023, the figure for backs is $10.091 million. The exclusive franchise tag (EFT) figure is calculated differently in that it is represented by the top five salaries at the respective position once the restricted free agency period ends.
The case of former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell shows how drastically salaries have dropped since he signed the EFT in 2017. Bell’s tender was worth $12.12 million, or $2.029 more, five years ago. Pittsburgh tagged him for a second consecutive season in 2018, but we all know how that went. That tag would’ve paid him a crisp $14.544 million had he signed.
Najee Harris’ Frustration with Running Back Market
During a press conference at June’s minicamp, Najee Harris shared his frustrations with the current running back market.
“They say what they say about the running back,” he said. “They say the position is kind of going downwards, but if you looked at some of the offenses, the running back is featured a lot. So, just what the guys (Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs) were saying, just show a little more appreciation, you know.”
“Obviously, it’s a rough position,” Harris continued. “What we’re asked to go through, it’s probably one of the roughest positions. I’m just advocating, and I agree with pretty much what those guys are saying. I’m a running back myself, and I’m pretty sure any running backs who will want to come into the league or just even people going around and telling them, ‘If you want to get paid, don’t be a running back.’”
The devaluation of backs is why many were against selecting one in the first round when the Steelers took Harris with the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
While he’s no Najee Harris, Pittsburgh signed undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren in 2022 to complement him. In 77 attempts over 16 games, he’s logged 379 yards for 4.9 yards per attempt. He added 214 yards on 28 catches for 7.6 yards per reception.
Not to discount Harris or what his counterparts are trying to accomplish, but it shows that teams no longer need to invest a top-round pick in the position.