When they selected running back Leonard Fournette at No. 4 overall, the Jacksonville Jaguars projected him as the best running back in the 2017 draft. What came next, of course, was madness. The Jaguars made Fournette the most financially secure running back in the NFL.
So goes the unique and all-consuming calculus at this position, as short career spans have depressed values to the point that an otherwise restrictive rookie pay scale catapults the veteran market. A decision to draft a running back in the first round, as we noted in April, is an agreement to guarantee him more money than most runners in the game, and that invites a level of immediate second-guessing and elite expectations absent from analysis at other positions.
The numbers are in on the 2017 rookie class of NFL running backs, and they’re crazy.
We now know that the league’s top back — Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers — will most likely play on a relatively modest $12.1 million franchise tag in 2017. Incredibly, that means Fournette has already been guaranteed nearly twice the amount of dollars that Bell will be paid for his first five seasons in the league. In fact, Bell’s five-year career cash earnings of about $16 million are less than what the Carolina Panthers guaranteed Christian McCaffrey shortly after drafting him No. 8 overall this spring.
Where Fournette’s contract would rank at every position:
What should teams do when trapped between drafting a player they want and paying him far more than he would receive on the open market? Really, they have two choices: Accept the market aberration, or hope for an Ezekiel Elliott-like season.
Let’s circle back on our April story, fill in the blanks and point out the precise depths of the decisions made during the 2017 draft. There are many ways to judge NFL contracts, but in this analysis, we’ll use fully guaranteed money. It measures the true financial commitment and is especially relevant at a position at which skills decline quickly and teams often are eager to cut their losses.
The 2017 NFL rookie scale called for Fournette to be guaranteed $27.15 million over the next four years. The Panthers were required to commit $17.241 million to McCaffrey. As the first chart shows, the rookie scale has accounted for three of the four highest totals of guarantees to active running backs.
This is not an indictment of the rookie scale so much as it is a recognition of the menacing gap between staffing the running back position with high draft choices and filling it with lower-round picks and veterans. Generally, running backs are cheap, and their acquisitions allow for cash and cap space to be used elsewhere. There is no doubt that Fournette and McCaffrey have exceptional skills. But are they worth more guaranteed money than almost any other running back in the league? Or as much as six times the guarantee of the first running back selected in the second round?
The second chart shows the rookie scale distributed to the six running backs selected after McCaffrey, through the end of the third round. The Minnesota Vikings guaranteed $3.979 million to Dalvin Cook, the No. 41 overall pick. Joe Mixon, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals seven picks later, received $2.816 million.
Will Fournette have a better season, and a more productive four-year start to his career, than Cook or Mixon? That’s quite possible, given how the Jaguars under executive vice president Tom Coughlin plan to structure their offense. But will his production merit a commitment of $20 million more in guarantees over the next four years? Will the highest-paid running back prove to be the best running back in 2017, a quaint pay structure that might exist only in our dreams? That is the nearly impossible expectation that the Jaguars, and to a lesser extent the Panthers, absorbed this spring.
Former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who made the decision to draft McCaffrey, said at the time that the “value on the versatility and the kid as a person is just too much.” Coughlin said that Fournette is “special” and was a mandatory addition to credibly restructure the Jaguars’ offense so “the quarterback doesn’t have the entire game on his shoulders.” Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell added: “He just happened to be our top-ranked guy for a lot of reasons.”
At any other position, the salary of a player drafted as high as Fournette would fall far short of those of the highest-paid players at his position. A quarterback at No. 4? That $27.15 million would look downright economical compared to, say, the $87 million that the Indianapolis Colts guaranteed Andrew Luck or even the $45 million the Miami Dolphins gave Ryan Tannehill in their second contracts. In fact, $27.15 million would rank 19th on the list of NFL money guaranteed to quarterbacks.
It’s possible for the expectations to be met, of course. Last season, all Elliott did was lead the league in rushing while catching 32 passes and scoring a total of 16 touchdowns for a team that increased its win total by nine games from 2015 to 2016. Few would disagree that Elliott provided many multiples of the value Derrick Henry (No. 45 overall) gave the Tennessee Titans, for example.
But the gap is less glaring with Jordan Howard, who finished No. 2 in rushing yards (1,313) after the Chicago Bears selected him in the fifth round and guaranteed him $248,204. That’s why some teams wait until Day 2 or Day 3 to draft a running back. With this strategy, they can use quantity to offset concerns about quality.
The Green Bay Packers illustrated this point a year after their depth thinned to the point that they converted receiver Ty Montgomery to a tailback. This spring, they drafted three running backs after the start of the fourth round. The rookie pay scale distributed a total of $842,914 million in guarantees to Jamaal Williams (fourth round), Aaron Jones (fifth) and Devante Mays (seventh).
Are any of those players as talented, or do they bring the same potential for production, as Fournette or McCaffrey? The NFL scouting community doesn’t think so, based on draft position (the lesson of Howard’s surprise 2016 season in Chicago notwithstanding). But will the presumed difference between Fournette’s production and the production of the Packers’ trio be worth tens of millions in cash and cap space?
For that, we’ll return to our original premise. Drafting a running back in the top five, or even the top 20, isn’t inherently wrong. But to be justified from an efficiency perspective, the return can’t simply be good. If you draft a running back that high, he better be awesome.
ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco contributed to this story.