Saturday was a momentous day for the Indianapolis Colts as star running back Jonathan Taylor signed a that includes $26.5 million guaranteed. Despite the PUP-list drama, the trade request and the reports of no movement on an extension, Jim Irsay gave in, and Taylor got what he was after. Yes, Saturday was big for the Colts, but undoubtedly more important for Taylor and the running back position as a whole.
The main takeaway from last NFL offseason had to do with how the league viewed the wide receiver position. This offseason, the headline was how the league views the running back position. The stars did not receive the lucrative deals they were after, and instead, were met with the one-year franchise tag or slight bumps in pay through incentives. However, in early October, Taylor finally broke through.
Taylor told reporters this weekend that his success could mark the beginning of something new for running backs.
"I definitely think it is [a shift]," Taylor said, via ESPN. "Anytime a running back can go out there and perform but also have some security, it just shows that running backs are essential."
Is he correct? Is Taylor's contract a sign of things to come? Let's take a look.
What this means for other running backs
To recap what happened this past offseason with the running back position, Tony Pollard, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs were hit with the franchise tag after successful seasons, Austin Ekeler asked for a new deal and then a trade, but got neither (he did get $1.75M in incentives added to contract), Dalvin Cook was released by the Minnesota Vikings after yet another Pro Bowl campaign and Aaron Jones took a paycut for the Green Bay Packers, as did Joe Mixon with the Cincinnati Bengals. Yeah, it was tough sledding.
Let's take a look at the highest-paid running backs in the NFL. As you will see, Taylor's extension is the first lucrative running back deal signed in quite some time. If you were curious, the top running back contract signed this offseason that did not include the franchise tag was given to Cook, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets that included a $7 million base salary. Even this was not considered a win, as Cook was released by Minnesota due to his high price tag.
Highest-paid running backs
2. Alvin Kamara
3. Jonathan Taylor
5. Nick Chubb
Before we dive in, this upcoming offseason is going to be fascinating because we are going to learn more about the running back market. Some of the biggest names in the game reportedly had meetings where they discussed how they could better their position, and several of those names are going to be free agents: Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler and D'Andre Swift.
For the veterans of this group like Henry, Ekeler and Cook, you have to wonder if Taylor's deal is going to affect them at all. Sure, there's a new No. 3 highest-paid running back, but it's hard to imagine one of these older players is going to come close to resetting the market. For example, Spotrac predicts Henry is in line to sign a two-year, $20,197,416 deal that carries an AAV of $10 million. That contract would drop him down on the highest-paid list. Paying veteran running backs hasn't been a smart idea as of late. Ezekiel Elliott was released this offseason after signing a six-year extension with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019, Todd Gurley had a knee injury that led to him being cut two years into the four-year deal he signed with the Los Angeles Rams and then the Jets, of course, aren't putting Le'Veon Bell in their ring of honor anytime soon.
For younger plays like Jacobs and Pollard, however, it's worth getting excited about Taylor's new deal. They have more upside, and are more likely to sign three- or four-year deals than Ekeler or Henry. With Taylor's number, there may be a new floor for agents to look at. Still, Jacobs and Pollard are going to have to again put together impressive seasons to get there.
The running back market hasn't been reset since 2020, and I don't know when it will be reset again. That's just a brutally honest assessment of where we currently are. It may take a Henry-McCaffrey hybrid that a team just refuses to let go of. Could that be Bijan Robinson?
I don't know if Taylor's deal is that first domino to fall -- where the market all of a sudden catches fire. We will see what happens next year with so many big names being available, but it's very possible we could witness even more frustration next March.
The troubling trend with rich RBs
You have to admit it was a little funny Colts running back Zack Moss exploded for a career-high 165 yards and two touchdowns in Taylor's first game back. Moss ranks No. 3 in the league in rushing yards this season despite playing in just four games (445 rushing yards). Yes, Taylor is a playmaker and former NFL rushing champ, but the Colts have a top-10 rushing attack without him.
Running back is not considered to be a "premier" position in today's NFL. Quarterbacks are at the top of the food chain, pass rushers are well paid and then last year showed us how much the NFL likes wide receivers. Shelling out money for a running back has not brought forth success as of late.
According to CBS Sports Research, the highest-paid running backs over the last 10 seasons haven't won much. Collectively, the top-10 paid running backs play for teams with records just above .500, the worst among the six position groups of quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle, pass rusher and cornerback. Just 37% of top-10 paid running backs make the playoffs, which is the worst rate among the six position groups previously mentioned, and the average offensive efficiency rank among teams with top-10 paid backs is 17th -- below the league average. The last running back with a top-10 cap hit at the position to win a Super Bowl was Marshawn Lynch back in 2013! Since then, no Super Bowl winner has had a leading rusher with a cap hit over $2 million.
RB vs. NFL Premium Positions
Leaguewide numbers among top-10 cap hits in last 10 seasons
No player has won a rushing title and a championship in the same season since Terrell Davis back in 1998. We haven't even had a player with a 1,000-yard rushing season win a Super Bowl since 2016.
This isn't to say that if you pay a running back money, you're automatically doomed. The San Francisco 49ers haven't lost a regular-season game since acquiring McCaffrey via trade, and the Tennessee Titans made their entire offensive identity handing the ball off to Henry -- which worked well for a time. Tennessee made a run to the AFC Championship game a few years ago on the back of Henry, but the trend speaks for itself. A top-paid running back hasn't carried a team to glory in quite some time.