The Bears overhauled their running back depth this year, yet will spend less than $4 million on that position in 2019. And they’re not an outlier in this specific kind of thriftiness.
Eight other teams are in the same range; depending on the resolution of Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott’s respective holdouts, over one-third of the NFL could spend around or under $4 million on their running backs, per Spotrac.
This is the current state of the league, where the $3 million the Bears guaranteed in Mike Davis’ two-year contract was the fifth-highest received by a free agent running back in 2019. The days of heavy spending on running backs aren’t over, of course — Le’Veon Bell received a rich four-year deal from the New York Jets, and the Los Angeles Rams are only a year removed from signing Todd Gurley to a contract guaranteeing him $45 million — but more and more teams are shifting away from committing resources to running backs.
Take the New York Giants as an example on the other end of the spectrum: General manager Dave Gettleman mocked the analytically-inclined folks who argued using the second overall pick on a running back wouldn’t provide good value. Saquon Barkley was outstanding in his rookie year, rushing for 1,307 yards and catching 91 passes for 721 yards. The Giants finished last in the NFC East with a 5-11 record.
Or the Los Angeles Chargers, who won all four games in which Gordon didn’t play in 2018 with a seventh-round pick (Justin Jackson) and a former undrafted free agent (Austin Ekeler) filling in. Why meet Gordon’s contract demands when your team was fine without him? That’s led to an impasse, a holdout and now a trade request.
The point being: The Bears are part of a larger wave of NFL teams shying away from committing draft capital or cap space to the running back position. Their training camp running back room consists of a third-round pick (David Montgomery), a fourth-round pick (Tarik Cohen), a seventh-round pick (Kerrith Whyte), an undrafted free agent (Ryan Nall) and a veteran on a two-year, $7 million contract with $3 million guaranteed (Davis).
That Ryan Pace was able to wring a sixth-round pick (with the possibility of it improving to a fifth-round pick) out of Jordan Howard in the offseason is noteworthy, then, although the Cleveland Browns traded running back Duke Johnson for at least fourth-round pick on Thursday — granted, to a team without a general manager:
The #Browns got a fourth-rounder that can become a third rounder for Duke Johnson. If it does become a third, I believe it will be the highest RB compensation since Trent Richardson went for a first.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 8, 2019
The Duke Johnson trade was done by #Browns GM John Dorsey and #Texans coach Bill O’Brien, I’m told. Without a GM, Houston has several qualified personnel people assuming different roles, but it was O’Brien on the phone with Dorsey.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 8, 2019
As other players become pricier — Eddie Jackson will be due a contract that likely will make him among the highest paid safeties in the NFL, while Mitch Trubisky only has two seasons left of earning seven figures — getting quality production for cheap will become critical to the Bears’ long-term success. Getting that out of a group of running backs, then, will become even more important in the not-too-distant future.
“Our room was built really in a way of guys that fit best of what we thought,” running backs coach Charles London said. “Now, whether you get that in the first round or third round or the fifth round, it was just kind of the way it worked out. But there were certain attributes and characteristics we were looking for to fill the room, and we happened to find the guys and wherever they were selected or wherever is kind of how it was.”
Davis is close friends with Gordon, having been introduced to him via Gurley while all three were in college (Davis went to South Carolina, Gordon to Wisconsin and Gurley to Georgia). He said he’s paid attention to the holdouts of Gordon and Elliott, which so far have only escalated — Gordon demanded a trade, while Elliott is threatening to sit out the entire 2019 season.
For Davis, seeing two of the better running backs in the NFL not get the contracts they believe they deserve is frustrating.
“At running back, our jobs are hard,” Davis said. “You have to go out and do everything. You have to block, go out there run the ball, be able to catch. Those guys have been doing it for years. Melvin went to the Pro Bowl, Zeke has been the leading rusher for like two years straight. Hopefully those guys get what they deserve.
“… Zeke, guys like that, they’re not replaceable. You can’t replace Zeke. You can’t just replace a leading rusher. Those type of things are not easy. Running backs are not easily replaceable.”
Davis acknowledged his situation is different, of course. He’s rushed for 862 yards in his four-year career, but also got his second contract — hardly a guarantee for players at a position in which careers are short and earnings are comparatively low.
Cohen will be a fascinating case a year from now, when he’ll have only one year left on his rookie deal. Will he and agent Drew Rosenhaus want wide receiver money? Cohen was targeted nearly as many times (91) as he rushed the ball (99) in 2018.
Will the Bears be able to pay him that, even if they want to? He’s an important part of the Bears’ offense and opens up plenty of things for Matt Nagy’s scheme. But, at least nominally, he is a running back.
Cohen said he’s not concerned about what’ll happen a year from now, though.
“I see (Gordon and Elliott) holding out, but I gotta focus on myself,” Cohen said. “That’s not me. I don’t feel like — I feel like we play the same position but our styles are different, so what they have going on with them and their contract, it has nothing to do with me and the Bears.”