Withum has been analyzing the increasing wage gap in the NFL and how it affects various positions. The position that has been affected the most has been that of the running back, whose contracts have been declining over the years. We will look at the case of Saquon Barkley, New York Giants running back, whose contract situation was a microcosm of the entire running back ecosystem.
Please note this article reflects events that took place during week two of the 2023 NFL season, when Barkley suffered an ankle injury in the closing minutes of their win in Arizona on September 17th. Beyond the physical concerns of this injury, there are also financial concerns from Barkley’s perspective. Barkley does not have any long-term financial security beyond 2023 as he is set to become a free agent this offseason. With the new injury concern, let’s look back on what transpired between the Giants and Barkley during their contract negotiations and some of the insights it revealed.
On July 17, 2023, the Giants and Barkley failed to reach a long-term agreement at the NFL franchise tag deadline. On July 26th, the two sides agreed, but it did not include a long-term contract. Barkley and the Giants were able to come to terms on a slightly revised one-year contract worth up to $11 million in incentives, about $900 thousand more than the franchise tag amount. His ankle injury means he will likely miss these incentives. The injury also puts into question whether the Giants would be willing to sign Barkley to a multiyear contract. That is unfortunate for Barkley as he has said on multiple occasions that he wishes to be a “Giant for life.”
As a refresher, the franchise tag is a one-year contract given to players who are due to enter free agency. This contract keeps players with their current team for an additional year and sets their contract at a specific amount based on their position. This specific amount is based upon the average salary of the top five players at their position. After this deadline, the player can only play on the amount subject to the franchise tag or a revised one-year contract.
This offseason, multiple players took bigger steps than Barkley to become “Giant(s) for life”. Giants’ starting quarterback Daniel Jones received a four-year $160 million extension, interior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence received a four-year $90 million extension, and left tackle Andrew Thomas received a five-year $117.5 million extension.
The Giants’ General Manager, Joe Schoen, is the one responsible for making these deals and managing the Giant’s roster. These large contracts led many to believe that Schoen was willing to spend money on his top players. While this appears to be true, other moves have shown he believes in positional value this offseason.
Understanding Positional Value
Positional value refers to certain positions in the NFL carrying more importance with winning than others. Winning for NFL teams is heavily tied to the performance of the quarterback position. So, the quarterback position and the positions that directly impact it, pass rushers, left tackles, cornerbacks, and wide receivers are often thought of as carrying high positional value. Daniel Jones, Dexter Lawrence, and Andrew Thomas all play positions that possess high positional values. Barkley’s position is seen as having a low positional value. Running backs by position have the fourth lowest annual salary on average.
In addition to Barkley, two other players did not get paid by the Giants this offseason due to the issue of positional value. Safety Julian Love and center Nick Gates play positions that are not highly valued across the NFL. Despite being team captains and Schoen expressing his desire to resign both players during the season, they could not come to terms on contract agreements. This led to both players leaving in free agency and the Giants replacing them with players on significantly lower contracts. Gates’ replacement John Michael Schmitz is making about $4 million less per year than him, and Love’s replacement Bobby McCain is making about $4.6 million less per year. Schoen spent money on more valued positions, which forced him to move on from two players at positions of lesser importance.
There is no doubt that the franchise tag is a complicated issue. It rewards players who are the best of their position with a one-year top-of-the-market contract; while at the same time, it hinders their ability to secure a multiyear contract. Players like Love and Gates were able to receive multiyear deals because they were not subject to the franchise tag or the fifth-year option. The fifth-year option is a one-year team option reserved for first-round picks. The money on the team option is on a scale system and contractually rewards first-round picks based on their level of success. Gates and Love were not subject to the fifth-year option because they were not first-round picks, and the Giants chose not to franchise tag either. Both were able to become free agents sooner than Barkley and negotiate their contracts with multiple teams instead of being restricted to one.
Barkley, on the other hand, was a first-round pick and received the fifth-year option in 2021 and the franchise tag in 2022. He could also receive it next year, giving the Giants seven years of team control of Barkley’s services. Seven years of team control with no free agency is a long time. Running backs have the shortest career length among all positions at 2.57 years, with their prime ages being 22 through 28. Therefore, if a running back does make it past seven years of team control, the odds of them being out of their prime are likely and the ability to secure a long-term lucrative contract is highly unlikely.
This is not going to be a unique issue to just Barkley. There could be at least four former first-round running backs (Najee Harris, Travis Etienne Jr., Bijan Robinson, and Jahmyr Gibbs) in the future who might have to undergo a similar process once their rookie contract concludes. They and their agents need to figure out a plan before this becomes an issue for them.
In more recent news, on September 18th, Browns Running Back, Nick Chubb, suffered a potential season ending injury. He had previously signed a three year $36,600,000 contract and was one of the last running back’s to sign a long term deal. This injury can further dampen the ability for running backs to secure long term lucrative contracts.
Withum’s Professional Sports Services Team finds ‘positional value’ to be fascinating as it directly coincides with how NFL rosters are constructed and how the salary cap is allocated as discussed in our previous article. NFL teams are focused on allocating their financial resources to the quarterback position. Positions that are viewed as impacting the quarterback are drafted highly and paid more. Wide receivers, offensive tackles, cornerbacks, and pass rushers are viewed as positions that directly impact how a team or an opponent’s quarterbacks perform. Other positions like running back, are deemed to have a lesser impact on how a quarterback performs. Within the current circumstances of today’s league unless the running back position can figure out how to have a greater impact on how the quarterback position performs it will continue to be devalued by decision-makers in the NFL.