The 2022 NFL Draft is in the rear view mirror, and fans across the league are settling in to imagine the new talent their team added contributing to their team’s ascendance to Super Bowl Champions next February. In the meantime, free agency is in its final blur of activity prior to the summer doldrums, with newly signed players no longer counting in comp pick calculations as of 4 PM New York time Monday afternoon.
For the Seattle Seahawks, many fans had hoped that the draft would bring more clarity at the quarterback position, which is something they did not get. What they did get, however, is some muddied waters at the running back position with the addition of Kenneth Walker III in the second round at pick 41. It’s a pick that has re-sparked a debate that has raged not just on Field Gulls, but all over online for almost five year, and that is the value of the running back position in the modern NFL.
Now, before even starting to discuss things, it’s necessary to point out that Walker has a very good chance to be a very good running back in the NFL, and that players on rookie contracts selected in the second round are very inexpensive compared to veteran players. To this point, as the forty first player selected in the draft, Walker is slotted to sign a contract with the Seahawks that will pay him $9.25M over the coming four seasons, with $5,738,122 of that amount fully guaranteed. That’s an average cap hit over the life of the contract of $2,312,628 per season, which is, obviously, a very affordable contract compared to what backups signed in free agency like B.J. Finney, Carlos Hyde or Ed Dickson. In short, Walker could be a phenomenal player on a low cost contract for the next four years, but even if he is, it won’t eliminate the opportunity cost of having potentially used the selection on a more premium position.
This comes from the fact that no matter who the Seahawks drafted with pick 41, that player would be signing the same four year, $9.25M contract. Thus, while running back salaries continue to drop as other positions see salaries skyrocket, the loss of potential value becomes enormous. To simplest way to explain the situation is as follows. Say Walker develops into the absolute best running back in the league, on par with a workhorse, every down back like Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott or Christian McCaffrey. Doing this would give Walker a value somewhere in the $12M to $15M per year range based on the current running back market, and that’s if Walker develops into one of the top five or so running backs in all of football.
Compare that to if the Seahawks had drafted a wide receiver when they came on the clock at 41. A wide receiver who develops into a productive receiver, not even one of the best at their position, would currently command a contract will in excess of the top running back contracts. Last offseason Tyler Lockett signed a four year, $69M extensions, which is $17.25M per year, and while he is a very good receiver, most would agree he is not among the top five or top ten at the position across the NFL. Yet, in spite of likely not being one of the premier wide receivers in the league, Lockett received several million more per year compared to even the best of the best at the running back position.
And Lockett signed prior to the explosion of receiver contracts this offseason that was started by the Jacksonville Jaguars signing Christian Kirk to a four year, $72M offseason. That’s $18M per year for a player who has never had a thousand yard season, and has just one season with more than 750 receiving yards. Even wide receivers who are good, but not at the absolute top of the market are signing contracts for in excess of $20M per year. A.J. Brown signed a four year, $100M extension with the Philadelphia Eagles over the weekend after being acquired from the Tennessee Titans. Brown’s college teammate, DK Metcalf, is likely to sign a similar contract with the Hawks at some point this offseason.
To put in perspective how much money is being handed to receivers right now because of their importance to the passing game, and thus their importance in the modern NFL, the top contracts given to running backs this offseason contained the following guaranteed money:
- James Conner: $13.5M
- Leonard Fournette: $9M
- Chase Edmonds: $6.1M
- Rashaad Penny: $5.07M and
- Cordarelle Patterson: $5M.
That’s a combined total of $38.67M in fully guaranteed money for these five running backs. Meanwhile, over in the market for wide receivers, here are the amounts of total guarantees given out with the top seven wide receiver contracts individually:
- Tyreek Hill ($52.535M)
- Stefon Diggs ($47.985M)
- D.J. Moore ($41.61M)
- Mike Williams ($40M)
- Chris Godwin ($40M)
- Amari Cooper ($40M)
- A.J. Brown ($39.999M)
That’s seven individual wide receivers who signed contracts that contain more guaranteed money than the total given to the top five running backs.
Now, this discussion has seemed to go off the tracks from why the nerds were not happy about the selection of Walker, but the benefit of the rookie contract is what makes the picks at the top of the second round the most valuable in the entire draft. Specifically, fans and media pundits regularly talk about the benefit of having a quarterback on a rookie contract, and that is absolutely the case. A team with a quarterback on a rookie contract effectively has an extra $100M or so of cap space available to it to spend over the life of the rookie contract before the team has to begin paying market rate for its quarterback.
With the explosion of wide receiver contracts, the benefits to teams of having a Metcalf, Brown, Moore or Godwin on a rookie contract is similar. However, at the running back position, that rookie contract discount is much harder to realize. Will Walker be better as a rookie than Rashaad Penny would be? If the answer to that question is no, then the market value for Walker would likely be somewhere under $5.07M, meaning the benefit of his $1.681M 2022 cap hit on the rookie contract he is expected to sign will would have a maximum of somewhere in the $3.389M range.
Now, say the Seahawks had selected a wide receiver in that spot instead, picking from any of the other wideouts who were selected over the remainder of the second round. Those names include Wan’Dale Robinson, John Metchie III, Tyquan Thornton, George Pickens, Alex Pierce and Skyy Moore. How little production would be necessary for any of those receivers to have a market value in the $5.07M range? Braxton Berrios has 940 career receiving yards in three seasons and signed a two year, $12M contract. Zay Jones has 1,884 receiving yards in five NFL seasons and signed a three year, $24M deal. How hard would it be for the Hawks to find another Metcalf or Golden Tate in the second round and see their second round pick turn into a receiver playing on a discount rookie contract?
In short, the effective cap discount between paying a running back market rate and paying their second round contract is a whole lot smaller for the position. Further, as many have argued over the past several years about the position in general, running backs simply do not carry the same impact on the outcome of games as positions like wide receiver or even tackle, which helps to explain why many front offices across the NFL have stopped paying any sort of premium for players at the position.
Basically, if one wishes to trust the WAR numbers PFF has developed, a top five running back is roughly as impactful on the outcome of a team’s season as the fiftieth best wide receiver in any given season. The argument can be made that they fall in just below tackles in terms of impact on games, but that ignores the fact that tackles are paid far better than running backs. There are fourteen tackles who make more per year than the running back with the highest annual salary, meaning the rookie contract benefit of a tackle on a second round contract far exceeds the rookie contract benefit of a running back on a second round contract.
And that second round contract is the key on which to focus, because regardless of what position a player selected with pick 41 in the second round plays, they’re signing a four year, $9.25M contract. Thus, the key question becomes, having a player at what positions on a four year, $9.25M contract would provide the team the greatest potential rookie contract discount? Whether one opts for wide receiver or quarterback or left tackle, at the end of the day, the reality is that running back offers one of the smallest potential rookie contract discounts of any position, which makes using one of the most valuable picks in the draft on a running back a poor value proposition.
Regardless of how good Walker may or may not be.