The Cleveland Browns have their first 1,000-yard rusher of worth since Peyton Hillis back in 2011 in the form of 2018 NFL Draft second-rounder Nick Chubb. However, as the NFL running back’s value continues to decrease, it is up to the Browns to decide just how much Chubb is worth heading into year three of a four-year deal.
What has happened with other big name RBs?
Over the past four seasons, we have seen running backs such as Devonta Freeman, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, and most recently Christian McCaffrey negotiate big contracts with their respective teams. While the jury is still out on the deals of Elliott and McCaffrey, none of Freeman, Johnson, or Gurley came close to making it through their deals before being cut or traded.
We even saw the Pittsburgh Steelers stand their ground, refusing to pay Le’Veon Bell big money on a multi-year deal. He has since signed a far less valuable deal with the New York Jets after sitting out a full season, but it looks unlikely he will make it through the length of his contract either. Elliott had to threaten to sit out just this past year before the Dallas Cowboys finally agreed to pay him what he wanted.
While there are always outliers (Frank Gore), running backs are the fastest depreciating asset in the NFL, and teams are becoming wary of paying them. Holdouts, franchise tags, and player-team disputes are going to continue with NFL running backs as the trends towards passing offenses continues.
NFL running backs are not getting paid today
Like Bell, the Tennessee Titans refused to sign Derrick Henry to the long-term deal he wanted this offseason, opting for the franchise tag. Before signing with the Denver Broncos this season on just a two-year, $16 million deal, Former Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon attempted a holdout which drastically backfired on him as Austin Ekeler did not skip a beat in his absence.
Now, Dalvin Cook is stating he will not show up to training camp or play for the Minnesota Vikings without a new deal. If history repeats itself, this too will backfire on Cook as it did with Gordon just a year ago.
Even the top backs in the league have had to scratch and claw for their desired deals, with two failing to secure their bags. Unless Nick Chubb settles for far less than his value with the Browns, he will be in the same boat as he approaches the deadline of his rookie contract.
Just how much is Nick Chubb worth to the Browns?
Remembering back to Chubb’s rookie season, then general manager John Dorsey had to literally force head coach Hue Jackson to get Chubb on the field by trading veteran running back Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite failing to see his first start until the seventh game of his rookie season, Chubb still briefly surpasses 1,000 yards rushing before having a negative carry at the end of the game.
According to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric, Chubb turned out to be the second most valuable running back in the league as a rookie. He then topped off his rookie season by averaging five yards per carry, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards and scoring eight touchdowns for the Browns.
On his way to his first career Pro Bowl appearance a year ago, Chubb’s OSM score dropped all the way to the 32nd most valuable runner in the league. According to Football Outsiders, Chubb finished as the 12th overall running back in DVOA, which measures a player’s efficiency on a play-by-play basis.
When considering Chubb’s worth, the question must be asked: is he irreplaceable to the offense of the Cleveland Browns? Just as Bell was not irreplaceable for the Steelers, Freeman for the Atlanta Falcons, Johnson for the Arizona Cardinals, and Gurley for the Los Angeles Rams, the answer is no.
What options do the Browns have with Chubb?
Given the analytical nature of the Browns’ front office, with Andrew Berry and Paul DePodesta leading the way, it is likely they are already thinking about life without Chubb in Cleveland and are well aware of the worth of NFL running backs today.
This also means running mate Kareem Hunt is also likely out the door as they will look to get a trade asset from him this year or recoup a compensatory pick for him as he signs a new deal elsewhere next offseason. This is certainly one way the Browns could examine the worth of Chubb.
Option one is to ride out their star running back until the end of his deal, then gleefully accept whatever compensatory pick they can get when he leaves. The risk of this option is Chubb could take a similar route as Bell and sit out a full season, tanking his value.
Another path the Browns could take with Chubb is to trade him as he gets closer to the end of his rookie contract. At this point, however, due to the value of NFL running backs, the Browns are still looking at a third-round pick maximum in exchange for his services.
However, there is one other route worth exploring, and potentially most beneficial for the Browns and for Chubb in the short term.
How Browns should handle Chubb’s contract
Before Bell sat out a full season in 2018 for the Steelers, he played a fifth season under contract on the franchise tag. While it was not ideal for Bell then, thinking he could get a long term deal worth big money, NFL running backs today may be more accepting and willing to take on the tag.
The franchise tag, which allows a team to retain the rights to a player for one year, is currently set at just over $10 million for the running back position. While Chubb may be unhappy with the tag, and the Browns may not like paying double-digit millions for a running back, it solves a massive problem for both sides.
On the side of the Browns, they get to retain Chubb in the prime years of his career before he begins depreciating. On the side of Chubb, he gets a guaranteed one-year deal of over $10 million, which is high change considering the new long-term deal Ekeler just signed for only about $6 million annually with the Chargers.
Wrapping up the Nick Chubb and Browns dilemma
While Elliott and McCaffrey have peaked $15 million annually on a long term deal, the market for running backs is getting more stingy. Will Chubb fetch a massive deal on the open market if the Browns let him walk? Possibly.
However, the worth of Nick Chubb is going to be presumably dictated by the market, which is ever-shrinking. A win-win in Chubb’s contract would be to give him back-to-back franchise tags, where he gets his money and the Browns do not have any long term commitments to a depreciating position, before inevitably parting ways.