It doesn’t happen often. In fact, it’s only really happened one other time. But New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley mentioned that sitting out the 2023 NFL season is an option that he would consider. Las Vegas Raiders RB Josh Jacobs hinted that he is taking a stand for future running backs.
But could sitting out for a season spark change in the way RB contracts are handled? And would the two runners really be willing to walk away from $10.09 million in guaranteed money this season?
Rewinding the Tape: Le’Veon Bell’s Stand
We’ve seen this story play out once before. Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 NFL season. Bell refused to sign the franchise tag, and he and the Pittsburgh Steelers were unable to come to terms on an extension.
But while he set the precedent for high-caliber runners sitting out instead of playing on the tag, it backfired on the position. But it didn’t necessarily backfire on Bell. And he doesn’t regret the decision.
“Oh no, no. That never crossed my mind,” Bell said. “I feel like me sitting out, how I look at it is it helped me on the back end of my career. The year that I came back, last year, it felt like I was a rookie all over again. I was so excited to get back on the field, get my gatherings back. I don’t know, it kind of like reset my body. I feel like it’s going to help me for the end of my career, elongate my career.”
Bell’s holdout cost him an even bigger sum of money in 2018 than Jacobs and Barkley face today. With the salary cap exploding after the new TV rights deal, it’s further proof of how far the position has fallen from a valuation perspective. Bell’s tag was worth $14.544 million. That’s roughly a $4.5 million difference in the wrong direction.
Bell recouped that money. His next contract was worth $52 million over four seasons, but $27 million of that was guaranteed. Although Bell only spent two seasons with the New York Jets, he received all $27 million in those two seasons.
But his production fell off a cliff, and a lot has changed since 2018 in the NFL sphere pertaining to the position.
Could Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs Inspire Change?
The two runners have much to weigh before the season, and their respective teams need to figure out long-term compensation before July 17. If they don’t, they either must play on the tag or opt to sit out the season.
Jacobs and Barkley will never recoup the $10.09 million they would choose to forgo in 2023 if they sit out. However, the position is ruthless, and they could also tear a ligament in their knee in the third week and never make more than another $5 million for the rest of their career.
In the end, long-term financial security is the goal. Bell could have played on the tag in 2018, produced the way he did after signing his long-term deal, and never made the $27 million he did in New York. He also could have been injured on one of the likely 400 touches he would have received from the Steelers in 2018.
Many believe these players would be foolish to miss out on that guaranteed money. For Tony Pollard, that would make sense. He’s made shy of $4 million on his Round 4 rookie deal but will more than double that in 2023 on the tag.
But Jacobs has earned $12.08 million and Barkley a whopping $38.6 million. Having more money obviously isn’t a negative, but Jacobs is likely rather financially stable, and Barkley almost certainly is. They have the financial freedom to take a stand.
And the NFL almost certainly doesn’t want to see two of their “star” running backs sitting out. They don’t want to see the Giants’ leading jersey salesman and two of the league’s most valuable fantasy players sitting out the season. But is it enough to actually change anything? What could change to help alleviate this issue?
- Eliminate the franchise tag for RBs.
- Create incentives unique for the position that doesn’t affect the cap.
The position is not going to become more valuable overnight. We’ll likely never see the position hold any more value than it does right now ever again. But it’s also true that running backs take an absolute beating physically.
At just 2.57 years, RBs have the lowest career life expectancy in the NFL. But between the relative ineffectiveness of running versus passion for the ball and the small relative difference between the best and average RBs, the position’s value has quickly spiraled downward.
Indianapolis Colts kicker Matt Gay received $13 million in guarantees this offseason. That’s the same amount of guarantees that Miles Sanders received from the Carolina Panthers. No running back received more in total guarantees this offseason than the Colts’ new kicker.
Jacobs and Barkley are taking massive financial risks by potentially sitting out the 2023 season. But something needs to change regarding RB contracts. The problem is something needs to spark that change.
Working together on this and both opting out this season would be far more productive than just one of them sitting out. The position group as a whole needs to band together and create change.
And while we had two of them drafted inside the top 15 this past draft cycle, the position is quickly becoming one that has no hope for long-term financial stability for standout players drafted outside of the first round.