OPINION: Stern: Frustrations over RB market come as no surprise

Saquon Barkley
Photo credit Tim Nwachukwu / Staff / Getty Images

When people or certain gestures go underappreciated, we ask ourselves the all-important question: why? Maybe nobody noticed these acts of kindness. We probably didn't care to acknowledge what the person did, as taking them for granted was an easier option. And after a handful of the NFL's star running backs were either released or franchise tagged without long-term extensions, the epidemic of undervaluing the position is in full force.

Of the top-five leading rushers last season, three running backs were given a harsh reality test this summer. Raiders stud Josh Jacobs and Giants sensation Saquon Barkley remained unsigned through Monday's franchise tag deadline, which means both players will earn a mandated $10.1 million, at the maximum. Miles Sanders, who played a role in the Eagles' championship run last season, didn't see a reasonable offer from the team this past spring. Consequently, he joined the Panthers on a four-year, $25 million deal ($11 million guaranteed).

These frustrations for running backs have become a cautionary tale for young players. Highlight-reel plays in college and short stints of success in the NFL, followed by the letdown that no team will commit long-term, is starting to get old. And, deprioritizing the position to the point where teams are unwilling to spend high draft picks on them -- or offer second contracts -- makes matters even worse. Sure, the players get life-changing money in their early 20s. But compared to their teammates at other positions, the earning potential is a lot lower, especially given the fact that running backs touch the ball more.

"It's so tough for running backs right now, man," NFL veteran Melvin Gordon recently told The Jim Rome Show. "You have a lot of running backs that are out there and we just don't get love. It's literally the worst position to play in the NFL right now. It literally sucks."

The only alternative for a veteran rusher frustrated about their contract is to retire. Holding out of practices and games only prolongs their situation, and makes a proven commodity even more forgettable. Basic economics stands behind the hard-to-accept truth. There’s a large supply of capable players at the position, and the demand for a specific player's services is deemed low, given their replaceability.

While top-tier NFL quarterbacks and edge rushers are at a premium, a quality running back can annually be found in the late rounds of drafts, on a bargain rookie contract. If they get hurt, there's most likely a waiver wire player who can replicate the production. And if they stay healthy, they can be pounded into the ground until their contract expires.

Josh Jacobs
Photo credit Jeff Bottari / Stringer / Getty Images

Before he even plays a snap this year, Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson, widely deemed a generational talent, is set to be the highest-paid running back next season, with a $13.7 million salary. The second-highest paid back in Christian McCaffrey -- who's amassed 8,482 yards of total offense and 60 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons -- will make $12 million.

No one is saying Robinson won't resemble an elite running back, but Atlanta's decision to use a coveted top-10 pick on him represents the biggest financial commitment that a team was willing to make to a running back this offseason. Just let that sink in. A team was more likely to invest in a 21-year-old unknown commodity than somebody who'd earned their stripes in the league. And had Robinson dropped down draft boards, he most likely wouldn't have slid to the halfway point of the first round.

"I will never pay a running back again -- I’ll just use them and rotate them out," Rams head coach Sean McVay once said about his approach to the position. The Rams' strategy of using a steady platoon of running backs seems to have worked. The supporting evidence? They won Super Bowl 56 with Cam Akers, Sony Michel, and Darrell Henderson sharing the backfield touches.

Maybe those in favor of paying running backs their current market value view September 10, 2011, as some sort of turning-point holiday. That's when Adrian Peterson, at the age of 26, signed a seven-year, $96 million contract with the Vikings, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history.

The trend of paying running back appeared to have made a comeback when Ezekiel Elliott agreed to a $90 million deal with the Cowboys before the 2019 campaign. But just this offseason, he was released with two years left on his deal, and still remains a free agent. So, the contrast in team behavior is more indicative of a philosophical shift than both players' level of production.

While it may be morally wrong for teams to treat running backs more like labor horses than people, it's important to not blame front offices for thinking about them with their checkbooks in hand. There's a glaring pay difference, which is dictated by the perceived value of a specific position and how easy it'd be to get someone of a similar caliber. While it's nice for teams to have a player like Jacobs, Barkley, or Sanders, their respective franchise feel like they can get by without them. They aren't willing to concede or blink first.

In the age of advanced analytics, there’s reason to believe the underpayment of players at one of football’s most important positions will continue. Although history proves halfbacks age more like milk than a fine wine, it's still important to appreciate the role and value they offer in grinding out wins on the gridiron. Unfortunately, extreme levels of mileage they put in, coupled with the buildup of injuries and transient nature of the position, makes them more expendable than a used couch that gets dumped on the side of the road.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Tim Nwachukwu / Staff / Getty Images