Why Nick Chubb's Injury Highlights Running Backs' Pay Dilemma in the NFL



by FAIZAN CHAUDHARY

Why Nick Chubb's Injury Highlights Running Backs' Pay Dilemma in the NFL
© Joe Sargent/GettyImages

Nick Chubb's recent season-ending knee injury serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing debate surrounding running backs' contracts in the NFL and the reluctance of teams to offer them more lucrative deals. Chubb's career took a devastating turn when he suffered the injury during Cleveland's matchup with Pittsburgh on Monday night, and his recovery journey is bound to be arduous, with no guaranteed income beyond the $10.85 million he's earning this season.

For Chubb, this marks his second attempt at a comeback from a significant knee injury, and it comes with the added burden of a non-guaranteed salary of $12.2 million due in 2024. The Cleveland Browns would face a $4 million dead cap hit if they decide to release him next year, as per Spotrac.com.

Running Backs' Contract Demands

Running backs have been increasingly vocal about their demand for better contracts and more guaranteed money. Their argument stems from the fact that they are often underpaid compared to players in other positions. In 2023, only kickers and punters had a lower franchise tag value than running backs, which stood at $10.1 million. This figure pales in comparison to the franchise tags for quarterbacks ($32.4 million), wide receivers ($19.7 million), and offensive linemen ($18.2 million). Just five years ago, the franchise tag for running backs was significantly higher at $14.5 million.

This devaluation of the running back position led to contentious disputes during the past offseason. Players like Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs, both top-tier running backs, refused to sign their franchise tags, expressing their dissatisfaction with the absence of long-term contracts. Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard, while signing his franchise tag with the Dallas Cowboys, emphasized the desire for longevity and security that a substantial contract would provide.

Jonathan Taylor, a 2021 All-Pro, has also found himself in a contract dispute with the Indianapolis Colts, further highlighting the ongoing issues surrounding running back contracts.

The NFL Players Association, however, agreed to the franchise tags as part of the collective bargaining agreement, leaving running backs with limited options to address the pay disparity. Chubb spoke to this issue in July, explaining the difficult position running backs find themselves in when their own production can be used against them in contract negotiations.

Recently, the NFL filed a grievance against the NFLPA, alleging that union leaders, including President JC Tretter, advised running backs to consider exaggerating injuries to gain leverage in contract negotiations. The outcome of this grievance will be determined by an arbitrator.

Injuries continue to plague running backs, with notable players like JK Dobbins, Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, David Montgomery, and Jamaal Williams dealing with various ailments. While injuries are part of the sport, running backs endure more hits than any other position, making their careers shorter on average.

Teams often view running backs as interchangeable due to the success of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. This perception leads many organizations to shy away from investing significant money in the position. In the past 15 years, only three Super Bowl champions had a 1,000-yard rusher in the regular season, compared to 11 in the 15 seasons before that.

Replacing a player of Chubb's caliber is a daunting task. His remarkable career average of 5.3 yards per carry, second-highest in NFL history among running backs with over 1,000 carries, underscores his irreplaceable value. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski acknowledges the challenge, stating, "You don't replace Nick Chubb. You just don't do that."

In conclusion, Nick Chubb's injury exemplifies the ongoing tensions in the NFL regarding running backs' compensation, as they seek more secure contracts in a league that often undervalues their contributions. The debate over this issue remains a central focus in the world of professional football.