As important as quarterbacks are to the success of any football team, a franchise, star running back can be just as vital. The Rams might’ve looked like a totally different team with Todd Gurley available and healthy for Super Bowl LIII and the Saints have constructed one of the most dangerous offenses in the game around Alvin Kamara.
In the bigger picture, they don’t make nearly as much as their signal-calling counterparts, but there are some running backs in the league who are making their fair share of the money.
Here are the six highest-paid running backs entering the 2019 NFL season.
6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: 4 yrs./$31.2 million, $7.8 million annually
The Giants’ second-year star tailback is the only running back to make the Forbes’ Top 100 highest paid athletes of 2019 list. Although he only has the sixth-highest total and annual salary amongst his position in the NFL, his instant success in a market like New York has made him a marketing treasure, adding immense value. He’s already penned deals with Visa, Toyota, and Pepsi.
The reigning Rookie of the Year rejuvenated the Giants’ fanbase and injected a good dose of excitement to a once-again struggling Giants offense in 2018. Despite the lack of a decent Giants offensive line that underwent several changes through the season in an effort to find any consistency, Barkley ran for 1,307 yards with 11 touchdowns and caught a ridiculous 91 balls out of the backfield for 721 yards with four receiving touchdowns. His 2,028 total yards from scrimmage led the league last year.
How he adjusts to teams scheming against him in 2019 will tell if his rookie campaign was a fluke or if Barkley is for real. But if we’re being honest, the latter is probably true.
5.LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills: 5 yrs/$40 million, $8 million annually
LeSean McCoy is entering the last year of his five-year deal in Buffalo, and even with the end of his contract looming and competition brought in by the Bills, he’s not too worried about his incoming 11th NFL season.
Though he rushed for a career-worst 514 yards on 161 carries for a career-low 3.2 yards per carry, he’s ready for the competition and eager for a comeback type of season.
LeSean McCoy isn’t worried about the Bills additions of 36-year-old Frank Gore and 25-year-old T.J.Yeldon.
He told The Buffalo News Wednesday that he fully expects to continue as the Bills’ starting running back, a role he has held since joining the team in a 2015 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“In this league, in general, it’s always competition,” McCoy, who turns 31 in July said to Buffalo News after the second day of practice at the Bills’ mandatory minicamp. “I’m a type of guy, I thrive off of having a big name. So when guys come to my team, they’re curious to see, ‘How is LeSean McCoy? Is he still a good player?’ I mean, I’m a dominant player. I think that speaks for itself. But I’ll be in the same role as last year. And I look forward to putting some numbers up and bouncing back from that last season.”
Even in the latter stages of his career, McCoy has had a few bright moments in Buffalo. But he hasn’t enjoyed the type of success compared to his younger days when he first came into the league with the Eagles, running for over 1,000 yards just twice (2016-17) since joining the Bills after doing so four times in Philadelphia.
4. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons: 5 yrs./$41.25 million, $8.25 million annually
Although Devonta Freeman played just a pair of games due to injuries last year, he’s been solid and one of Atlanta’s best players since becoming the starter in 2015. His absence was felt in 2018, as Freeman’s season ended just 14 carries in and the Falcons offense struggled to find any sort of consistency. Without Freeman and other injuries piling up, the Falcons ended up with a 7-9 record and their first losing record since 2014. When healthy, Freeman is one of the best backs in the league, and his coach Dan Quinn acknowledged it during the teams minicamp.
“His energy, his toughness, what he can bring to the team is significant,” Quinn said. “He affects more than just one person. There’s a couple of guys like that on our team that are multipliers and bring extra energy for others, do things to help other players around them perform better. And when you have players like that competing at their best, it only makes the team better.”
With Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, Freeman is expected to really earn his paycheck in 2019, taking more of the load for the Falcons offense.
3. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals: 3 yrs./ $39 million, $13 million annually
Cardinals running back David Johnson has had an up-and-down start to his NFL career. After a promising start with the Cardinals in 2015, then his best season to date in 2016 where he amassed for a league-leading 2,118 total yards from scrimmage with 20 total touchdowns.
After missing just about all of the 2017 season with an injury, Johnson came back with a solid 2018 campaign that saw him rush for 940 yards with seven touchdowns while he caught another 50 balls for 446 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson may not be fully paid like it just yet, but he feels like he’s the best running back in the league and he’s not afraid to admit it.
2. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets: 4 yrs./$52.5 million, $13.125 annually
Le’Veon Bell held out for an entire season before leaving Pittsburgh and getting himself PAID with the Jets. Now he has to prove that he hasn’t lost a step during the time off, let alone that he’s worth the money.
There’s no question Bell has the talent and the ability to be a star, full-time back. He’s rushed for over 1,000 in three of his first five seasons in Pittsburgh including back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2016-17. His 321 carries in 2017 led the league. Entering his seventh NFL season (and his sixth actually on the field), Bell’s $52.5 million contract with just about half of it guaranteed makes him the second highest overall running back in the league and the third highest paid entering the 2019 campaign.
1. Todd Gurley, 4yrs/$57 million, $14.4 million annually
Do-it-all Rams running back Todd Gurley rakes in the most overall money along with the highest annual salary in the league, and rightfully so. He’s been the key to the Rams offense (as seen by his absence in Super Bowl LIII) and has rushed for over 1,000 yards in three of his first four years in the NFL and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns the last two with 13 in 2017, then 17 in 2018.
However, the question with Gurley in 2019 is the status of his potentially arthritic knee. He admitted to former NFL running back and current NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew that he injured his knee in the 2018 opener against the Raiders and that it got progressively worse through the season, leading toward his brief cameo in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
“I think you can expect (22 touches per game). But he may not be on the field for 80 snaps,” Jones-Drew said about Gurley’s projected output. “He may be on the field for 60 or 50 snaps instead of having to be on the field for 16 games playing 80 snaps to 90 snaps a game. That’s not gonna happen anymore.”
Gurley’s injury status going forward will change how we look at this contract, but for now, his healthy production is deserving of his high price tag.