NFL

Todd Gurley Has Taught NFL Teams an Expensive Lesson

Todd Gurley is taking the hit as the reason that it could be a long time before another NFL running back lands a big contract. A look at the salary-cap implications for the Los Angeles Rams after releasing Gurley this week explains why.

But the truth is that the top of the 2019 salary list for running backs is littered with players whose output carrying the ball didn’t come close to justifying the money they were paid.

The Los Angeles Rams will be paying for their mistake

Cutting Todd Gurley this week allowed the Los Angeles Rams to avoid paying the running back a $10 million roster bonus and freed $5.5 million in cap space. But dropping the running back two years into a four-year, $57.5 million contract will require the Rams to deal with $20 million of dead cap space.

Gurley’s contract called for $45 million in guaranteed money. He was coming off 1,309 rushing yards with a league-high 13 TDs on the ground to go along with 64 catches for another 788 yards.

Gurley’s numbers fell off to 857 rushing yards and 31 catches last season. The Rams ended up cutting him because there was no market for a 25-year-old back with known knee problems.

Teams have been reluctant for a while to invest in running backs once they reach the age of 30. Gurley’s physical deterioration is the exception rather than the rule, so teams aren’t suddenly going to drop that ceiling to 25 years old. But he’s a reminder that a pair of 600-yard backs who can catch some balls out of the backfield at $1.5 million apiece is a better investment.

It’s not just a Todd Gurley thing

The Tennessee Titans used the franchise tag on Derrick Henry this week, setting his salary at more than $10 million for the upcoming season. Henry rushed for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season to lead the NFL in both categories. He followed that with 446 yards in three playoff games at the conclusion of his fourth season.

Henry is just 26 years old and coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, so he was understandably looking for a long-term deal. He probably would have gotten it in 2015 and certainly would have gotten it in 2005.

But this is 2020 and the Titans put their eggs in the Ryan Tannehill basket rather than repeat the Los Angeles Rams’ mistake of tying up a combined $155 million in guaranteed money to Todd Gurley and Jared Goff. As a result, Henry gets a huge one-year deal but the Titans have no long-term obligation unless a contract is worked out by July 15.

Big-money backs didn’t produce in 2019

The value of a running back cannot be measured solely by production on the ground because some catch balls out of the backfield. That being said, an examination of the top salaries in 2019 after filtering out signing and roster bonuses shows a lot of money being spent for not much yardage.

LeSean McCoy, a 31-year-old with six 1,000-yard seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills, was paid $6,175,000 by the Kansas City Chiefs but carried just 101 times for 465 yards. David Johnson gave the Arizona Cardinals 94 carries for 345 yards in exchange for $5.7 million. Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers fell to a career-low 612 yards at $5.6 million, though he did once again catch a bunch of passes.

Todd Gurley’s $5 million salary was fourth on the NFL list, with Dion Lewis of the Tennessee Titans rounding out the fop five at $4 million for 54 carries and 209 yards.

It isn’t until you get down to the sixth-highest salary that you come across a 1,000-yard rusher. Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys ran 301 times for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns to celebrate maybe the last huge deal we see a running back land for quite some time. Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars ran 265 times for 1,152 yards and three touchdowns while earning $2,933,000 for the No. 100 salary.

Only three other running backs on the top-20 salary list – No. 13 Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, No. 17 Mark Ingram of the Baltimore Ravens and No. 19 Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants – went over 1,000 yards. Gurley was the only other player on the list to eclipse even 800 yards.