One of the biggest stories in the NFL last summer was a contract holdout. As the Dallas Cowboys labored through training camp in the Southern California heat, star running back Ezekiel Elliott lounged on a beach in Mexico and tested his worth.
Elliott considered himself the most valuable running back in the league and wanted to be paid accordingly. His vacation from the Cowboys started in July, stretched through the August preseason and finally ended in early September, when owner Jerry Jones predictably cracked and showed Elliott the money.
In the old days, before football evolved into an aerial circus, the value of a stud running back was rarely doubted. But it’s now frequently debated, as the NFL continues to move toward devaluing the position.
“When you go back and think about Walter Payton and Franco Harris and you go on to Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Jerome Bettis and Emmitt Smith, the offenses kind of went through those guys,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “And that’s just not the way it is anymore.”
The truth about a player’s value lies in the point spread. If Elliott misses a game, what’s the adjustment to the betting line? Andrews’ answer: two points.
“Running backs were important to the number back in the day,” Andrews said, “but the game is so much different now.”
The game — and the point spread — is mostly about the quarterbacks. If Tom Brady is out for Tampa Bay, Andrews said he would make a seven-point adjustment in the line to backup Blaine Gabbert. An adjustment of four points or more from an elite quarterback to his backup is common in NFL betting markets.
After consulting two other Las Vegas oddsmakers, Andrews assigned point values to the league’s top running backs.
“We had trouble finding many guys who are worth more than a point,” Andrews said.
Only three running backs — Elliott, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry — are worth two points each to the betting line, Andrews said, and the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley has a line value of one point. It’s not much, and that’s essentially the entire list of difference-making runners.
Andrews assigned values of a half-point to Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, but those are insignificant adjustments considering NFL lines move a half-point all the time.
The dwindling point-spread value of the position reinforces the theory that running backs are not worthy of top-five draft picks and lucrative contracts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers refused to give in during Le’Veon Bell’s holdout in the 2018 season, and the New York Jets are looking to dump Bell one year into a four-year, $52.5 million contract that guarantees him more than $25 million. The Los Angeles Rams had buyer’s remorse with Todd Gurley, who was released two years after getting $45 million guaranteed.
It says a lot that Andrews considers Bell and Gurley invisible to the betting line. Alvin Kamara of New Orleans is another runner whose perceived worth is probably higher with fans and the media than with oddsmakers. The quality of the No. 2 running back is a vitally important part of the equation, just as it is with quarterbacks.
Of course, exceptions always exist to any rule or theory. Not all running backs are interchangeable or replaceable parts, and Elliott, McCaffrey, Henry and Barkley are exceptional.
Elliott, who turns 25 on July 22, has led the NFL in rushing in two of his four seasons since Dallas drafted him No. 4 overall out of Ohio State in 2016. His contract will pale in comparison with what Dak Prescott gets, if and when the Cowboys sign their quarterback to a new deal.
The six-year, $90 million contract Elliott signed before the 2019 season was topped in average annual salary by McCaffrey, who got a four-year, $64 million contract in April. If any running back is worth $16 million per year, it’s McCaffrey because of his versatility.
“McCaffrey is such a huge part of the offense both running the ball and pass receiving,” Andrews said. “He’s a threat to go all the way, aside from his contributions on a play-to-play basis.”
What makes McCaffrey, 24, arguably the most valuable running back in the NFL is his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The former Stanford star and the No. 8 overall pick by the Panthers in 2017, McCaffrey has had back-to-back seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing and more than 100 receptions. Last year he totaled 1,387 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 287 carries while making 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns.
Andrews said his numbers are simply starting points and cases can be made that Elliott, Henry and McCaffrey could be worth slightly more than two points to the line in some situations, and Barkley might be worth a little more than a point.
Barkley, a dynamic playmaker at Penn State and the No. 2 overall pick by the Giants in 2018, rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 91 receptions in his rookie year. His numbers declined last season, when he missed three games to injury, but Barkley is a big-time workhorse as a runner and receiver.
“Saquon is a really good player, and I like him a lot,” Andrews said. “The trouble is, I don’t think the Giants are very good.”
It’s important to remember what the Titans did in the playoffs when Henry was at his best. The regular-season rushing champion with 1,540 yards took his show on the road in the postseason. In the wild-card round at New England, Henry rushed 34 times for 182 yards in a 20-13 victory. In the divisional round at Baltimore, he carried 30 times for 195 yards in a 28-12 win.
A Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, Henry was a second-round pick in 2016. He’s not much of a passing-game weapon out of the backfield, with only 11 receptions in his junior season with the Crimson Tide and no more than 18 receptions in any of his four years with the Titans. It’s considered a weakness to be a one-dimensional back, but Henry is probably the most powerful runner in the NFL.
“Henry is one where the offense does start with him,” Andrews said.
Twelve of the last 13 league MVPs were quarterbacks, the exception being Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012. And the last two MVPs, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, are QBs who make a lot of plays running the ball.
The running game remains critically important. Of the top six rushing offenses in the league last season — Baltimore, San Francisco, Tennessee, Seattle, Dallas and Minnesota — five were playoff teams. Only the Cowboys missed the postseason after making Elliott the highest-paid running back in the game.
But the harsh truth is only four running backs in the NFL really move the needle when it comes to the point spread.
RUNNERS FOR THE MONEY
South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews rates the NFL’s most valuable running backs and their worth to the point spread:
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys 2 points
Derrick Henry, Titans 2 points
Christian McCaffrey, Panthers 2 points
Saquon Barkey, Giants 1 point
Dalvin Cook, Vikings 1/2 point
Josh Jacobs, Raiders 1/2 point
Aaron Jones, Packers 1/2 point
Joe Mixon, Bengals 1/2 point