The pair of running backs in Los Angeles have changed contracts for elite running backs in the NFL. The Rams Todd Gurley and Charges Melvin Gordon have been connected since their college days. Gurley and Gordon took college football by storm and then were each drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
In just a few short years, the two now both play in Los Angeles and are two of the elite running backs in the NFL. Despite both having major success, the Rams and the Chargers have treated their contract situations very differently.
While Gurley signed a new long-term extension, the Changers took the traditional route to allow Gordon to play out his rookie contract before negotiating a new deal. At least that was the plan until Gordon demanded a new deal or a trade before playing out the fifth year of his rookie contract.
Teams are typically skeptical about extending running backs. The shelf life at the position is much shorter given the beating that players take per season. While a player like Tom Brady may play until 45, most running backs don’t last much past 30.
The Rams could deal some repercussions with paying Gurley as the Rams running back has been dealing with a knee injury dating back to the end of last season.
The debate of giving running backs a long-term deal isn’t as simple as extending a player like Aaron Donald. The conversation is much more complicated. An elite running back’s contract must be treated much differently.
A team with an opportunity to win a Super Bowl needs to retain its top talent to meet that potential. However, with players like Phillip Lindsay, Aaron Jones, and others that are taken later in drafts, it has diminished the value of the position.
With the team’s competing at the top, it becomes crucial to take advantage of the talent on cheaper rookie contracts. That has brought up the questions of whether or not paying a running back is worth it compared to other positions, when teams can get that same production on day two or three of the draft.
When Gurley signed his four-year extension in 2018, it took many by surprise. As a first-round pick the Rams could have Gurley under control for five seasons under this rookie contract.
As exemplified by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Le’veon Bell, teams can easily extend that control for two more years with the franchise tag. While this is an expensive alternative, it allows an organization to keep control of an elite running back without having to commit long-term money.
Bell sat out last year after the Steelers refused to offer the now 27-year-old running back. While he was still able to secure a four year, $52M contract from the New York Jets, Melvin Gordon does not want to put himself in that same situation.
If the Chargers take the Steelers approach, and Gordon doesn’t take a stand, the team could control him for seven seasons without a long-term extension and pay raise.
Gurley’s extension becomes particularly interesting in comparison to Gordon’s situation. When the Rams extended Gurley on a four-year $57.5M deal, he was only 23 years old. This allowed the Rams to pay Gurley during his prime instead of at the back-end of his career.
While Bell will be 31 when his second contract finishes and Gordon will be 30-31, Gurley will be 27. At that point the Rams can decide if Gurley is worth another 3-4 year deal or if they should move on.
This is the fear that the Steelers and now the Jets have with Bell. The Philadelphia Eagles gave DeMarco Murray at 27-years old a large contract and ended up paying the price. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Murray barely eclipsed 700 yards with the Eagles.
By paying a running back when they are 23 or 24, teams can get the most out of their elite talent.
As the Chargers dilemma thickens with Gordon, the Rams can smile, knowing this will not be an issue for them. Gurley’s contract was frontloaded, and the team will have an “out” if they wish after this year. That’s not to say they should take that “out,” but it will be an option if Gurley’s knee remains an issue.
The Rams went from being praised for extending Gurley to being criticized in the matter of one offseason. However, general manager Les Snead handled his running back’s contract the right way. The Rams paid Gurley while he was still in his prime instead of waiting until he was nearing age 30. It will be interesting to see if teams follow the Rams’ approach or if the battle to pay the running back will continue.