Greatness will always demand an exception.
The Minnesota Vikings made one for Adrian Peterson three years ago. Peterson is the face of the Vikings' franchise. He is special. With a salary of nearly $16 million due this season, Peterson is the only running back in the National Football League who is even sniffing quarterback money.
Peterson is the exception.
Otherwise, the value teams are placing on running backs continues to drop. For all but the rare, transcendent player, gone are the days of the monster contracts and significant payouts. Running backs just aren't that important anymore. Chris Johnson will soon be the latest running back to learn that stark truth.
The Tennessee Titans are going to release the 28-year-old Johnson. They paid him $10 million last season, only to watch Johnson's yards-per-carry average drop to a career low 3.9. Johnson produced his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2013, but the Titans are not Mike Munchak's team anymore. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt is in charge now, and he prefers his running backs to have more physical toughness than Johnson has shown recently.
Johnson is due $8 million this season. The Titans almost certainly have no intention of paying Johnson that, nor does any other team, which is why Tennessee has been unable to trade Johnson, who reportedly has refused to take a pay cut. Tennessee will probably release Johnson by Monday, when the Titans players report for voluntary workouts.
Johnson will find a market unlike the one that existed in 2008, when Tennessee drafted him in the first round, and certainly nothing like the one in 2011, when he signed a lucrative contract extension that paid him $31 million in guarantees, including a $10 million signing bonus.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, in 2009, teams paid their running back corps an average of $8.2 million in cash. In 2014, that number is estimated to be about $7.2 million.
As of today, only three teams have more money allocated to their running backs than the Titans; with Johnson on the roster, they're on the hook for $13.4 million. That dollar figure will decline dramatically once he's released.
Minnesota is spending the most on its running backs, predictably, given Peterson's deal. The Vikings are scheduled to spend $15.9 million on the position this season. Carolina is second, at about $14.3 million. Philadelphia is third at $14.2 million, a large portion of which will go to 25-year-old LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing last season, his fifth in the league.
Denver is spending the least on its running backs at $1.6 million. Most of that money is dedicated to Montee Ball, the Broncos' second-round draft pick in 2013, and Ronnie Hillman, their third-round pick in 2012.
Even after signing former Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew last week, Oakland is spending only $2.8 million on backs this season. Dallas has the third-lowest number at $3.1 million.
What Johnson undoubtedly will learn is what Jones-Drew, Knowshon Moreno and others found out: Teams are not willing to spend much money on running backs in free agency.
Although Jones-Drew technically got a three-year contract from the Raiders, in reality he will be working off a one-year deal. Three years removed from being a first-team All-Pro and leading the NFL in rushing with 1,606 yards, the 29-year-old Jones-Drew got a $1.2 million signing bonus from the Raiders and will make $1.2 million in base salary this season, with no money guaranteed beyond 2014.
The 26-year-old Moreno had a career year for Denver in 2013, rushing for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and catching 60 passes for 548 yards and three touchdowns. In danger of being cut before last season started, Moreno earned a spot on the Broncos' roster for his pass-protection skill and reliability. QB Peyton Manning trusted him. That was worth gold.
Even so, the Broncos weren't willing to invest in Moreno. Miami signed him to a one-year deal that maxes out at $3 million if Moreno is on the roster for all 16 games. The deal included a $500,000 roster bonus and $750,000 in guaranteed base salary.
It is too simplistic to say that kickers are more valuable than running backs in today's NFL, because most teams utilize a running-back-by-committee approach. But it is true that some teams are willing to spend more money on kickers than other teams are willing to spend on a single running back. Last month, according to ESPN.com's Terry Blount, Seattle re-signed kicker Steven Hauschka to a three-year, $9.1 million contract that included $3.3 million in guaranteed money.
That's money most running backs would be lucky to get in today's NFL.
The job of an NFL running back has always been a tough one. For even the best, careers are short. But now, more than ever, teams have devalued the job, a brutal truth Chris Johnson is about to find out firsthand.