Running backs were not an afterthought in the first 48 hours of free-agency negotiations. The head of the Backs Need Love Too committee, Todd Gurley, will take the small victory.
"[The market] is changing, brother -- we're back," Gurley declared from the Pro Bowl.
Not sure Gurley was hotly anticipating the free-agency status of Jerick McKinnon, Dion Lewis and Carlos Hyde when he said that. But those guys did running backs everywhere a solid by landing multiyear deals worth between $5 and $7.5 million per year, despite failing to finish inside the league's top 10 in rushing.
An NFL agent who negotiated a sizable tailback contract this week said the positional market hardly felt as devalued as it has been perceived.
"It was a good set of circumstances where you have a number of good players on the market with diverse skill sets and teams with cap space," the agent said. "Teams went into free agency with their guy in mind and what they were willing to spend. I'm pleased to see the group as a whole get an uptick."
McKinnon's new four-year, $30 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers doubled that of Latavius Murray, who was the highest-paid back in last year's free-agency period at $15 million over three years. In Minnesota, Murray was the team's leading rusher ahead of McKinnon, who served mostly as a third-down back during his four years in purple.
But McKinnon's versatile skill set -- 991 total yards on 201 touches last year, including 51 receptions -- drew interest from multiple teams hoping to fill a major need. The 49ers were prepared to make McKinnon their feature back. Now, he's the league's fourth-highest-paid rusher on a per-year average. His deal includes $11.7 million guaranteed at signing.
Considering the draft class is loaded with good running backs, that is a strong number. McKinnon's per-year payout is nearly on par with that of Devonta Freeman ($8.25 million per year), despite the Atlanta Falcon gaining 1,928 more total yards over a four-year sample.
The 49ers are moving on from Hyde, who did just fine with a three-year, $15 million deal (plus $1 million incentive) from the Cleveland Browns. Lewis parlayed a 940-yard rushing season with the New England Patriots into $20 million plus incentives over four years with the Tennessee Titans.
These numbers won't turn back the clock to 2011, or even 2016 when Doug Martin received a $35 million deal. But the trio's potential average payout of $6.29 million per year is well above the top three backs from last year. Murray, Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy averaged $4.375 million annually on their 2017 deals, while Murray was the only one awarded a three-year contract. Peterson had to wait more than a month for a two-year pact from the New Orleans Saints, and Lacy's one-year agreement with the Seattle Seahawks included weight clauses. Both are free agents once again.
This year's uptick can be traced to tailbacks in their prime finding teams that play to their strengths. Hyde runs well out of shotgun formations, which the Browns will certainly run with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Lewis gains yards after contact. McKinnon's pass-catching ability should complement Jimmy Garoppolo well. The 49ers can line him up all over the formation as a receiver. Isaiah Crowell, who signed for three years and $12 million, gives the New York Jets a power back for the cold.
"Even if a guy's not an every-down back, if you're a team with running back as one of several needs, you'll spend good money for a player you know you can pair with a draft pick or another veteran in the backfield," said one NFL coach whose team was in the market for free-agent running backs.
Rushers around the league are hoping the slight growth is something more: an appreciation of the position's importance.
"The game has evolved," Gurley said. "You look at guys like Le'Veon. Back in the day, we used to be more run-run-run. Now it's kind of pass, and we want to get in on the fun, too."
Make no mistake, Bell's negotiations with Pittsburgh this offseason will be a true barometer for the health of the position. Bell's franchise tag is worth $14.544 million, and he won't accept a long-term deal for less than that amount per year.
But if San Francisco can pay a running back $7.5 million alongside fullback Kyle Juszczyk at $5.25 million per year, perhaps hope remains for the high-priced workhorse.
"We do so much for an offense," Bell said in an interview last week. "We just want to be recognized for that work."