Hazard pay: Young NFL running backs get burned

Leonard Fournette, selected by the Jaguars at No. 4 overall, stands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

This story appears in the May 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

Leonard Fournette, the LSU running back selected fourth overall in the draft by Jacksonville, runs in a style that's often described as punishing. The word can be interpreted in two ways. When Fournette carries the ball, he's less likely to dance around opponents than he is to plow through them. Essentially, he punishes them -- but he also punishes his own body, which, like every running back's body, harbors a looming expiration date.

When Fournette signs his rookie contract this spring, that date, which reflects every season, game and carry he racked up as an unpaid college athlete, will come into sharp relief. He'll likely sign a contract worth about $6.7 million a year, but it could be his only shot at a significant reward. He is 22 years old, and he won't hit free agency until he's at least 26 -- most likely 27, if his team exercises a fifth-year option on his contract.

Twenty-seven also happens to be the age at which most running backs' performance fades.

The NFL's rookie wage scale, which was created in 2011, offers owners a mechanism to avoid overpaying draft busts and, ideally, redistributes money to veterans. It's been a blessing for cap managers and a curse for many running backs. Because all drafted rookies must sign four-year contracts that can't be renegotiated until their final offseason, they're cheap, low-risk labor, which is one reason the average age of NFL players is falling. But while all players must wait to hit free agency, the delay hits running backs especially hard. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average back's rushing yards begin to fall off a cliff as soon as he turns 28; wide receivers, on the other hand, continue to perform at the same level until they turn 32. "It's an instinctive position: you give them the ball and you let them run," says ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "A running back in his rookie or second year can be better than he'll be as a fifth or seventh year in the pros."

As a result, young ball carriers spend their most productive years as underpaid employees -- and most won't earn anything close to what Fournette will pull in. Last season four of the top five rushers played on rookie contracts. Only one, the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott, was a first-round pick. The second-most prolific back after Elliott was the Bears' Jordan Howard, a powerful, shifty Indiana University product who ran for 1,313 yards. Because Howard wasn't drafted until the fifth round, he's set to earn an average salary of just $647,006 over the course of his contract (he also received a $169,845 performance bonus last year).

This creates a disturbing dynamic: The better Howard performs now, the more wear and tear he accumulates -- which could jeopardize his future earnings potential. Consider the case of former Washington back Alfred Morris, a sixth-round draft pick who ran for 1,613 yards as a rookie. In subsequent years, his numbers plummeted -- and when Morris became a free agent in 2016, he signed a cut-rate deal with Dallas.

While the NFL's increased emphasis on passing has likely hurt running backs' value, their usage hasn't actually declined that much. The average team rushed the ball 26.02 times per game last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info, down from 27.55 in 2001. The position is still valuable; it's just seen as replaceable. "I don't like to sign running backs," one agent says. "They're a dime a dozen."

As GMs bet more and more on rookies such as Howard, they're less likely to pay older free agents. One barometer is the franchise tag, which sets a salary based on the average of the five highest-paid players at each position. In 2006, top running backs made nearly as much as receivers and more than defensive tackles and cornerbacks. In 2017, tagged backs will earn 26 percent less than receivers, 9.9 percent less than defensive tackles and 16 percent less than cornerbacks. This offseason more than 20 contracts worth a combined $26.4 million in guaranteed money were handed to running backs. In 2008, just three players -- Marion Barber, Steven Jackson and Michael Turner -- earned nearly twice that.

Such lavish contracts are likely never coming back. Unlike MLB, in which teams closely monitor pitch counts to prolong players' careers, NFL teams are all too happy to lean on rookie backs -- and will fight to keep their costs down. So gifted running backs will continue to suffer from a painful paradox: When they're young, they're more valuable than ever. But they'll probably never get paid what they're truly worth.