Back then, NFL salaries were so modest that even the most famous players had to work off-season to earn a living.
Two-time MVP Don Hutson, for example, worked at a sawmill along with some Green Bay Packer teammates. Bears tackle Willis Brennan was a Chicago police officer. John Wooten of Cleveland taught high school math. Even the great Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back of all time, was a marketing representative for Pepsi in the 1960s.
This was said to help connect athletes with fans. They were one of us. And maybe it did. Those days are gone, of course. Even league lows put players in, or at least close to, the top 1% of salaries.
Enter Saquon Barkley, who certainly won’t be cutting coupons any time soon, but may have channeled the old days in a new way on Tuesday when he signed a one-year, $11 million contract with the New York Giants.
The money is huge, of course. It’s not as big as you might expect from a player of Barkley’s productivity, let alone the obvious talent.
He rushed for a career-high 1,312 yards last year and scored 10 touchdowns. He added another 338 yards as a receiver. Perhaps most importantly, he has overcome a few injury-plagued seasons and started 16 regular season games and two more in the playoffs.
And yet, the Giants didn’t want to be part of a rich, long-term deal. He’s just another guy.
Welcome to the real world.
Barkley is like many workers, the value placed on his work is not what it once was. The old adage that professional athletes leaned on when people complained about high salaries is that you are worth what someone else will pay you.
For Barkley and this generation of running backs, that value is less than it used to be.
A generation ago, stars like Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were among the league leaders in salaries. No more. This is a quarterback league and everything is focused on getting a quarterback, protecting a halfback or stopping a halfback. Running backs, even big ones like Barkley, are worth so much, especially as they age out their rookie contracts.
According to Spotrac, the highest-paying position in the NFL is at left tackle, a job that requires protecting the QB’s blind side. They average $8.95 million per season. Then the right strikes in at $5.13 million.
QBs top $5 million, a number reduced by underpaid backups on rookie salaries. In terms of total cash pay for the 2023 season, the QBs hold the top five, including the $80 million that Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson will earn.
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After that, the average salaries are as follows: free safety ($4.98 million), strong safety ($4.44 million), inside linebacker ($3.84 million), outside linebacker ($3.63 million), edge rusher ($3.18 million), defensive tackle ($2.95 million), guard ($2.49 million), center ($2.41 million), wide receiver ($2.25 million), place kicker ($ 2.13 million), cornerback ($2.0 million), tight end ($1.99 million) and then, and only then, going back to $1.76 million.
The only positions with the lowest average pay? Punter at $1.54 million and long snapper at $1.07 million.
That’s the harsh reality for a glamorous position.
Barkley and other running backs have lamented his waning value, even hosting a running back conference call recently. There were rumors of a position-only attack or some other way to try to reverse this trend.
It’s understandable. Barkley contributed mightily to the Giants. Advanced statistics, which fuel status quo thinking, show that even the best running backs aren’t worth much more than the average running back. Certainly not the case for Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow.
This is how industries evolve. That’s how careers change. Jobs are submitted. Technology comes along. If the NFL could use Artificial Intelligence to create a running back, it would.
This is capitalism. This is the free market. It can be frustrating. If Barkley had been born two decades ago, he would probably be making $30 million.
Consider Barry Sanders, who in 1997, aged 29 and with 2,384 carries under his belt, signed a five-year deal with Detroit for an average of $5.7 million a year. It was just above Dallas QB Troy Aikman’s annual average of $5.67 and therefore made Sanders the highest paid player.
Barkley, on the other hand, is only 26 years old and has only 954 career carries. However, durability concerns are an issue.
With no choice, little bargaining power, Barkley did what most workers do. He made the best deal he could.
Nobody needs to do a fundraiser for Saquon. He’ll be fine.
But for the first time since your mailman may also have been an underground linebacker trying to eliminate the offseason mortgage, an NFL star and the regular fan might have a little more in common.