The start of the 2019 NFL season is being greeted by some head-shaking new realities. For those who conducted their drafts or auctions prior to the evening of Aug. 24, owners were already committed to players like Andrew Luck, who shocked the NFL with his retirement, and, to a lesser extent, Lamar Miller, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Injuries happen in the NFL – it’s the price of playing the game – but, the Luck retirement came as a surprise to many, even NFL insiders who knew how much Luck loved the game and wouldn’t have walked away at age 29 if the not for the excruciating, constant pain he was feeling. But, on the heels of Rob Gronkowski’s sudden retirement after the Super Bowl, to have two players well on their way to the Hall of Fame walking away from the game before they’re 30 is new to the NFL experience. Most players have had to leave the game kicking, screaming and limping. Walking away when they still likely have some very good football left in them is a new paradigm for the league.
However, temporarily walking away from the game to make a point is also becoming “a thing” that is having a profound fantasy impact. Holdouts are nothing new to the NFL. Players have fought for a market value contract from NFL owners for decades. Sometimes it resulted in new contracts. Sometimes it resulted in trades. Sometimes it resulted in the player coming back in time for the regular season or, in a worst-case scenario, a holdout was resolved a couple of weeks into the season.
That landscape changed last year when Le’Veon Bell stuck to his guns and refused to sign his second franchise tag with the Steelers. At a time when bell-cow running backs are becoming an endangered species, at the top end, they are merely trying to tread water in the era of declining equity of running backs in a growth industry.
In 2011, Adrian Peterson signed a seven-year, $100 million contract (a $14.29 million annual average). Seven years later, Bell’s minimum demand of the Steelers was $14.5 million per season – effectively the same contract Peterson signed in 2011 (for a shorter-term) at a time when other positional salaries were skyrocketing with each new signing.
In 2017, the final year of Peterson’s restructured deal, he was paid $16.75 million. Todd Gurley is currently the highest-paid running back in the league with a $14.375 million average annual salary.
For quite some time, the age of 30 has been the expiration date of running backs. Too many players who were 20-carry-a-game workhorses for several years tended to “hit the wall” when they hit 30. The running back position has evolved as a result. They have become disposable and replaceable. The good ones need to get bank when they still can in their mid-to-late 20s because the NFL has a Logan’s Run policy for 30-year old running backs.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon are holding out for long-term deals. The only difference is that Elliott has two years left on his rookie contract with the Cowboys that he has clearly out-performed, while Gordon is in the fifth-year team option of his rookie deal.
Elite running backs have value in the NFL, but they stand alone in terms of positions that have seen the ceiling of their contracts not just hold steady while all others rise, but, in terms of annual contract value for elite backs, actually going down.
If you have Elliott or Gordon on your roster, hopefully you handcuffed them with their respective backups because the one thing the Bell situation taught fantasy owners was that the way an elite running back gets paid now is to temporarily walk away from the game he loves – even if it means holding out an entire season to try to get some form of leverage.
Welcome to the new NFL, people. Those who saw their 2018 season become a dumpster fire because of their heavy investment in Bell (and not snapping up James Conner) can attest. Will Elliott and Gordon start making the new landscape a trend?
Hopefully not. The game is better with them in it. But, with career precedents being set by players in their mid-to-late 20s that haven’t been seen in the NFL
Here is the Week 1 Fantasy Market Report:
Have Legs, Will Travel – A pair of veterans got a new lease on life over Labor Day weekend, as LeSean McCoy and Carlos Hyde found new homes. McCoy, who was a mainstay of the Eagles and Bills, but his contract ran into his production and he was cut by Buffalo and reunited with Andy Reid in Kansas City. Hyde has been a mystery. The guy who ran Frank Gore out of San Francisco is on his fourth team in a year. He signed with Cleveland last season and led the NFL in rushes through seven games before being traded to Jacksonville. This offseason, he signed with Kansas City and was traded to Houston to replace Lamar Miller. Two guys who looked like they may be at the end of the line suddenly have new life in new locations.
What Can Brown Do for You – It’s been years since Cleveland was a hot fantasy spot, but with weapons like Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and David Njoku, a lot of fantasy rosters are suddenly dotted with Browns players. Can the live up to their newfound hype? For the first time in a long time, there are expectations associated with Cleveland.
Alvin! – In his first two seasons, Alvin Kamara has posted big fantasy numbers despite being in a 50/50 timeshare with Mark Ingram. With Ingram gone, the potential for Kamara as both a runner and receiver in the Saints’ offense is off the charts. All the talk about the No. 1 fantasy pick has been on Saquon Barkley, but Kamara may well end up as the 2019 fantasy MVP.
The Ky’s the Limit – Kyler Murray has been landing somewhere in the 12-15 range among fantasy quarterbacks in drafts and auctions despite never taking an NFL snap. Perhaps there is too much forward-thinking in hopes that Murray will become the next Patrick Mahomes immediately, but when you’re consistently being drafted ahead of veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, it speaks to how much hype is following Murray into the league.
Viva Las Vegas – The Raiders are still in Oakland, but they have set the stage to sell season tickets in Vegas. In the last six months, they’ve added wide receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams and the top running back in the draft class of 2019 (Josh Jacobs). After years of spotty fantasy production in Oakland, suddenly the Raiders are a hot ticket…and for good reason.
Gurley Man – For the last two years, Todd Gurley has been the most dominant fantasy running back in the league. But, after being slowed by a knee injury last season and the Rams doubling down at RB – matching an offer sheet for Malcolm Brown and drafting Darrell Henderson in the third round (L.A.’s second pick of the draft). Gurley dropped to No. 9 in ADP in most analytics (seventh among RBs) and he needs to prove himself that he can remain the dominant back in the league.
Everything Old Is Newton Again – Fantasy owners have had mixed feelings about Cam Newton for years. His ability as a runner, especially close to the goal line, made him a fantasy star. But, injuries have taken a toll on him and there are some fantasy owners who simply ranked him so low that they couldn’t end up with him on their roster. He has dominant ability, but he enters 2019 with a lot more question marks than he has in his career.
A Rebuild In South Beach – Dolphins fantasy players were devalued all offseason, but the Labor Day weekend trade of left tackle Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills to Houston for two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder. Miami is going to have a cupboard full of draft picks the next two seasons, but, for now, it’s likely going to be a brutal year in Miami.
Hands Off Jimmy! – When Jimmy Garoppolo came to San Francisco, he was the golden child of fantasy owners looking for an affordable QB with huge upside. But, after missing most of 2018 due to injury, the shine is off Jimmy G and he has to prove himself all over again before he will have fantasy owners believing in him.
Yo, Adrian – There’s no doubting that Adrian Peterson will end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s nearing the end of the line. Last year, he was waiting for someone to come calling and it took an injury to Redskins running back Derrius Guice for Mr. Peterson to go to Washington. All he did was rush for 1,000 yards (again). However, head coach Jay Gruden has insisted Washington’s offense will run through Guice, leaving Peterson as a backup singer instead of the headliner – something he’s never been used to and rarely asked to do. This one could end badly because Peterson’s ego is massive.