No one really denies that Cook, Kamara and the others are useful players who help their teams win. But the college ranks produce dozens of burly, speedy, determined and affordable rushers in every draft class, while the rigors of plunging into the teeth of N.F.L. defenses quickly wear down all but the rarest backs.
The difference in marginal value between a 26-year-old All-Pro with 1,000 professional carries on his odometer and the typical midround rookie doesn’t come close to the costs: roughly $12 million per year for the veteran, less than $2 million for the rookie.
Furthermore, the rookie is more likely to produce positive results. Of the 15 running backs who rushed for over 1,000 rushing yards last season, 12 of them were on their original rookie contracts and 13 of them were 25 or younger. Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys was last season’s only 1,000-yard rusher who was playing on a contract extension for the team that had drafted him. Thanks to his $90 million eruption of generosity toward Elliott, the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, is currently searching for loose change in the cushions of his salary-cap sofa so he can afford to pay quarterback Dak Prescott.
Last weekend’s action was full of examples of the folly of overpaying running backs. Cook rushed for 50 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, while his minimum-wage backup, Alexander Mattison, rushed for an identical 50 yards on six carries. Malcolm Brown, Gurley’s low-cost replacement for the Rams, rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns, while Gurley gained 56 yards and had one touchdown for the Falcons.
The Jacksonville Jaguars released Leonard Fournette rather than pay him Cook-Kamara money in late August; he rushed five times for 5 yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, while the undrafted Illinois State rookie James Robinson gained 90 yards from scrimmage in Fournette’s place in a Jaguars victory.
General managers and coaches know that running backs rarely pay dividends on lucrative contracts. Yet they continue to convince themselves that each situation is an exception. Kamara is a key piece of the Saints’ Super Bowl puzzle, so why not risk mortgaging the future? (Ask the Rams about Gurley.) McCaffrey and Kamara are versatile rushers and receivers, so they will age more gracefully! (So is/was Bell.) As for Cook, well, the Vikings simply enjoy paying retail for name brands.
Some teams also just want to reward successful employees like Kamara and Cook for their hard work. That’s a laudable policy in a league that rarely does anything laudable. Young running backs sell jerseys, spur the fantasy industry, provide thrills and inspire dreams; it’s hard to criticize their big paydays without sounding like a grouchy, myopic bean counter.