- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Maybe it's fitting the men who carry offenses on their backs in the NFL are called "halfbacks." When it comes to the grand scope of contract negotiations in the NFL, halfbacks don't get full credit.
How else can you explain the plights of Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis, the second- and fourth-best runners in the league in 2004? As elusive as they might be to defenders, Alexander and James are in dangerous traps. The NFL pays quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends, cornerbacks and wide receivers without hesitation.
For halfbacks, the green light for money turns to yellow, and Alexander and James are finding that out.
Each was given the franchise tag at a considerable raise. James, who signed his franchise qualifying offer, will make $8.081 million. Alexander, who has yet to sign his qualifying offer, is on the books for $6.323 million. But both are looking for long-term security. James turns 27 Aug. 1. Alexander turns 28 Aug. 30. Age is the most dangerous number for a running back because history shows backs start to lose their value once they reach 28 or have six years in the league.
James, through agent Drew Rosenhaus, asked the Colts in February whether he could shop himself around the league in a trade for less than a first-round choice. The Colts complied, but after two weeks of looking and not finding a taker, James signed his franchise tender. Alexander also shopped around and couldn't interest Tampa Bay, Miami or Arizona, three teams who ended up drafting running backs instead.
The reality of life as an NFL running back is that those who are picked in the first round and end up signing six-year contracts are signing virtual lifetime deals with their teams. Those drafted in the second rounds or lower actually have a better chance of landing a big second deal because their rookie contracts are usually for four or fewer years.
Timing is everything, and what a back doesn't want to do is hit free agency for that second big contract when he's 27 or 28. Remember the Priest Holmes negotiations with the Chiefs in 2003? The Kansas City offense revolved around Holmes. Holmes scored 21 touchdowns in 2002 and accounted for 2,287 yards.
But he was 29 years old and was turning 30 on Oct. 1. The emotional side of Chiefs management wanted to reward Holmes, but the business side put up a caution flag. Holmes got a seven-year, $48.2 million deal that included an $8.475 million signing bonus. What made everything so hard is both sides made the deal not knowing how far into his 30s Holmes could play.
Holmes got his payday, although it still wasn't as big as a back of his caliber could have expected. Top free-agent backs expect six-year deals for more than $40 million with signing and options bonuses worth between $12 million and $15 million. Alexander and James have earned the chance to get that signing bonus of more than $10 million.
The Seahawks won't do it with Alexander. He's expected to hold out well into training camp and even suggested recently that he would sit out regular-season games because he doesn't want to play under the one-year tender.
It's a tough situation for Alexander because he's right and wrong in his thinking. Alexander is right in saying it's unfair to play under a one-year contract at the age of 28 when his talent and production say he should get a long-term deal with a double-digit signing bonus.
But he's wrong in thinking a holdout is going to change things. The market is what it is. Alexander had the bad timing of trying to persuade a team to trade for him when Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams were available in the draft. Teams have no problem giving 23-year-old running backs signing bonuses that top $10 million because of their youth.
Unfortunately for them, Brown, Benson and Williams probably will be facing the same predicament as Alexander in five or six years. To get a $10 million signing bonus, these first-round running backs will have to sign six-year contracts. Brown and Williams are 23. Benson is 22 but turns 23 toward the end of the year. Do the math. Whether they sign five- or six-year deals, they will be at the age of diminishing returns at the ends of their contracts.
Between 1996 and 2001, 15 halfbacks were drafted in the first round. Only three received huge second contracts with their teams. The fortunate ones were LaDainian Tomlinson, Eddie George and Fred Taylor. Deuce McAllister could become a fourth because he's 26 and is hoping to wrap up a deal with the Saints by the end of the month. Sure, many of those first-round backs from 1996 to 2001 were busts. The list includes Curtis Enis, Lawrence Phillips, Thomas Jones, Trung Canidate, Robert Edwards, Ron Dayne and others who either failed or were injured.
Currently, only 10 backs have contracts worth more than $4 million a year, only five worth more than $5 million a year. As Clinton Portis found out last year, it helps to be young to negotiate a contract. He parlayed a trade from the Broncos to the Redskins into an eight-year, $50 million deal.
It helped that he was a former second-round pick. Second-round picks usually have four-year deals and hit the market earlier and younger than those taken in the first round. Six of the top eight highest-paid backs weren't taken in the first round, and Tomlinson is the only one of the best-paid backs to get that type of contract with his own team. Warrick Dunn had to leave Tampa Bay and go to Atlanta to get his payday.
McAllister and Jamal Lewis are former first-rounders who are expected to get big dollars with their teams, but again, age plays a big role. Lewis is 26, and even though he is a back who takes a huge pounding, he's one of the mainstays of the franchise. Lewis' contract expires after the season, but most people believe the Ravens will lock him up to a long-term deal.
It won't be any easier for Alexander and James next offseason. Not only will they be a year older, but this year's deep running back draft should mean fewer teams will be looking for backs. Bills running back Travis Henry also plays into this mix. Let's say he is traded to the Jaguars or Titans and signs a long-term deal. That would take away a potential landing spot if Alexander or James is free.
It sounds crazy to think an athlete at the age of 27 or 28 has to worry about the long-term future. But if you go through the stats of longtime starting running backs, the numbers show that they wear down quickly. Those 4.3 yards per carry averages often drop into the 3.8-yard range as a back nears the age of 30.
Teams hope for the Curtis Martins of the world. Martin is a miracle worker. The Jets signed him to a big contract in 2002, when he was 29. His numbers dropped slightly in 2002 and 2003. Instead of the 1,400- and 1,500-yard seasons, Martin fell off to 1,094 and 1,308. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief last year when Martin, at age 31, had his best season, leading the league with 1,697 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns.
That huge signing bonus was justified. But despite Martin's success, teams remain reluctant to go overboard in guarantees on backs nearing the age of 30. For running backs, timing is everything, and for Alexander and James, their timing wasn't very good.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
13hBy Ian O'Connor