Pay Johnson what he's worth
As a lower first-round pick, Titans RB is paying price for outperforming his contract
Originally Published: June 3, 2010By John Clayton | ESPN.com
AP Photo/John RussellTitans tailback Chris Johnson (28) is the first player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards and record 500 yards receiving in the same season.For the Tennessee Titans and most likely every other team in the NFL, it's easy to dismiss the contract demands of running back Chris Johnson. He's entering the third year of a $9.226 million contract that runs through 2012. He's 24, reasonably young for a running back. The No. 24 overall selection in the 2008 draft, he's coming off a 2,006-rushing-yard season. The Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, drafted a year ahead of Johnson, isn't close to getting a contract extension. Conventional wisdom advises Johnson to wait. The Titans clearly aren't going to change policy and reward him after two seasons. I say make him an exception. Pay the man. At some point, teams need to be sensitized to the short shelf life of an NFL running back. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson tells youngsters that a running back starts to decline after 1,600 carries or after six years of pounding. Because of that reality, running backs taken in the first round are put in an unfair position. To describe their leverage in football terms, they are trapped behind the line of scrimmage and have almost no place to escape.
History does show teams should look at running backs differently as far as contracts. From 2000 to 2004, 15 running backs were taken in the first round. Only six received second contracts with their teams: Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks, Jamal Lewis of the Ravens, Deuce McAllister of the Saints, LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers, Larry Johnson of the Chiefs and Steven Jackson of the Rams. Five of the six never played out those contracts, and Jackson probably won't be with the Rams when his contract runs out in 2013. As good a business deal as it is to hold a first-round running back to his five-year deal, the team usually makes a bad deal with the second contract. Usually, it's not even offered. It's easier to franchise the back and squeeze out another year. Alexander received a six-year, $61.68 million contract in 2006 when he was 28 and had 1,717 carries. He averaged 3.6 and 3.5 yards a carry during his final two seasons with the Seahawks, but he collected $18.525 million those two season. McAllister signed a seven-year, $47.75 million extension with the Saints in 2005. He had only 27 starts and rushed for a mere 1,902 yards in four seasons under that deal. Larry Johnson had to hold out in Kansas City to get a five-year, $43.14 million extension in 2007. He was 27 at the time of the signing. After enduring Johnson's myriad legal and personal problems, the Chiefs cut him last year -- three years into the deal. They paid him $22.3 million over those three seasons but he didn't give them a 1,000-yard season from 2007 to 2009. Plenty of first-round backs are coming up on their second contracts, and most won't get new deals with their teams. Age, injuries and declining production will be among the reasons. That's football. Drawing the hard line with Chris Johnson is what the Titans are expected to do. His contract has three years left. That's business. What I'm saying is some first-round backs can be exceptions. A four-year deal that would take him to the age of 29 wouldn't open the flood gates for other deals. After all, a four-year deal for a running back who is 24 going on 25 is a career-ending deal. Pay the guy.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesFormer New Orleans Saints star tailback Deuce McAllister is among recent ball-carriers who had trouble fulfilling their second contracts.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.