Ray Rice rushed for 4,377 yards in his first four NFL seasons, all before the Ravens running back had celebrated his 25th birthday. His 2,068 yards from scrimmage led the league in 2011. He ranked second in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards, scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns and was the Ravens' leading receiver for the second time in three years.
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“Teams are willing to enter into longer-term contracts with players at a very young age, coming into the league, but there is trepidation about certainly the third contract for a running back, but we're now seeing trepidation for the second contract for a running back,” said Andrew Brandt, a former agent and NFL executive who works as an NFL business analyst for ESPN. “How we got there, I think it's a sense of everyone knowing that it's the position with the shortest shelf life in football, and everyone is worried about giving guaranteed long-term money to a position that, on average, causes some worry about productivity past a certain age.”
The Ravens have until Monday at 4 p.m. to agree to a long-term deal with Rice, a two-time Pro Bowl player, or he will play the 2012 season under the franchise tag, which would pay him a guaranteed $7.7 million and make him an unrestricted free agent again at season's end.
Jamal Lewis went down a similar road with the Ravens in 2006. Already sensing that bruising backs like him were being phased out for slimmer, more versatile runners, Lewis, the team's all-time leading rusher, was looking for a second contract after his six-year rookie deal expired. The Ravens opted against placing the franchise tag on him, instead letting him test free agency.
Lewis re-signed for $26 million over three years and rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns in 2006, but he was cut the next February and ended up making $6 million for that one season. Not long after Lewis was released, the Ravens traded for Willis McGahee, who is just 2 years younger than Lewis but at the time had 1,149 fewer NFL carries on his odometer.
“When I was trying to get my second contract, I think they were waiting for me to play one more year and see if I could still produce,” Lewis said. “It was frustrating because they're trying to kind of squeeze you out and not pay you that kind of money. It goes along with the business. If they can get somebody to do as good of a job, [they would] rather just pay them less money.”
The average career length of an NFL running back is fewer than three years, according to the NFL Players Association.
Lewis has no ill will toward the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2000. He calls Ozzie Newsome “an excellent general manager” and said he wouldn't be surprised if Newsome and the Ravens let Rice play out the season under the franchise tag, tabling talks until next spring. As Lewis put it, it's not about what you did in the past; it's how much more you can give in the future.
“I think when you're going to invest a lot of money into a running back, you want to see if he's working his way up,” said Lewis ,the offensive focal point on the 2000 Super Bowl team. “How many hits has he taken? How many carries has he had?”
While discussing the declining value of running backs after their relatively inexpensive rookie deals, Brandt referenced the funny money thrown at Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis and Jamal Anderson, who he says are in a “graveyard of contracts” that began when the players were in their prime, but extended into their thirties.
Alexander's deal was the most alarming. In 2006, the Seattle Seahawks gave Alexander, who was 28 at the time, an eight-year extension for $62 million with more than $15 million guaranteed. He never topped 1,000 yards again and was out of the league three years later.
“The wear and tear on a running back, I think that's what why a lot of coaches and organizations want to go with more than one back,” Lewis explained.
The switch to a running-back-by-committee approach across the NFL isn't the only reason why running backs don't get 387 carries in a season as like Lewis did when he rushed for 2,066 in 2003.
Football has evolved significantly since the days of the single-wing offense or the T-formation; backfields that were once cluttered with two or three talented backs have been cleaned out in favor of spread passing offenses with four or five receivers lined up out wide. And more than three decades since innovators like Don Coryell and Bill Walsh began to change conventional thinking about the passing game, quarterbacks and play-callers have taken it to new heights.
Three NFL quarterbacks passed for more than 5,000 yards in 2011, and the league as a whole set all-time highs in pass attempts (17,411) and gross passing yards (125,336), according to ESPN.
Rice accounted for 704 yards on 76 receptions, a third straight season with at least 60 catches receptions and 550 receiving yards. According to Football Outsiders, Rice is one of five running backs in NFL history with more than 200 carries and 60 catches in three straight seasons. (Marcus Allen, Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Priest and former Raven Priest Holmes are the others).
But while he acknowledges that Rice's receiving numbers are “colossal” compared with those of other backs, Aaron Schatz, the editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders, doesn't think that raises his value significantly because Rice might be asked to catch the ball less in another team's offense. The biggest difference, Schatz says, is few backs can line up as a wide receiver the way Rice can.