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Closer look shows why backs like Saints' Thomas struggle to cash in

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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In the last 10 years the running back position has been redefined. Teams have moved away from the ball carrier who stays on the field in every down and distance, getting more than 20 touches a game.

LaDainian Tomlinson averaged more than 400 touches a season or 25 a game during his first seven years. However, those days are over and consequently so are the megabuck deals for running backs, especially if they don't fit every role on the field.

What makes it tough to determine the present value of veterans at the position is a combination of age, production, other backs on the team and how many options will be on the market through the draft and free agency.

Setting the right value for a guy like New Orleans Saints RB Pierre Thomas has to be done by comparing his production with other backs. How does he stack up against the best in the business? Does the system in New Orleans call for a second high-priced running back? How does his pay structure equate to other runners in similar situations by entry status and opportunities to perform?

Quickly mention Thomas' name in a post-Super Bowl conversation and it's easy to say he should be paid like a top-15 running back. Take a step back, look at some critical areas of production and maybe the salary slot in this market is different. I really like Thomas as a player and person, and I hope he gets every penny he can in a professional world that can be cruel to running backs. But after having done contracts with many players I liked and respected, the market analysis was a big part of the contract logic.

Keep in mind, Thomas only carried the ball 147 times and had 39 receptions in 14 games, good for 13.3 touches per game. As a restricted free agent, he was tendered at the second-round level and, like the Browns' Jerome Harrison, didn't get an offer from another team.

With seven running backs taken in the first two rounds of April's draft (including the Chiefs' Dexter McCluster, who is being moved to receiver), the market for the restricted free agents never materialized.

To see where Thomas falls, a look at league-wide production by players in similar situations is necessary.

100-yard rushing games

There were 116 individual 100-plus yard rushing performances last season. Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans led the NFL with 12 such games. There were 16 other players with at least three games over 100 yards rushing.

Thomas had one 100-yard effort but some would argue that his limited amount of carries prevented that total from being higher. Ahmad Bradshaw, who is also in his third season and has to split carries with the New York Giants, hit the century mark twice. Beyond that comparison, Harrison had four such efforts, including the best rushing day in the NFL last year when he exploded for 286 yards against the Chiefs.

Short-yardage situations

Twenty-six running backs got more calls in short-yardage situations than Thomas. Getting the tough yards on third and fourth down is a role a back has to be evaluated on.

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Thomas wasn't the player the Saints consistently turned to in that situation, but with Mike Bell now in Philadelphia, he might be called on more often. Bell carried 14 times on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go and converted 10 times (71.4 percent), averaging 2.63 yards per attempt. Thomas was given five shots and converted just once, with an average of less than 1 yard. Even though the Giants have the powerful Brandon Jacobs, Bradshaw was called upon 10 times and converted six with an average of 7.6 yards per opportunity.

Running back as a receiver

The modern game, especially for an offense like the Saints', needs running backs who can catch the ball. While Thomas is a solid receiver, he's the second choice to Reggie Bush.

Bush caught 47 of the 60 balls he was targeted for, while Thomas caught 39 of 45. Sixteen running backs caught more passes than Thomas last year, and that group includes comparable players like the Arizona Cardinals' Tim Hightower (63 receptions), the Buffalo Bills' Fred Jackson (46 receptions) and the Houston Texans' Steve Slaton (44 receptions).

Touchdown runs per carry

Just looking at rushing touchdowns isn't fair when some backs get well over 200 carries and Thomas had 147. Guys like Tomlinson and Willis McGahee got most of their scores from near the goal line. The fairest way to look at this area is by comparing touchdowns to attempts among players with at least 70 carries and five scores.

Thomas had a respectable ratio of one touchdown every 24.5 carries. That ratio puts him at 16th in the league. If you want to make a case that he would have done better with more attempts, what would you say about Bush and his 1:14 ratio? Again, guys like Hightower (1:17.9) and Bradshaw (1:23.3) were better.

Explosive run percentage

Teams will pay for a high percentage of runs over 10 yards. Twenty-one running backs had more carries over 10 yards than Thomas. However, when you factor in the ratio of attempts to runs over 10 yards, he's sixth in the league with 14.9 percent of his carries going for 10 yards or more.

When you look at the runs over 10 yards and consider the average distance of those explosive plays, Thomas drops to 20th. That's still pretty good considering Frank Gore led the way with a 27-yard average on such runs and Johnson was second with a 25-yard average.

Players in a similar situation

When you want to frame what a player's value should be, there are a few factors beyond the position analysis. Players who have similar entry points into the league can be helpful. In this case, players drafted in the fifth round or lower are in the same age bracket and have similar production.

Here's a list of similar players to arrive at a market value and a look at their entry point, production in 2009, and salary for this season.

Closer look at comparable running backs
Player
Team
Entry point
2009 touches
Yards from scrimmage
TDs
2010 salary
Ahmad Bradshaw
Seventh-round in 2007
184
985
7
$1.001M
Seventh-round in 2008
155
969
5
$470,000
Jerome Harrison
Fifth-round in 2006
228
1,082
7
$1.759M tender
Tim Hightower
Fifth-round in 2008
206
1,026
8
$470,000
Undrafted
283
1,433
4
$1.445
Seventh-round in 2007
172
872
5
$1.684M tender
Undrafted
186
1,095
8
$1.684M tender

The most interesting comparison is to Jackson. Like Thomas, Jackson was undrafted, but signed a four-year extension with the Bills a year ago after having 167 touches for 888 yards and three touchdowns in 2008. Jackson's extension averages $1.875 million annually.

This is the deal this group will probably work off, even if they are reluctant to do so. A slight adjustment for a year removed from the origin of the Jackson deal and a contract should be done. Thomas, Bradshaw and maybe Harrison should be happy to get a four-year deal worth $8 million with $1.7 million up front and the rest in unguaranteed salaries worth $6.1 million and workout bonuses totaling $200,000 over four years.

That kind of deal assures they won't be cut in the first year and should see close to $3.7 million in the first two years. If they want to turn a market deal like this down, they risk injury and a short career.

The idea that these backs are going to receive contracts like Gore or Steven Jackson is unrealistic, unless they play out their deal, handle the bulk of the work, generate over 1500 total yards and stay 100 percent healthy.

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