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What the departures of Thielen and Cook tell us about the future of football

There could be very, very far reaching effects

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings
Which of these two players will be getting paid more next season?
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

I saw a remarkable video today by the much-lauded Football Analysis YouTube guys, focusing on the correlation between the NFL’s WR market and the RB market.

To start things off here, I will be going back to the basics: Offense in football is conducted in two flavors: Passing and rushing.

The early NFL was originally built on the premise that rushing the ball was better. The game had not yet figured out that passing, while riskier, was much better off in terms of yardage efficiency.

Coach Don Coryelle and his “Air Coryell” offense then revolutionized the passing approach to football in the late ’50s. Due to its success, rushing attempts went down, and passing attempts went up. Naturally, yardage share between passing and rushing mirrored these trends.

Throughout the ‘60s passing and rushing reverted to being as popular (by attempts) as one another, however, through the ’70s, rushing began to make a resurgence. Something peculiar then happened; passing yards remained greater than rushing yards, even with markedly fewer attempts.

From this point on, the NFL became a predominantly pass-first league and has never looked back.

Naturally, that history has shaped the market for the two positions most directly influenced by these trends: Wide Receiver and Running Back.

As passing has gained more and more popularity in playbooks, WRs have been seeing their values account for more and more cap space than RBs.

Robust and respected RBs Saquon Barkley and Dalvin Cook (to name a few) have all seen their teams question if their future value would match their future compensation.

The point of FA’s video was this: Not that RBs should be making as much as WRs, but the remarkable size of the gap between the market-setting WRs’ AAVs and the top RBs’ AAVs.

Top-paid RB Christian McCaffrey (16m AAV) earns around as much as (very good but not great) WR Hunter Renfrow. McCaffrey had a 2022 Pro Football Reference Approximate Value of 10, while Renfrow had an AV of 3. Top-paid WR Tyreek Hill earns $30m AAV.

Or, in a more pertinent example, 33-year-old Adam Thielen left Minnesota for $14 million guaranteed (on a 3yr/$25m contract)with Carolina while a soon-to-be 28-year-old Dalvin Cook has yet to find a new team.

There are definitely higher injury concerns, as is more common in RBs, but looking at the situation from this perspective, it is not hard to see why these RBs are in contract turmoil.

Ask yourself this: Who would you rather have for the money? A 27-year-old Saquon Barkley (fresh off a successful prove it-year) or the 31-year-old Tyler Lockett if they were both to earn around $11m AAV (as Lockett does)?

What teams are starting to pivot towards in order to get around paying their RBs big dog money is either have a “by committee” approach to the RB position (as theorized for the Vikings) or revert to the historical strategy of utilizing one big power back.

While that may be what NFL teams are doing in the interim, the longer-lasting effects of RB devaluation will likely start to be seen in youth development.

Why would an aspiring and appropriately talented RB not want to make more money and put his body at less future risk by transitioning to wide receiver while he is still at the beginning of his development?

The answer to that question could very well have far-reaching effects not only for the NFL game but also for the college and high school levels as well.

As far as the Minnesota Vikings are immediately concerned, the most interesting aspect of Justin Jefferson’s contract negotiations will not (for me) be about the ungodly amount of money he is set to be paid, but how far that gap between WRs and RBs will continue to widen.

What actions do you think can save RBs from this devaluation?

(Edit: The original story stated Thielen’s Contract with Carolina was for $34 m guaranteed, when only $14m is guaranteed. There was an error with the source used for that information. Thank you commentors!)