NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport reported earlier this week that the New England Patriots and LeGarrette Blount have mutual interest in reaching a new contract. In the same clip, Mike Garafolo mentions that the Patriots made it clear that they would not get into a bidding war for Blount’s services, and that they would likely move on if another team offered him anything ‘remotely solid’. Now, exactly four weeks into free agency, it’s clear that Blount has not received any solid offers. Fans of the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Oakland Raiders have expressed a desire for their front office to look into signing the veteran running back through Twitter, however the Patriots remain the only confirmed suitor so far.
The Devaluation of Running Backs
There are a few factors that help explain why Blount has languished on the market for a month (This is actually the second consecutive year this has occurred; Blount re-signed with the Patriots on April 12, 2016, after testing the open market). The first factor is in regards to how the game has developed over the years. As the rules have changed to benefit quarterbacks, most teams now run pass-first offenses, utilizing smaller and shiftier running backs who can catch out of the backfield. Many teams no longer have a true workhorse back like LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, or Steven Jackson of old. Most teams are switching to the running-back-by-committee approach. The Patriots, for example, used Blount as their first and second down back, James White as their receiving back, with Dion Lewis running out of the shotgun last season. As a result, the running back position has become increasingly devalued – teams no longer need a running back that can run, catch, and pass block at a high level, but rather, they use multiple running backs who excel in one area. Because of this, it has become a lot easier to just draft new running backs on cheap rookie contracts and use their limited skill set in a role they can succeed in. Coaches no longer need to spend a lot of time developing a running back – they can just take a receiving back in the 5th round, for example, and plug him in on third downs without needing to teach him how to pass block. Why bother paying someone like Adrian Peterson $18 million a year when you can draft two guys in the mid-rounds and get decent production for less than $2 million?
This devaluation has, in turn, caused teams to stop handing out contracts to running backs once they hit 30. According to Spotrac.com, there are only four running backs over 30 under contract for next season: Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead, Matt Forte, and Frank Gore. Gore and Forte are the closest you can get to a true workhorse back, while Woodhead and Sproles are dynamic playmakers that can contribute in the ground game, the passing game, and on special teams. Forte has the highest cap hit this year at around $5 million, while the rest are averaging slightly below that. The way their contracts are structured, Gore and Sproles can both be cut before the start of the season without any penalty, which just goes to show how teams are wary of 30-plus-year-old running backs.
Blount, who turns 31 this December, is not as talented as those above-mentioned players. Despite coming off a career year where he ran for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns, Blount is really only a one-trick-pony, as he poses no threat in the passing game. In addition, despite starting the season off strong, Blount ended the year with 3.9 yards per attempt to go along with some mediocre performances in the playoffs.
Part of the reason why Blount struggled toward the end of the year is due to the scheme. After Rob Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve around halfway through the season, the Patriots started to use backup tackle Cameron Fleming as an extra blocker on run plays out of singleback and I formations. Most teams keyed in on this and realized that the Patriots didn’t pass out of these formations – Blount, Fleming, and fullback James Develin pose zero threat in the passing game, usually leaving only an injured Martellus Bennett and a wide receiver as capable pass catchers. As a result, teams started to stack the box with 7, 8, and and even 9 defenders, usually resulting in Blount being stopped around the line of scrimmage. According to ESPN Fantasy Football analyst Mike Clay, Blount faced an NFL-high average of 8.3 defenders in the box last season. Teams realized that the Patriots would run when Blount was in the game, and adjusted accordingly. If the Patriots do re-sign Blount this year, I would suggest giving him more handoffs out of the shotgun and more passes from under center. Blount did well in Tom Brady’s absence during the first four games this past season when asked to run out of the shotgun against 4, 5, or 6 man boxes. The offensive line was able to get some good leverage against the 3 or 4 defensive linemen, and Blount was able to run through or away from linebackers for some nice gains. Blount has a tendency to dance in the backfield waiting for holes to open, but lanes rarely open up against stacked defensive fronts. In addition, it takes Blount some time to get up to full speed, which usually renders stretch runs ineffective. Taken together, Blount would sometimes just dance around in the backfield against 8 or 9 man boxes and would end up getting tackled for either no gain or a loss. Running out of the shotgun, however, might alleviate some of these problems, as more lanes usually open up against nickel and dime packages, which in turn allows Blount to fully accelerate. Part of this ineffectiveness is on Blount though, as his limited skillset requires a particular scheme to succeed. As a result, I hope you can see why some teams might look at his game film and just determine that he is not a good investment. New England has been able to get the best out of him as part of their committee, and it unlikely that he could replicate such success elsewhere.
I completely understand why Blount wants to cash in on one last big contract – he has averaged just under $1 million dollars per season over the course of his seven-year career despite playing at one of the most punishing positions in the game. However, in addition to his limited skill set, teams might be scared of taking him on due to some attitude problems. The last big contract he signed was for just under $2 million a year for two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 2014. Blount played in 11 games for the Steelers before walking off the field and subsequently getting released. The Patriots subsequently picked him up, and he’s completely bought into the ‘Patriot Way’ since. However, teams are likely concerned that he may act up if they bring him in. Add that to the fact that he’s now two years older than he was when signing that contract, and it’s no surprise that he hasn’t received much attention on the market.
Building a Contract
Due to the aforementioned factors, I just can’t see Blount signing anywhere for more than $1.5 million. I completely feel for the guy, especially since he played for only $1.75 million last year despite putting up great numbers, but it’s bad business to reward players solely based on past performance. NFL general managers pay players based on expected future production, and I can’t see Bill Belichick making an exception here.
Here is a breakdown of what I view to be a reasonable contract for both sides:
|Year||Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Per-Game Active Roster Bonus||Other Incentives||Cap Hit|
|2017||$900,000||$100,000||$250,000 ($15,625 per game)||$2.75M||$1.25M|
I understand that Blount is looking for long-term security with a good amount of guaranteed money, but the market simply isn’t there. I could see him getting this kind of contract, with $100,000 up front, $900,000 paid over the course of the season, and with $3 million in incentives. I will first explain how incentives work before delving into the details. Incentives are divided into two categories: Likely to be earned (LTBE) or not likely to be earned (NLTBE). Incentives are considered likely to be earned if a player would have earned them based on last year’s performance. For example, since Blount ran for over 1,000 yards last season, an incentive for 1,000 rushing yards would be considered likely to be earned. LTBE incentives count against the salary cap in the year they are for, and teams receive a credit to the following year’s cap if they are not met. NLTBE incentives, on the other hand, don’t count against the cap the year they are for but will be deducted from the following year’s cap if they are actually earned. The Patriots thus have two options – they could give Blount a contract with a lot of LTBE incentives and get a credit next year if they are met, or give him a contract with a lot of NLTBE incentives and pay him next year if he earns them. I believe that the Patriots will opt for the latter, as they did last year, and as they will likely be glad to pay up if Blount continues to play well.
The incentives, then, break down as follows:
$250,000 if he makes the Pro Bowl
$750,000 for 1200 yards
$750,000 for 4 yards per attempt
$500,000 for 4.5 yards per attempt, and
$500,000 for 5 yards per attempt
Now, it’s very likely that Blount will earn the 4 yards per attempt incentive, as he missed out by .12 yards last season. That would be sort of a goodwill gesture, thus bumping up his likely earnings to $2 million. The rest are very unlikely to be earned but are still possible if he plays at a high level. The issue is that Blount had a great statistical season last year, which makes most incentives likely to be earned. The Patriots could instead choose to give him a contract with a lot of LTBE incentives, but then they would be more likely to have to pay up. I feel bad giving Blount yet another cheap contract, but his likely earnings of $2 million would make him the 24th highest paid veteran running back as of right now, which isn’t bad for a player of his caliber.
Overall, I really want to see LeGarrette Blount in a Patriots uniform next year, but I understand that the NFL is a business, and that coach Belichick might determine that he can get similar production out of a running back such as Rex Burkhead or a rookie. However, I believe that the two parties should be able to iron out a modest contract that reflects Blount’s relative value in this very strange running back market.