In only his second NFL season, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson blew past all his competition, gaining more than 2,000 rushing yards in 2009. His final total of 2006, was almost 600 yards greater than the runner-up, Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams.
Chris Johnson had already made his mark during his 2008 rookie season when he topped the 1,000 yard barrier, rushing for 1,228 yards. So, now that he has been identified as the top running back in the league, what exactly is Johnson worth? Also, what is Johnson worth compared to the other elite backs in the NFL and what they are earning in 2010?
So far, Johnson has decided to stay away from all Titans voluntary workouts. He continues to work out on his own and is trying to keep a positive mindset as he approaches the upcoming season. He firmly wants to have his contract re-worked and feels he should be paid more in line with what his production shows him to be—top dog. After all, he was named AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Was Johnson upset when he signed his five year rookie contract worth $12 million when he was drafted in the first round by the Titans?
No, he signed on the dotted line in good faith and the Titans hoped that he would live up to the value they placed on him by selecting him with their top pick.
We all know that there are first round busts, and there is no guarantee that every player drafted in the first round will return the investment. But, Johnson’s situation is unique. He was, unfortunately, drafted lower in the first round (24th), and as a result he is stuck with the initial five-year deal and has no leverage other than to hold out.
The Titans were somewhat lucky they even drafted him, considering not only that he lasted until their pick at No. 24, but that the two teams directly in front of them selected different running backs—Dallas took Felix Jones at No. 22, and Pittsburgh took Rashard Mendenhall at No. 23.
So Where Did Johnson Finish in Compensation in 2009 Among All Running Backs?
Right or wrong, Johnson earned only $1.4 million in 2009, which ranked him at No. 51 out of all running backs in compensation for the season.
According to a chart from USA Today, Chris Johnson was not even in the top 50 running backs for salary cap value in the 2009, ending up at No. 51, with a value of $1.4 million. Slightly ahead of Johnson at No. 49, also at $1.4 million, was another most valuable member for his team, Freddy Jackson of the Buffalo Bills. Both bargains to be sure.
As John Clayton of ESPN laid out in an article, Johnson is basically screwed because he was a first round draft pick in the bottom half of the first round. His story explains how the Titans have Johnson over a barrel.
In comparing Johnson to other elite backs—and how unfair his situation is—let’s look at the Vikings Adrian Peterson as a prime example. Unlike Johnson, Peterson was drafted in the top 10, and his salary reflects the high pick. Peterson will see $3.64 million this year and then it gets bumped up to $10.72 million in 2011. If you added up all five years of Johnson’s contract, it will almost equal what Peterson makes in 2011 alone.
The irony of all of this is that we have seen examples of NFL running backs like Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Marion Barber get deals reworked for them. Why for these three and not for Johnson?
Because all three of them were drafted after the first round.
Maybe having your name called in day two is not such a bad thing after all.
What Kind of a Precedent Will This Situation Set?
Something has to give and somebody has to blink. The Titans think that Johnson should be a good soldier, play football, and honor his contract. We all know that the shelf life of NFL players is not very long, and running backs in particular can have their careers end after one major injury.
This can become a major distraction if Johnson does not report for mandatory practices, and the team will be left to wonder what will happen. Some wonder if this situation will cause head coach Jeff Fisher to lose his job if Johnson sits out the year.
That would be a shame, considering that Fisher has been running the team for 15 years, longest tenured coach in the NFL.
Should Johnson be paid a rate that places him in the top 10 of all running backs? If his deal does not get renegotiated, will he play this year with a chip on his shoulder, and prove that he is even better, and worth more?
Either way, there will be some type of precedent being set for now and for the future, not just for the Titans, but for running backs drafted in the mid to low 20s in future first rounds. This should continue to be an intriguing story until something gets done.
Nashville.com Sports Editor