The surprise wasn't that three "franchised" players - wide receiver Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City, defensive end Cliff Avril of Detroit and San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson - failed to reach any kind of agreement before Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline for signing multi-year deals.
Instead, it was that three players reached long-term agreements on the final day of negotiations. Arguably, most surprising was that the trio of long-term contracts included deals for tailbacks Ray Rice of Baltimore (five years, $40 million) and Chicago's Matt Forte (four years, $32 million). The other big contract on Monday went to Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee, who had suggested that his ability to kick off should merit a premium, and did, at $13.8 million over four years.
But the contracts for Forte and Rice accentuated that teams pay lip service to the notion that running backs are an endangered species, arguably a high-risk/short-shelf life position that should not merit a prohibitive investment, but rarely adhere to the cautionary approach they so often publicly espouse.
It's early and the structures of the Forte and Rice contracts will be critical, especially the "real" guarantees (the definition of which varies from one agent to the next) and the payouts in the first three seasons, in gauging overall value. But the contracts join those of running backs such as LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia), Arian Foster (Houston), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Chris Johnson (Tennessee), DeAngelo Williams (Carolina) and Adrian Peterson (Minnesota) in belying the notion that tailback is becoming a fungible position.
That is hardly to suggest that Rice and Forte weren't deserving of their $8 million-a-year deals. Both players are workhorses for their clubs and critical to the success of their teams. But Rice will be 29 when his contract enters its final season, and Forte will be the same age going into the final year of his, and that's an age, it seems, when a runner historically begins to fade.
That said, it's hard to imagine the Baltimore offensive being nearly as productive without Rice, who has averaged 356.3 "touches" since becoming a starter three years ago. And even with the offseason addition of Michael Bush as insurance, the Bears are a far better team with Forte, who has averaged 309.3 "touches" in four seasons as a starter.
The multiple-year contracts, though, are the latest example that NFL teams usually say one thing and, come deadline time, make the expedient move.
A couple other franchise notes:
--Scobee, who compiled 39 touchbacks in 2011, was insistent in negotiations that kickoffs should count for something, and he apparently won over Jacksonville officials. One of three franchise kickers to sign long-term contracts, his is worth the most, at least in raw numbers. Matt Prater of Denver, who also kicks off, landed a four-year, $13 million contract. Tampa Bay's Connor Barth, whose team has punter Michael Koenen kick off, got a four-year, $13.2 million contract.
--The contracts signed by Calais Campbell of Arizona and Indianapolis' Robert Mathis (who will move to linebacker as the Colts transition to a 3-4 in 2012), were not template enough to get a deal for Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril. The four-year veteran said Monday that he harbors no ill-will toward Lions officials, but it seemed from the beginning that the negotiations were borderline contentious. Avril will play the '12 season for $10.6 million, and it will cost Detroit $12.72 to use the tag on him again next season.
--Goldson was in the same boat as Avril. While it seemed the long-term contracts for Michael Griffin (Tennessee) and more recently for Oakland's Tyvon Branch might provide a blueprint for a multiple-year contract, that didn't happen. So Goldson will earn $6.2 million in 2012.
--There were only two other franchise wide receivers, and it seemed fairly obvious from the outset that the Chiefs, who will now pay Bowe $9.4 million, and the Patriots ($9.4 million for Wes Welker) weren't going to approximate Philadelphia's long-term deal with DeSean Jackson. The Pats seemed well aware of Welker's age (31) and the Chiefs of Bowe's work ethic.
--Of the 21 franchise players, a dozen negotiated long-term contracts, while six signed one-year tenders. The salaries for the six "tendered" players: kickers Mike Nugent of Cincinnati ($2.654 million) and Cleveland's Phil Dawson ($3.81 million); Washington tight end Fred Davis ($5.446 million); wide receiver Wes Welker of New England ($9.4 million); linebacker Anthony Spencer of Dallas ($8.856 million); and Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes ($10.28 million). None of the six, it seemed, ever got close to hammering out a long-term accord.
--This marks the second straight season in which Dawson will play under the one-year franchise tag. The Browns can use the marker for 2013, but would have to pay Dawson more than $5 million. So Dawson, 37, will either sign a long-term contract next spring or, more likely, be allowed to go into free agency.
--Of the 12 players who landed long-term contracts, five signed their deals since last Friday, headed by quarterback Drew Brees' five-year, $100 million contract. Proving once again that, as they always do, deadlines precipitate action in the NFL.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior Writer for The Sports Xchange.