Bears running back Jordan Howard was the league’s second-leading rusher in 2016.
Miami’s Jay Ajayi finished just two spots behind him.
Both were fifth-round picks on their rookie contracts.
Which means both were great values for their teams.
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Howard earned $450,000 in base salary last year. Ajayi, meanwhile, made just $75,000 more.
Howard and Ajayi shouldn’t just be candidates for the league’s performance-based pay program, which rewards overachieving, low-paid players. They should be the poster children.
And yet, when the league announced the 25 players who received the most in performance-based compensation for the 2016 season, neither Ajayi’s nor Howard’s names were included.
Instead, little-known players like David Andrews, Alejandro Villanueva and Russell Bodine cashed in, earning more than $1.2 million in cash and benefits between them.
So what gives?
Well, the disconnect begins with the name. It really isn’t a performance-based system.
It’s a participation-based system.
The league uses a formula that splits up each team’s share of the pie based on playing time compared to salary.
So offensive linemen like Andrews, Villanueva and Bodine — who were on the field for 99.6 percent, 100 percent and 97.5 percent of their respective teams’ offensive snaps last year — have a huge built-in advantage.
While these young players were solid, they weren’t great. They ranked 22nd, 24th and 26th at their respective positions in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ajayi, meanwhile, was a platoon player to start the season. He didn’t even appear in the opener. And he plays a position that is simply too demanding to be on the field non-stop.
And so, Ajayi’s participation rate obviously lags far beyond the aforementioned linemen. He was on the field for 61.3 percent of Miami’s offensive snaps last year. Howard, at 64.8 percent, wasn’t much better.
This isn’t to say neither received any performance-based pay. They likely did. The full list of compensation was not released to the public.
And yet, the NFL’s system didn’t allow for the two of its best young backs to be paid like it.
The short-term news isn’t much better for either. League rules don’t allow the Dolphins to give Ajayi a raise until the 2018 offseason. And Howard must wait even longer; he must play at least two more seasons on his current deal before getting a new one.