With the 44th choice in the 2008 NFL draft the Chicago Bears chose Matt Forté, a running back out of Tulane. Just five picks later the Philadelphia Eagles, with their second pick in the second round, chose DeSean Jackson, a wide receiver and kick returner from California. A little less than 24 hours later with the draft winding down, the Denver Broncos selected Peyton Hillis, a fullback out of Arkansas in the seventh round.
Hillis played in the same college backfield with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, each of whom was drafted in the first round in 2008. The Broncos drafted him to be a complementary back, but a little more than halfway through his rookie season, four backs in front of him at Denver went down with injuries and Hillis became a featured back, rushing 68 times for 343 yards, a 5.0-yard average, five TDs and caught 14 passes for 179 yards and another TD. After being hurt most of his sophomore season, Hillis was traded by head coach Josh McDaniel to Cleveland. In 2010, Hillis became the focus of the Cleveland offense with 270-1,177-11, a 4.4 average, and 61 catches for 477 yards and two more TDs, becoming a Pro Bowl alternate and a Madden video game cover boy.
Jackson was an instant breakout star in Philadelphia, catching 171 passes for 3,124 yards (18.3 per catch) and 17 TDs, with 44 rushes for 337 yards (7.7 per carry), three TDs and 99 punt returns for an 11.2-yard average and four TDs. A game changer, Jackson was paid much more than Hillis during his first three seasons but nothing like what other Pro Bowlers around the league were making.
Forté was also an instant breakout star but nowhere near as flashy as Jackson and, as such, it wasn't as obvious how underpaid he really has been. But the bottom line is Forté has been the best player of the three, rushing 811-3,236-18 (4.0 average) with 171 catches for 1,495 yards (8.7 average) and seven TDs in his first three seasons in the league. In spite of denying it most of that season, Forté played hurt through most of 2009 and still managed 1,400 total yards from scrimmage, rushing and receiving, and then bounced back in 2010 with 1,616 total yards and nine TDs.
All three players were very clear heading into training camp that they expected new deals, and Jackson even held out for almost two weeks before showing up.
After nine games this season, Hillis has been a virtual no-show while battling injury and illness, rushing for just 60-211-2 (3.5 average) and catching 15-76-0 (5.1 per catch). It now appears most likely Hillis will not be a Brown in 2012.
Jackson has been targeted 58 times by Eagles QBs and yet caught just 29 of those throws for 503 yards (17.3 per catch) and two TDs, with just nine punt returns for a measly 3.7-yard average. Worse yet, Jackson was scratched from the Eagles' ninth game, in which they were upset at home by the Cardinals, for oversleeping and failing to attend a special-teams meeting. His future in Philadelphia is now unclear.
Forté has received an offer from the Bears that an overwhelming majority of insiders agree is well below Forté's market value, and which he has declined. Yet, he played at an MVP level through 10 weeks, with his 1,308 yards of total offense ranking second in the NFL. It now appears that he will be franchised by the Bears in 2012 unless he accepts a below-market deal.
Now, the Bears are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, the Eagles one of its biggest disappointments, and the Browns are even worse than the mediocrity projected for them.
What's the lesson in all of this? In large part it's that it doesn't matter whether players do the right thing or not when it comes to getting paid. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, very little, if any, of most contracts is guaranteed, and players are tied up for the first four or five years of their careers, which average less than 3.7 years. Allowing certain players to be franchised up to three times, the CBA is by far the least player-friendly deal in all of sports, even though their sport drives by far the most revenue and greatest profits for their owners.