Wed 15th April 2020

According to multiple reports emerging late yesterday, Christian McCaffrey – the Carolina Panthers’ star running back – is poised to sign a four-year extension with the franchise which is set to make him the highest paid running back in the history of professional football. The extension currently on the table is reportedly in the realm of $16 million per year, which slightly edges out Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott ($15 million) and the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($14.1 million). 

Including the two years still remaining on McCaffrey’s rookie deal, and an apparent fifth-year option in the upcoming deal, McCaffrey is expected to earn $75 million over the next six seasons.

The 23-year-old former-Stanford Cardinal (who, by the way, doesn’t turn 24 until June) will now be tied to the Panthers until the end of the 2025 season. While he was only four years in to his rookie deal, the Panthers (understandably) did not want to enter the 2020 season with any question marks over the longterm future of their franchise star, particularly as new head coach Matt Rhule finds his feet at the pro level.

We’ll be the first to question the rationale behind most deals – particularly those given to relatively unproven running backs – but it’s actually pretty hard to find any flaws in the strategy of the Panthers here. While it’d be hard to argue that anyone but Lamar Jackson deserved to win the NFL’s MVP award last season, there’s a convincing case to be made that McCaffrey should have been second in the voting.

The fourth-year star put up absurd numbers across the board, becoming just the third player in the history of the NFL to rack up 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season, joining Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999) as the only members of that elite club. His 2,392 scrimmage yards led the league by a wide margin and it’s actually a little scary to think how poor the Panthers would’ve been without their offensive fulcrum, with McCaffrey accounting for a ridiculous 53% of touches (1st in the NFL), 44% of total scrimmage yards (1st) and 51% of scrimmage TDs (1st).

He is, without doubt, the most versatile non-quarterback in football.

Now, there will always of course be the counter-argument that running backs are hardly ever worth the money they’re paid and, to be fair, it’s a pretty convincing argument. Running backs tend to be highly dependent on their offensive lines and overall offensive schemes, and it’s worth noting that despite McCaffrey’s success the Panthers only finished 28th in offensive DVOA.

There are also the running back contract horror stories we’ve been saturated with over the last few years. Todd Gurley’s $45 million guaranteed and David Johnson’s $32 million in 2018 and the aforementioned Bell deal immediately spring to mind. While the Panthers will argue that McCaffrey’s value is as a dual-purpose back, the fact is that he only split out in to the slot 58 times overall in 2019. Austin Ekeler – who was just given a deal which will pay him $6 million per year for the next four seasons – had 50 slot snaps.

It’s become traditional that running backs fail to repeat spectacular seasons the following year. In fact – as per Mike Clay on Twitter – since 2007 only 16 pro running backs have received 370+ touches in one season and, with the notable exceptions of Ray Rice in 2011 and Clinton Portis in 2008, all saw a significant downturn in production the following year.

In 2015 the Panthers went 15-1 with a running back in Jonathan Stewart that had more than 1,300 less yards from scrimmage than McCaffrey did last year. The modern NFL does not lend itself to a positive relationship between running back productivity and team success. Quarterbacks, wide receivers and even offensive lineman are seeing their worth on the open market rise, while even the league’s elite backs can’t seem to find a way to make themselves indispensable. 

The obvious implication of the McCaffrey deal is that perhaps that pendulum is starting to swing the other way. The likes of Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt are all set to hit free agency in 2021, while 2018 draftees like Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb will also be eligible for extensions fairly shortly.

The Cook situation, in particular, is intriguing. The Vikings’ RB was second in the NFL for scrimmage yards in 2019 (behind you know who) and his potential contract extension – or lack thereof – has been a topic for vociferous discussion since early January. Cook went on record last week with his belief that he’s the best running back in the league, which presumably means he will be expecting no less money than McCaffrey just received.

Needless to say, this is not good news for Minnesota, but it must also be disconcerting for the league in general. All 32 teams have seen the ill-fated deals handed out to Gurley, Bell and Johnson and it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of good sentiment towards running back payments at the minute.

McCaffrey is a unique case – in the sense that he’s yet to miss a game in the NFL – but that won’t be of much solace to the Vikings, with it being pretty inarguable at this point that Cook (when healthy) is one of the top 5 backs in football.

Who blinks first, the teams or the running backs? We’ll have to wait and see.

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