Christian McCaffrey’s elevator pitch was simple.
“You want to hire someone who speaks three languages great rather than one language good,” the Panthers running back told USA TODAY Sports. “I felt like I could do that on the football field.”
So began negotiations for his record-breaking four-year, $64 million contract extension.
McCaffrey and the Panthers’ mid-April agreement came quickly and quietly, a change of pace from the negotiations that preceded Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott's market-setter. Elliott defected to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, during a 40-day training camp holdout before the Cowboys gave him a six-year, $90 million extension last September. In some ways, he had been the best-case scenario of late.
Former Pro Bowl running backs Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman all received extensions in the last three years. None was retained by his respective team for the duration of that contract. Add in a Super Bowl featuring two undrafted backs in Raheem Mostert and Damien Williams, plus the economic uncertainty from COVID-19? McCaffrey and his agent, Joel Segal, understood the market challenge.
“We knew running backs aren’t valued,” McCaffrey said, “as high as I personally would like to see to running backs valued.”
They strategized accordingly. Their goal: Fight for a contract they believed would reflect not just the value of McCaffrey’s listed roster position—but the value of the multifaceted responsibilities he’s carried.
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The case for a payday
McCaffrey raced to a league-leading 19 touchdowns and 2,392 yards from scrimmage in 2019 even as the Panthers underwent seismic change. Quarterback Cam Newton played in just two games before being sidelined for the rest of the year, and Carolina fired head coach Ron Rivera in December. By January, the Panthers had tendered a seven-year contract to Matt Rhule with hopes he could turn around a franchise posting three losing seasons in the last four years. Defensive cornerstone Luke Kuechly retired a week later, and Newton was released in March.
McCaffrey, on and off the field, was key to the Panthers’ future.
“A centerpiece player that you can build around,” Rhule said. “I think he really builds the culture that you want to have within the building.”
Still, a second contract this spring was far from a given. No other 2017 first-round selection has been extended. McCaffrey still could be retained on his rookie contract for another two years, had Carolina exercised a fifth-year option. Would the Panthers be willing to invest so much, so soon?
Enter McCaffrey’s three-language argument.
After two seasons rushing for 1,000-plus yards, McCaffrey’s ability as a runner—“language” one—was not in doubt. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019, top-three in each category. But today’s NFL running back is typically asked to jibe with an increasingly emphasized passing game. Segal and Geoff Garmhausen, Lagardere Sports’ vice president of team sports, set out to illustrate why that trend only further validates McCaffrey’s worth. As a blocker and receiver—McCaffrey’s second and third languages on the field—the all-purpose threat is elite, his agency argued.
The Lagardere team compiled Pro Football Focus data that ranked McCaffrey’s blocking efficiency among the most highly graded running backs. In 105 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, McCaffrey allowed just four pressures. McCaffrey was a direct threat as a receiver as well. No matter that Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen’s passer rating ranked 30th among all quarterbacks in 2019. Only Saints receiver Michael Thomas (149) had more receptions than McCaffrey’s 116. And McCaffrey’s receiving prowess has canvassed his career. Segal and Garmhausen crunched numbers: McCaffrey’s 304 receptions are the most ever by an NFL running back in his first three seasons.
In fact, no running back has caught as many passes in his first four seasons as McCaffrey has in three.
McCaffrey marveled when Segal arrived at his Carolina apartment in early February with a booklet including that information.
“We sat down and I thought, ‘Oh man, there’s no way [Segal] is gonna know everything about me I don’t already know,” McCaffrey said. “He threw stats at me I didn’t know.”
The early February meeting laid the groundwork for negotiations that would wrap in less than two months.
Segal and McCaffrey sifted through the All-Pro back’s rushing, receiving and blocking portfolio. They researched historic comparisons: McCaffrey joins Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. They also weighed his production relative to recently extended players like Elliott and Thomas. After hours sprawled out at McCaffrey’s kitchen table—no lunch break, Segal remembers, laughing—they ballparked the running back’s worth.
Segal scheduled a meeting to pitch Panthers general manager Marty Hurney during the NFL scouting combine. On Feb. 26, the two met at The Alexander hotel in downtown Indianapolis. Conversation continued into March, when the Panthers first tendered a proposal.
Segal had employed bold tactics in recent years to maximize his client’s earnings. In 2018, Khalil Mack held out all of training camp until the Raiders traded the defensive player of the year to the Bears, who immediately made him the highest-paid defender in NFL history. This March, Segal landed defensive lineman DeForest Buckner a $84 million extension via a trade from the NFC champion 49ers to the Indianapolis Colts. Segal and McCaffrey discussed leverage tactics.
“I really didn’t want to miss any meetings,” McCaffrey said. But “I was definitely willing to and I think everybody knew that.”
COVID-19 didn’t deter negotiations, McCaffrey fielding three-hour call after three-hour call from the chair of his dad’s home office in Colorado. McCaffrey liked having his father, Ed, a 13-year NFL veteran and now Northern Colorado’s head football coach, as “another ear” in decisions.
On April 16, Carolina officially announced McCaffrey’s $64 million extension through 2025, his $16 million-per-year average the richest ever for a running back. The Panthers had agreed: McCaffrey’s value to them extends beyond a traditional running back.
“We see him as a weapon,” Rhule told Charlotte’s WFNZ Sports Radio after the deal.
Mike Tannenbaum, a former Jets general manager and Dolphins executive vice president of football operations, understands why the Panthers paid up. With star players and a rising salary cap, the sooner the extension the better. But he doesn’t think this milestone indicates the market will again be reset quite yet.
“I thought it was a really strong deal to get $16 million,” said Tannenbaum, now a front office insider for ESPN. “Christian is a rare guy on and off the field and was able to cash in because of it. But I think that standard and threshold will stay. It’s going to be a long time until someone surpasses that deal.”
McCaffrey takes pride in raising the running-back market but knows maintaining his production and durability will be key to reframing the position’s narrative.
“It’s all about setting the standard of what we’re worth, and it’s a collective effort,” McCaffrey said. “Zeke’s definitely a great example of that. Got paid last year, was again top-five in rushing and had a great year. So I think we have to continue to perform well and…have these lengthy careers so we could prove to everybody that the running-back position is one of the most valuable positions on the football field.”
He’ll cheer on the next young back seeking a payday, just as many reached out to congratulate him after he cashed in. Even the Saints’ Thomas lauded the “smart money.” His directive to McCaffrey: “Bet it all back !”
Yesssirrrr smart money!!!! @CMC_22 Let’s GO UP again next season bro bet it all back ! 💪🏾✊🏾 https://t.co/b8na4kYYKd
Younger running backs like the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, who earned 2018 offensive rookie of the year honors with 15 touchdowns and 2,028 yards from scrimmage, watched closely. But Barkley says he’s not yet dreaming about what he could receive if he reclaims his rookie form.
“I always feel like I’ve got something to prove,” Barkley said. “But for me, I’m a big believer of taking of the little things first. … When Christian signed that contract, the first thing that came to my mind was I’m happy for him.
“He deserves it.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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