Which RBs could get paid next? Early predictions on Kamara, Cook and more

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Is Christian McCaffrey the savior for which the poor, beleaguered NFL running back has been waiting?

Baltimore’s Mark Ingram, a running back who has been through free agency twice, on Tuesday referred to the running back as “the redheaded stepchild” of the NFL’s financial system. The reference is to the fact that, in spite of an occasional eight-figure-a-year blip at the very top, the running back market hasn’t moved upward the way it has for other positions.

In fact, it has kind of gone the other direction. In 2017, the franchise tag for running backs was $12.12 million. It has declined every year since — it’s $10.278 million in 2020. In contrast, the franchise tag for quarterbacks has gone up 25.7% since 2017. The tag for wide receivers has gone up 13.9% over that time. For cornerbacks, it’s up 15%.

Todd Gurley’s $14.375-million-a-year contract with the Rams, signed in the summer of 2018, didn’t last two years before Los Angeles decided to cut him this offseason. David Johnson signed a $13-million-a-year deal with Arizona less than two months after Gurley signed his Rams extension. Johnson rushed for 940 yards in 2018 and 345 in 2019, when he became a part-time player for the Cardinals, who traded him to Houston last month.

With Gurley released, Johnson remains the third-highest-paid running back in the league by average annual salary. The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell are the only backs who’ve passed him in average annual salary in the past two years.

In comes McCaffrey, whose new deal with the Panthers pays him $64 million in new money and runs through 2025, per sources. There are two ways to look at this deal: On one hand, factor in the salaries McCaffrey was set to make this year and in 2021, and his average over the next six years technically slips below Johnson’s $13 million. On the other, the $16 million new-money annual average will be held up as a new benchmark, and perhaps hope for running back contracts to come.

Or will it?

The star-studded list of running backs who are due for extensions in this offseason or next includes Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and Seattle’s Chris Carson, just to name a few. They’ve all proved themselves vital parts of their respective teams’ offenses. They’ll all be looking to be rewarded for that. But if history is any guide, it’s no sure bet that all or any of them will be rewarded at the level they expect.

The Gurley and Johnson contracts stand as warnings to teams thinking about committing long term to running backs. They stand as answers teams can give agents who want to know why their clients can’t get the big running back deal. Both starting running backs in Super Bowl LIV were undrafted. Of the 22 running backs drafted in 2015, none is still with his original team. (Gurley was the last to go.) Of the 23 running backs drafted in 2016, only Elliott and Henry remain with their original teams. The position is fungible, and in a salary-cap league in which teams have to decide where and where not to spend their major resources, running backs still look like a place where teams can go bargain-hunting.

So what does that mean for the hopefuls? After conversations with executives and agents over the past few days, here’s a look at five young running backs with interesting situations on the horizon and some thoughts on how we think they might go:

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett did a nice job breaking down Kamara’s situation recently. It’s a tricky one. Kamara is a special player, and his usage in the New Orleans passing game (81 catches in each of his first three seasons) makes him a candidate for a big deal. Gurley, Johnson, Bell and McCaffrey all were established two-way contributors when they signed their extensions.

But Kamara, who has one year left on his rookie deal at $2.133 million, played only about 59% of New Orleans’ offensive snaps last season, whereas McCaffrey played 93% of Carolina’s. He doesn’t get the same kind of usage that guys such as McCaffrey, Elliott and Bell get. Now, you could make a case that that helps his future outlook because of reduced wear and tear. And the Saints might believe Kamara is a special and important enough player for them to reward him at or near the top of the market.

People in the NFL are watching this one closely because they find it tough to assign an accurate value to a player as unique as Kamara. Ultimately, the bet is that he stays, and that his new deal is a good one but doesn’t match up to the numbers McCaffrey and Elliott got. It’s worth noting that Kamara has the same agent as former Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who held out a portion of the 2019 season looking for a megadeal that never came. Gordon is now with the Broncos.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Tennessee designated Henry its franchise player for 2020, which means that unless he signs a long-term deal by July 15, he’ll play on a one-year, fully guaranteed $10.278 million deal. Should the Titans franchise Henry again next year, he’d make $12.3336 million in 2021. That’s a total of $22.6116 million over two years, or an average of $11.3058 million a year — enough to place Henry among the top five highest-paid running backs.

Henry was the engine that drove the Titans’ offense into the AFC Championship Game last season, and his value to the team is unquestioned. But more than one league insider to whom I spoke predicted that Tennessee would, in fact, franchise Henry again and then see where things stand before deciding whether to commit long term. He is 26 years old and had 409 touches in 2019 if you count his playoff numbers. If there’s a guy for whom wear and tear might be an issue, it’s the 6-foot-3 Henry, who absorbs a ton of contact when he runs.

Should Tennessee decide to franchise Henry again in 2021, he’d be in the same position in which Bell found himself in 2018. Bell, you might remember, sat out the entire season rather than play a second year on the franchise tag in Pittsburgh, then got his free-agent deal from the Jets. Henry could go that way, which might force the Titans into a long-term deal if they don’t have a potential replacement for him by next summer.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Cook had a monster 2019 season, rushing for 1,135 yards and catching 53 passes for 519 more in the regular season. That’s a total of 1,654 yards from scrimmage, which was the seventh-highest figure in the league but still 738 behind McCaffrey’s 2,392. Put another way, you could add Cook’s total yards from scrimmage to those of Pittsburgh’s James Conner and still not get to McCaffrey’s number.

Cook, who has one year left on his rookie deal, also has past health issues the Vikings can hold over his head in a contract negotiation. He has missed 19 games over his first three seasons. It’s hard to imagine Minnesota doing any long-term deal that isn’t team-favorable with Cook this offseason.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon entered the NFL under a justified cloud of controversy due to his well-publicized assault of a female student while at Oklahoma. He hasn’t been in any trouble since entering the league, and he has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the past two seasons behind a rotten Bengals offensive line. In a vacuum, he is a player the Bengals would like to keep.

Like Kamara and Cook, Mixon has a year left on his rookie contract and is freshly eligible for an extension. Unlike Kamara and Cook, he’s playing for a coach who was not with the team when it drafted him. This decision for Cincinnati is going to come down to how much Mixon wants. And the feeling around the league is that this is a similar situation to Cook’s, in that an extension would be done this offseason only if it was favorable for the team.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

Unlike fellow 2017 draftees Kamara, Cook and Mixon, Fournette was a first-round pick. That means his team holds a fifth-year option on him and could lock him in place for 2021 without doing an extension. The Jaguars have until May 3 (as in, 17 days from now) to pick up Fournette’s 2021 option, which is likely to come in just under $9 million. If they do exercise it, it would be guaranteed only for injury until the start of the 2021 league year next March, at which time it would become fully guaranteed. (The new collective bargaining agreement changes this rule, making fifth-year options fully guaranteed at the time they’re exercised, but that rule applies only to players drafted in 2018 and since.)

This one is worth watching. Fournette’s time in Jacksonville has been rocky. He went over 1,000 yards rushing in his rookie year, when the Jaguars made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. He struggled with injuries and clashed with the coaching staff and front office in 2018. By the end of that season, the team told Fournette it would void the remaining guarantees on his contract because of his on-field and off-field behavior. But last offseason, Fournette and the Jaguars appeared to reconcile, and he bounced back with 1,152 rushing yards and 76 receptions for 522 yards in 2019. He just turned 25 in January.

The Jaguars’ decision on the fifth-year option will give us some idea whether he’s in their long-term plans, but he probably needs another strong statistical season before he can reasonably ask for a big extension.

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