With the Panthers giving running back Christian McCaffrey a four-year, $64 million extension after three NFL seasons, which running backs are up next for long-term deals?
Glad you asked. Even if you didn’t.
Titans running back Derrick Henry leads the list. With four seasons under his belt and currently limited by the franchise tag, Henry will make $10.278 million in 2020 absent a long-term contract. The deadline for a multi-year extension is July 15; otherwise, Henry (who has signed his tender) will play for $10.278 million this year, and he’ll be in line for a second tag at a 20-percent bump in 2021, which amounts to $12.336 million.
Will the Titans give him a long-term deal? That remains to be seen.
Ditto for Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake, who’ll make $8.48 million under the transition tag in 2020. Will the Cardinals sign him before July 15, or is he on a year-to-year arrangement as the Cardinals squeeze every ounce of value of out him before letting him hit the market next season, or tagging him again at a 20-percent bump ($10.176 million)?
Still operating under their rookie contracts are a pair of high-end tailbacks who are a year away from the open market or a tag: Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Both want, and deserve, new contracts. With McCaffrey setting the market at $16 million per year in new money, will either or both try to one-up McCaffrey, or will his deal be the ceiling?
McCaffrey has performed at a higher level than both, generating a rare offensive production (he’s only the third 1,000/1,000 running back) while also being available consistently. Cook has missed 19 games in three years; McCaffrey hasn’t missed one. Kamara has played in 45 of 48 regular-season games, but his numbers pale in comparison to McCaffrey’s — largely because the Saints don’t use Kamara the way the Panthers use McCaffrey.
Still, McCaffrey has averaged 5.87 yards per touch in three seasons. Kamara averages 5.82.
Packers running back Aaron Jones entered the conversation regarding the best in the game last season, with more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and some MVP support from his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Jones also has in 2020 a contract year, at a $2.1 million salary.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon likewise is on deck for a new deal after three seasons, with one left on his rookie contract. He has generated far fewer total yards than McCaffrey or Kamara, and Mixon averages 4.74 yards per touch, more than one yard less than either of them. (Cook averages 5.37 yards per touch, and he became the nucleus of the Minnesota offense in 2019, with more than 300 total touches and more than 1,650 yards from scrimmage.)
Colts running back Marlon Mack has a year left on his rookie deal, too. He had nearly 1,100 rushing yards in 14 games, and the Colts like him — especially given his contract. Do they like him enough to pay him, or will G.M. Chris Ballard eventually find someone to replace Mack?
Also entering a contract year is Steelers running back James Conner, who regressed in 2019 due to injury and the absence of great players around him, especially at quarterback. Before Conner can get paid, he’ll need to re-establish himself — and he may have to first win the starting job in Pittsburgh all over again.
Others who are lurching toward new contracts include Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, whose fifth-year option is due to be exercised, or not, next month. He’s been a disappointment relative to his status as the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, but he fairly quietly had a 1,674 yards from scrimmage in 2019.
Next come the likes of Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Browns running back Nick Chubb, and Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones, who will be eligible for new deals after 2020, along Broncos running back Philip Lindsay, an undrafted free agent in 2018 who will be a restricted free agent next year. After a strong rookie season, Lindsay was less effective in 2019, and the recent arrival of Melvin Gordon on a market-level deal raises questions about Lindsay’s long-term value to the Broncos.
And don’t forget Seahawks running back Chris Carson. A late-round pick in 2017, Carson had nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage last year before suffering a season-ending hip injury in Week 16. He enters a contract year in Seattle.
The wild-card is Patriots running back Sony Michel. The first rounder embarks on his third season after racking up more than 900 yards in each of his first two seasons. But the Patriots never give big money to running backs, and coach Bill Belichick may be content to squat on Michel for three more years, to make a team-friendly offer in 2022, and to let Michel walk away if he won’t take it.
And so not all of these tailbacks will get second contracts. A small handful will get eye-popping money. Many teams are content to simply chew up and spit out a young tailback, letting him chase a payday elsewhere while replacing him with another young player with full tread on the tires.