Should Panthers have paid Christian McCaffrey? Recent history for big RB deals is awful

Running backs do matter. It’s impossible to watch a Carolina Panthers, New York Giants or Dallas Cowboys game and think otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean running backs should get huge second contracts. Running backs have much shorter primes than any other position, and they’re easier to find late in the draft or cheap in free agency. That stinks for some of the NFL’s best at the position, but it has been proven time and again.

But what about Christian McCaffrey? The Panthers’ star signed a four-year extension worth $16 million per season, making McCaffrey the highest paid running back ever.

You’re not going to find a competent football mind that says McCaffrey is not a special player. He had 1,000 yards rushing and receiving last season. He’s a phenomenal talent who has been an unlikely workhorse and all-around threat. He rarely comes off the field and can score anytime he touches the ball. Debating his merits as a player is foolish.

But debating whether the Panthers should have paid him? Well, that’s not as unreasonable.

Christian McCaffrey (22) is the highest paid running back in NFL history. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
Christian McCaffrey (22) is the highest paid running back in NFL history. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Pay a RB? Recent history says no

News of McCaffrey’s extension on Monday started the debate anew: Should teams give running backs huge extensions? And those in favor of McCaffrey getting a record-breaking deal all offered some version of this opinion: Sure, other long-term deals for backs didn’t work out, but McCaffrey is different.

McCaffrey is different. But so was Todd Gurley when he signed his extension with the Los Angeles Rams. Le’Veon Bell was different when he played with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ezekiel Elliott was on an elite tier when the Cowboys paid him.

None of these backs looks like a bad investment in the moment. And yet, almost all big running back extensions turn out to be regrettable. Here’s a look at all of the running backs on non-rookie contracts who had at least one $6 million cap hit in a season from 2016 on (franchise tags excluded), according to OverTheCap with total contract figures from Spotrac:

Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, six years, $90 million: Elliott held out, and then posted a career-low in yards per game. He has more than 1,350 touches in four NFL seasons. He wasn’t bad last season and has plenty of time to make this a good investment, but there are warning signs. VERDICT: Incomplete

Jets Le’Veon Bell, four years, $52.5 million: A holdout after a second franchise tag from the Steelers led to a big deal from the Jets. Bell then posted career lows in just about every category. VERDICT: Miss

Rams Todd Gurley, four years, $57.5 million: Even if you thought the Rams were making a mistake paying Gurley, nobody figured he’d be cut after two years. But Gurley’s knee became an issue, his playing time was cut back over the latter part of 2018 and he wasn’t the same back in 2019. He was cut, with the Rams taking on an astounding $20.15 million dead cap hit. VERDICT: Miss

Cardinals/Texans David Johnson, three years, $39 million: Johnson parlayed a great 2016 into a big contract, and has been injury-riddled and ineffective since. He was benched late last season and then traded to the Texans, who still believe. VERDICT: Miss

49ers Jerick McKinnon, four years, $30 million: McKinnon blew out his ACL in a practice before his first 49ers season and has yet to play for the team. VERDICT: Miss

Texans Lamar Miller, four years, $26 million: Miller posted one 1,000-yard season for Houston, with 18 touchdowns in 44 games and missed all last season with a torn ACL. He wasn’t bad, but not the impact player Houston wanted. VERDICT: Some positives, but still a miss

Falcons Devonta Freeman, five years, $41.25 million: Freeman made two Pro Bowls and signed his extension before his fourth season. His last three Falcons seasons, he missed 18 games due to injury and had 1,589 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns combined. VERDICT: Miss

Bills LeSean McCoy, five years, $40 million: The Bills traded for McCoy and gave him a big extension. He did have three Pro Bowl years before falling out of favor. The Bills went 0-1 in the playoffs with him, but still it should count as a good deal. VERDICT: Hit

Eagles/Titans DeMarco Murray, five years, $40 million: A year after the Eagles gave Murray that contract, he was traded to the Titans in an exchange of fourth-round picks and agreed to a restructured four-year, $25.25 million deal. He did have one good season for Tennessee, then a bad one and was done in the NFL. VERDICT: Miss

Panthers Jonathan Stewart, six years, $44.5 million: We added a one-year, $8 million deal that came at the end of his Panthers’ stay. Over his final six Panthers seasons, Stewart totaled 1,000 yards from scrimmage once and never had double-digit touchdowns. VERDICT: Miss

Jaguars Chris Ivory, five years, $32 million: Ivory’s two Jaguars seasons, combined: 821 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns. He was released after his second Jaguars season. Oof. VERDICT: Miss

Vikings Adrian Peterson, three years, $42 million: Peterson led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns the first year of his deal, then played just three games the next season due to injury. The Vikings declined his third-year option, creating $18 million in cap space. His cap number over those first two seasons was more than $27 million, and that’s a lot to pay for one good year. VERDICT: One good year, still a miss

Broncos C.J. Anderson, four years, $18 million: The Broncos matched the Dolphins’ offer sheet in 2016, then got 1,444 rushing yards and four touchdowns from Anderson the next two seasons before cutting him. VERDICT: Miss

Buccaneers Doug Martin, five years, $35.75 million: Martin had an All-Pro season in 2015 and signed a big deal in 2016. The next two seasons? 827 rushing yards, 2.9-yard average, cut. VERDICT: Miss

There are 14 contracts listed above, with 12 misses — some of them enormous mistakes — and one incomplete. Even McCoy’s “hit” didn’t result in any Bills team success, though that’s not his fault.

And while some of those contracts were bad when they happened, most of them weren’t viewed as mistakes when they were signed. Yet, people insist McCaffrey is different. Maybe he is.

What does Christian McCaffrey’s contract mean for others?

The Panthers were in a tough spot with McCaffrey. He is clearly one of the NFL’s best players and eventually was going to express displeasure with his contract. The Panthers can note all of the recent history above, and still feel the need to gamble on McCaffrey paying off.

The news of McCaffrey’s contract was certainly noted by the agents for Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals, Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings and Saquon Barkley of the Giants, among other backs still on their rookie deals.

All of those backs have shown tremendous ability. McCaffrey is arguably the best back in the NFL with his fantastic ability as a runner and receiver, but the others have been very productive too. Even if those other backs don’t get as much as McCaffrey, they’ll want a lot. And Barkley, who was the second pick of the 2018 draft and won NFL offensive rookie of the year, could get much more by the time his extension is signed.

All of them are likely to get nice extensions soon. All of them will generate debates about paying running backs, with supporters saying they’ll be the exception to the rule. The Panthers hope McCaffrey is one of the outliers.

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