Christian McCaffrey is the poster child for why NFL teams shouldn’t pay running backs

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Christian McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the NFL. A transformative player who can build a quarterback’s confidence by having a yard-chomping threat on short routes. A player whose dual-threat capability moves chains, and whose speed can break huge touchdowns seemingly out of nowhere. Christian McCaffrey can’t do any of these things if he’s not healthy.

On Monday the Carolina Panthers placed McCaffrey on injured reserve for the second time in 2021, this time ending his season. It’s the second straight year the running back will end his season due to injury, and it marks the greatest lesson in the modern NFL: You do not pay running backs.

The Panthers elected to extend McCaffrey’s contract early, following his breakout MVP-caliber 2019 that saw him gain over 2,300 yards from scrimmage, and scored 21 touchdowns. While fans were certainly excited to see the running back locked up to a long-term deal, there was definite trepidation about signing any rusher to a 4-year, $64 million extension. I mention this to say we’re not playing revisionist history here, people were worried about sinking that much of the team’s salary cap into a position that has shifted completely away from the bellwether feature back, and sadly for Carolina, these fears were realized.

It isn’t just McCaffrey, he’s simply the most pronounced example. Ezekiel Elliott signed a six-year extension with the Cowboys in 2019, and he’ll barely clear 1,000 rushing yards this season if his pace stands. The Broncos invested big money in Melvin Gordon, and he’s failed to rush for 1,000 yards in each of the last two years. Dalvin Cook in Minnesota, another extension, another injured back who won’t reach his 1,553 rushing yards from a year ago. Alvin Kamara, big-money extension from New Orleans — 530 yards injury-affected yards as a result.

It doesn’t take a genius to see this pattern. Team after team are getting burned by committing to running backs. It would be one thing if there wasn’t talent going around, if these were the only good running backs in the league. Problem is: In 2021 half the best players at the position have been bargain basement.

2021 RB Comparison

Rushing Rank Name Team Rushing Yards TD Cap Hit Rookie Contract?
Rushing Rank Name Team Rushing Yards TD Cap Hit Rookie Contract?
1 Jonathan Taylor Colts 1,205 14 $1.8M Y
2 Derrick Henry Titans 937 10 $13.5M N
3 Joe Mixon Bengals 924 11 $8.1M N
4 Nick Chubb Browns 867 6 $4.7M N
5 Dalvin Cook Vikings 773 4 $5.1M N
6 Ezekiel Elliot Cowboys 720 8 $6.8M N
7 Antonio Gibson Washington 712 5 $1.1M Y
8 Najeh Harris Steelers 708 5 $2.4M Y
9 Elijah Mitchell 49ers 693 4 $705K Y
10 James Robinson Jaguars 654 7 $781K Y

Yes, some of the players I’ve mentioned, the overpaid running backs, are on this list. That’s not the point. The issue is how pronounced their salary to production is, compared to those on rookie deals. Is Derrick Henry, as amazing as he is, really worth $12M more than an Antonio Gibson? Is Dalvin Cook (who, it should be noted has a skyrocketing cap hit in 2022) worth five times that of Elijah Mitchell or James Robinson?

We simply aren’t seeing production jumps commensurate with salary at the running back position compared with others. This is not a case of comparing Tom Brady and Sam Darnold, it’s far more granular. Go deeper down the top RB list and you’ll find more rookies out-performing those on big money extensions. The return on investment at running back is really, really bad — yet teams keep signing them to big deals.

What makes this difficult to reconcile is that running backs deserve their money. All players should get paid, and backs, unquestionably take the most abuse on a team. It’s why their injury rate is high, their careers short, and that’s all assuming they haven’t been worn down in college before ever making it to the NFL. So it feels weird advocating why a position shouldn’t be paid for their hard work, but it’s also the state of the league right now.

So, what has happened to the modern running back? There’s definitely some truth in the idea that the NFL has made passing far easier to up scoring, and as a result it’s less important to grind it out on the ground. However, it’s also possible we’re simply seeing an evolution in the sport that would have naturally occurred.

The idea of the 30 carry modern running back putting an entire offense on their back has become similar to running an NBA offense through a statuesque big man who can’t shoot outside the paint. It just doesn’t cut it anymore. The only true throwback we see in the league is Henry, who is in a league of his own if healthy, but more often we’re seeing backs being asked to be hybrid receivers. These leaner, more athletic offenses is what’s thriving in the NFL currently, and the byproduct of that is that we have smaller running backs who favor speed over power. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these smaller players are naturally less durable, and we’re seeing huge levels of injury to hybrid backs in the NFL as a result.

In addition to this shift we’re seeing more NFL teams adopt college offensive philosophies. This in turn makes young quarterbacks more effective than ever, which is having the effect of more, better quarterbacks in the NFL than ever before. If you go back a decade we only had 10 quarterbacks throw for over 4,000 yards. In 2021, we’re on pace to have 13, with a handful more only a few big games away from reaching the mark as well — and that’s adjusting to a 16 game season like we’re accustomed to. On the bottom end of the spectrum that same 2011 season had eight starters failing to reach 3,000 passing yards. This year? Two. Hell, even Darnold, who was benched a month ago, would be on pace for 2,888 yards — that would have put him 21st in a league a decade ago.

So what we have is the perfect storm. More passing, a shifting league, rookie running backs proving they can be as effective as the best veterans, and more injuries. It’s exceedingly difficult to justify any team opening up their wallet and parting ways with big money for a running back.

Let this be a lesson for the Giants, who have to make a decision on Saquon Barkley, or Houston with David Johnson, or the Buccaneers with Leonard Fournette. Regardless of production, no matter how difficult pulling off the BandAid might be for fans, re-signing a running back to a huge contract is wildly damaging for your franchise. Get those scouts working, invest the time in the draft, and find the next Jonathan Taylor. It’s not that difficult, and the stats prove it.



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