Agent’s Take: The running backs who could join Zeke, Gurley and others with top-tier contracts this offseason

The running back market had been in steady decline for several years when Todd Gurley reversed the trend at the start of Rams training camp in 2018. Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through salary escalators) with $45 million in guarantees. At $14.375 million per year, Gurley’s deal represented an almost a 75 percent increase over the previous running back benchmark, which was Devonta Freeman’s five-year extension with the Falcons in 2017 averaging $8.25 million per year.

David Johnson helped prove Gurley’s deal wasn’t a market anomaly. Hours before the Cardinals‘ 2018 regular season opener, Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension with $31,882,500 of guarantees. The deal is worth a maximum of $45 million through incentives.

Le’Veon Bell further solidified during free agency this year the dramatic reset of the running back market Gurley started. The three-time All-Pro running back signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets containing $35 million in overall guarantees. Incentives and salary escalators make the maximum value of the deal $60.15 million.

Ezekiel Elliott replaced Gurley as the NFL‘s highest-paid running back shortly before this regular season started when he ended his 39-day holdout from the Cowboys. He became the first running back in the league history to sign a $100 million contract. Elliott, who had two years remaining on his rookie contract, received a six-year, $90 million extension. The two-time rushing champion established new standards for running backs with $50,052,137 in overall guarantees and $28,052,137 fully guaranteed at signing.

These four could have some company in top running back salary tier before the beginning of the 2020 regular season. Here’s a look at several running backs still under rookie contracts and an assessment of their chances to join them. 2018 draft picks Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb weren’t considered because they can’t sign new contracts until the 2020 regular season ends.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

McCaffrey is the best bet to eclipse Elliott’s $15 million per year and $28,052,137 fully guaranteed at signing after he becomes eligible for a new deal once the regular season ends. He became the focal point of Carolina’s offense when 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton developed shoulder problems during the second half of the 2018 season. Newton is on injured reserve because of a foot injury after being limited to two games this season.

McCaffrey set the NFL single season reception record for running backs in 2018 when he caught 107 passes. He also cracked the 1,000 rushing yard mark for the first time with 1,098 yards.

The Panthers running back has taken his game to a different level this season. He is a top candidate for NFL Offensive Player of the Year while leading the NFL in rushing yards per game (109.9), yards from scrimmage per game (153.9) and touchdowns (14). His 48 receptions are second most among NFL running backs. He’s threatening to break former Titans running back Chris Johnson’s single season record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage, which was set in 2009. The 2017 eighth overall pick is on pace for 2,462 scrimmage yards, which would be the second most ever in an NFL season. He is also on track for a league-leading 1,758 rushing yards.

If the Panthers are unwilling to give him a new contract in the offseason, McCaffrey following Elliott’s lead by holding out wouldn’t be a surprise. The Panthers will surely exercise their option for a fifth year in 2021.

McCaffrey is represented by Joel Segal, who also was Johnson’s agent. Segal navigated Johnson through a successful holdout in 2011 that lasted until the Titans gave his client a four-year, $53.975 million contract extension in early September. He also represents Bears All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack. His lengthy holdout from the Raiders in 2018 led to a Labor Day weekend trade to Bears. Mack received a new contract in the process making him the NFL’s highest paid non-quarterback at $23.5 million per year.

Carolina’s heavy usage of McCaffrey could also factor into any decision he may have to make about withholding services. McCaffrey was on the field for 91.3 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps in 2018, which was a league high for running backs. He’s been on the field even more this season at 93.4 percent.

The workload has increased much more significantly than playing time this season. McCaffrey had 326 touches (combined rushing attempts and receptions) in 2018. It was the third most in the NFL. McCaffrey is on pace for 329 carries alone this season and 414 touches.

A holdout won’t be an issue if the Panthers treat McCaffrey like All-Pro inside linebacker Luke Kuechly rather than Newton. Kuechly, a 2012 first-round pick, got a new deal making him the league’s highest-paid inside linebacker in 2015 after his third NFL season. Newton’s extension didn’t come until he was entering his option year in 2015.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings

Cook is having a breakout year for Vikings now that he is finally healthy. He tore his left ACL four games into his rookie season in 2017. Cook never really got untracked in 2018 because of a hamstring injury that cost him five games. He is currently leading the NFL with 991 rushing yards and 1,415 yards from scrimmage. This puts him on pace for 1,586 rushing yards and 2,264 yards from scrimmage.

Cook’s breakout year is going to create an interesting financial allocation dilemma in Minnesota. The Vikings usually lock up core players before the start of their contract year, which is 2020 for Cook. They already have two high-priced wide receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ three-year contract is structured in a manner that an extension in 2020 may be the only way to keep him long term. His contract prevents Minnesota from using a transition tag on him in 2021, and a third franchise tag on Cousins in 2021 would be $44.464 million, a 44 percent increase of his 2020 salary cap number.

The Vikings have a history of paying highly productive running backs. Adrian Peterson received a six-year extension in 2011 averaging $14,213,333 per year, making him the highest paid ever at the position. The deal had $36 million in guarantees, a record for running backs at the time.  

There could be a couple of mitigating factors with Cook. His durability is a valid concern, since he missed 17 of his first 24 NFL games because of injury. Also, head coach Mike Zimmer appears to believe there isn’t much drop off between Cook and 2019 third round pick Alexander Mattison.

Derrick Henry, Titans

Henry came on like gangbusters during the latter part of last season. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December after recording 625 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in five December games. Henry, who is in a contract year, is demonstrating this season that his 2018 finish isn’t a fluke. He is fifth in the NFL with 832 rushing yards and third with 10 touchdowns, and his pace translates to a 1,331-yard season.

Top running back money has been reserved for those who are dual threats, and Henry doesn’t add much in the passing game. Rather, he is more of traditional ball carrier from the previous era. 

Henry may be more valuable to the Titans than anyone else because of his role in the offense. The Titans don’t have a true No. 1 receiver or anyone catching passes making that type of money. There isn’t a huge financial commitment with an unsettled quarterback position. Both Marcus Mariota, who was benched for ineffectiveness, and current starter Ryan Tannehill have expiring contracts.

Henry establishing a new second tier of running back pay between Freeman’s $8.25 million per year and Johnson’s $13 million average yearly salary to stay in Tennessee isn’t out of the question. It may make sense for Tennessee to seriously consider using a transition tag on Henry in 2020. The 2020 running back transition tag, which would only give the Titans a right to match any offer sheet Henry signed, projects to a little over $8.5 million with the salary cap growing to the $200 million neighborhood. Another team creating an offer sheet that’s difficult to match shouldn’t be an issue since Tennessee could have over $70 million in cap space during the offseason.

Alvin Kamara, Saints

Conventional wisdom suggested that Mark Ingram’s departure to the Ravens in free agency would lead to an increased workload for the supremely talented Kamara, but the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has been slowed by knee and ankle problems this season. The Saints offense didn’t really miss a beat with Latavius Murray shouldering the load in the two games Kamara has missed this season.

Attempting to negotiate off an injury-plagued season while heading into a contract year in 2020 won’t be ideal circumstances for Kamara.

Melvin Gordon, Chargers

Gordon is finally showing signs of life after an ill-conceived holdout that lasted until the fourth week of the season. He has gained 188 yards on 42 carries with three touchdowns in the last two games.

The Chargers reportedly offered Gordon $10 million per year during his holdout, but no other details about the reported offer have been disclosed. There were reports that Gordon was looking for top tier running back money in the David Johnson neighborhood. The Chargers also gave Gordon permission to seek a trade, but nothing ever came of those trade efforts.

Top-tier money always seemed like a stretch for Gordon. It remains to be seen whether he’ll regret rejecting the Chargers’ offer should he hit the open market in 2020 as a free agent, which seems likely at this point.

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

Injuries, a suspension and questions about Fournette’s professionalism and maturity defined his 2018, but 2017’s fourth overall pick is bouncing back in 2019. Fournette is currently on pace for 1,477 rushing yards and 71 receptions.

The fifth year option for 2021 that was in doubt after last season almost seems like a certainty to be exercised before the May 2 deadline. The Jaguars are much more likely to wait until 2021 to consider addressing Fournette’s contract than during the upcoming offseason. There weren’t any negotiations with recently traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey this past offseason when the 2016 fifth overall pick had just completed his third NFL season.

Chris Carson, Seahawks

The expectation was for Rashaad Penny to be Seattle’s primary ball carrier when he was selected with the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. That hasn’t happened, as Carson remains the key to the team’s rushing attack. The 2017 seventh round pick was fifth in the NFL last season with 1,151 rushing yards, and Carson is currently on pace to easily better that mark in 2019 with his 1,365-yard pace. Marshawn Lynch only topped 1,365 rushing yards once during his tenure with the Seahawks. Carson has also become more of a factor in the passing game as he has a career-high 27 receptions so far this season.

2020 is Carson’s contract year. His representation has likely taken note of Seattle giving Lynch a two-year, $24 million extension in 2015 for seasons in his early 30s. Carson will be 26 next season.

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