That Christian McCaffrey became the NFL’s highest-paid running back ever on Monday, with a four-year deal worth $16 million a season, is good news on the surface for running backs. The position has been decimated financially after feeling a bit of tailwind from the Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott deals.
We convinced ourselves that, because the running back position was changing, so too could the financial structure that accompanied the position. That was especially true with Gurley, whose extension back in 2018 felt like it was finally the recognition hybrid backs had been hoping for. Then Gurley was let go. Then David Johnson was traded. That Elliott deal is starting to look a little heavy, too. Bell’s name reportedly surfaced in trade discussions and his own coach didn’t seem enamored with his price tag.
So yes, on the surface running backs should be happy that the market didn’t tank altogether once the overwhelming evidence against paying them caught up to the general managers slow to embrace the analytics. However, they should also be wary about the performance standard that McCaffrey set, and how difficult it would be to accumulate a statistical ledger in shouting distance of McCaffrey’s in order to legitimize a bigger contract.
Think about what McCaffrey has accomplished on the surface over his first three years, each of which featured a new personal high for rushing and receiving yards (plenty of which came without the services of his quarterback, Cam Newton). In 2019 alone, McCaffrey bested all running backs in touches, catches, receiving yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. Only DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas have caught more passes since 2017. Period.
While those numbers do merit some closer inspection—think, too, about how condensed the Panthers offense had to become in recent years and how much that might favor a versatile running back who can catch checkdown passes effectively—imagine being another back trying to convince a general manager that you deserve to reset the market, now that the market has come to this.
Teams are going to be more resistant to paying running backs than ever. And while other premier position players do not have to prove the same kind of statistical superiority in order to reset their respective market, the running back position is never going to get the benefit of the doubt again. They will forever be the overworked employee getting bypassed for one promotion after the next.
It is no longer just adequate to be a running back who can both run and catch to get paid like this. Moving forward, it will be a requirement to do everything, on every down, with the highest possible efficiency. Oh, and stay off the injury table. It is then, essentially, a requirement to be in the right place at the right time. To be exceptionally talented and yes, a little bit lucky too.
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