GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, despite enormous salary-cap challenges, has been as aggressive as possible in trying to “run it back” – running back Aaron Jones’ phrase – in hopes of taking the next step after back-to-back losses in the NFC Championship Game.
Aggressive driving can send a racecar into victory lane. Aggressive driving can also drive the car into a wall.
With the finish line known as the Super Bowl in sight, Gutekunst is putting the pedal to the metal. On Sunday, he reached an agreement with Jones on a four-year, $48 million contract extension. Jones is one of the great running backs in the NFL, a difference-making, field-tilting kind of player who can score from anywhere at any time and in any fashion. Just how good has Jones been in his first four seasons? The legendary Jim Brown is the only other player in NFL history with 3,000-plus rushing yards, 35-plus rushing touchdowns and a per-carry average of 5-plus yards in their first four seasons.
That is rare company, indeed.
But there’s a well-established danger in doling out hefty sums of money on second-contract running backs.
At the end of the 2020 season, 10 running backs were averaging at least $7 million per season, with the first nine on their second contracts. Seven had lofty price tags of at least $12 million per season. It could be argued only three of those players was worth the price in 2020.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina ($16.02 million per year): Coming on the heels of his league-leading 2,302 total yards and 19 total touchdowns in 2019, McCaffrey signed a four-year deal worth just over $64 million before the 2020 draft. Injuries, however, limited him to only three games.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas ($15 million per year): The fourth pick of the 2016 draft, Elliott had a miserable season. Without quarterback Dak Prescott to provide balance, he had 979 rushing yards, 1,317 total yards, eight total touchdowns and 4.8 yards per touch. Those were all the worst of the two-time rushing champ’s career.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans ($15 million per year): Kamara inked a five-year, $75 million extension after Week 1. He set career highs with 932 rushing yards, 83 receptions, 1,688 total yards and 21 total touchdowns. He averaged 6.3 yards per touch. In four seasons, he’s been selected for four Pro Bowls.
David Johnson, Houston ($13 million per year): Johnson led the NFL with 2,118 total yards and 20 total touchdowns in 2016. He’s scored 24 total touchdowns the past four seasons combined. In 12 games in 2020, he rushed for 691 yards, posted 1,005 total yards and scored eight touchdowns.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota ($12.6 million per year): A day before the opener against Green Bay, Cook signed a five-year extension worth $63 million. The money was well spent. Despite missing two games, he rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns and finished with 1,918 total yards.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee ($12.5 million per year): Henry’s the baddest running back on the planet. Given a four-year, $50 million contract in July, he rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020 to be named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati ($12.0 million per year): Mixon signed a four-year, $48 million extension before the season but played in only six games because of a foot injury. His 4.0 yards per touch was the worst of his career. He was coming off back-to-back seasons of 1,168 and 1,137 rushing yards.
Kenyan Drake, Arizona ($8.47 million per year): Drake rushed for a career-high 955 yards in 2020 but also had a career-low 4.1 yards per touch. In five years, he’s never reached 1,200 total yards or scored more than 10 touchdowns.
Melvin Gordon, Denver ($8.0 million per year): In six years, the former Wisconsin star has one 1,000-yard season. That was in 2017, the only time he’s started more than a dozen games. He averaged 4.6 yards per touch last year.
Saquon Barkley, Giants ($7.8 million per year): The second pick of the 2018 draft had two big seasons but suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 of 2020.
Since the end of the season, the Texans released Johnson and re-signed him to a much more affordable contract. Of the others, McCaffrey, Mixon and Barkley missed most of their seasons. Elliott and Gordon had ho-hum seasons. Drake has always been more sizzle than steak.
That made only Kamara, Cook and Henry worth the sizable investments. That’s only 30 percent, though Elliott, McCaffrey and the others could have big bounce-back seasons.
Can Jones buck the trend? Who knows, especially without having full details of the contract available. Jones has been an ascending player, so the Packers probably felt good about the contract paying for future performances rather than past accolades. But the same probably could be said for the Rams when they signed Todd Gurley to a four-year extension worth $57 million or the Jets when they signed Le’Veon Bell to a four-year deal worth $52.5 million or the Arizona Cardinals when they signed Johnson to a three-year, $39 million contract. Gurley and Bell were released and Johnson was traded and had to swallow a paycut.
That Jones’ signing bonus was rather minimal, and that Rosenhaus wasn’t taking a victory lap over all sorts of other guaranteed money, hints to this possibly being a team-friendly deal that minimizes the long-term risk. The long-term risk, not the total dollar amount, is what’s important. In December 2024, when Jones’ contract will be winding down, he’ll turn 30. Can a 208-pound running back be as productive when he’s 30 as when he’s 26 or 27? History says no. Not a single running back 29 or older rushed for even 700 yards last season.
But, with Aaron Rodgers coming off an MVP season, having turned 38 in December and facing long-term career uncertainty, the championship window obviously has an expiration date. So, Gutekunst is stomping on the gas and rolling the dice that the green-and-yellow car can reach the finish line before exploding in salary-cap flames.