It's been a roller coaster week for running backs.
In New Orleans, the Saints and Alvin Kamara appear at a crossroads in contract negotiations. Leonard Fournette waved goodbye to Jacksonville (well, actually, it was the other way around) and now finds himself looking for a new home.
As for Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, the Brinks truck was called to haul every penny of a fresh four-year contract extension worth $48 million in total, putting the Oklahoma product under contract for the next five seasons.
For Mixon, the deal solidifies himself as one of the top paid running backs in the league, with an average of $12 million across the new deal. Mixon sits sixth in the league at his position for annual value, behind the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliot, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson and Derrick Henry.
Mixon wasn't the only back in the AFC North with dollar signs in his eyes, however.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner currently enters the last year of his rookie contract. His journey of defeating cancer to then becoming a third-round pick and emerge as a productive back early in his career has been nothing short of remarkable.
Yet after missing nine games in the previous two seasons, patience is beginning to run thin for Conner. Doubts surround the back's ability to remain healthy, and 2020 appears to be the last chance for Conner to have the last laugh.
It's unclear where Conner fits in the running back market. Surely he won't see mega-money like the McCaffrey's or Elliot's of the world. Yet, Conner still holds the potential to see a solid payday, especially when comparing career numbers to Mixon.
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Average Yards Per Rush
Average Yards Per Catch
With both players having three seasons under their belt, Conner's numbers are somewhat comparable to Mixon despite not starting a single game his rookie season.
What would separate a Mixon payday from an average outing at the negotiation table? Two key factors: Health and ball security.
Mixon has missed just four games over the course of his short career (none last season) and has yet to fumble since 2018 despite touching the ball nearly 600 times the last two years. In comparison, Conner has fumbled five times and missed nine games since 2018.
The argument can also be heard that Mixon has produced with considerably less talent around him, including offensive line help.
As stated previously, Conner is a long way from resetting a running back market that features only six running backs that earn double-digit millions annually. Despite holding his own when comparing numbers to Mixon, two key facets of Mixon's appeal (ball security and health) remain two of Conner's weakest attributes.
Even if Conner manages to string together one last strong season prior to seeking a new deal, I'm of the belief that Mixon's recent deal acts as a ceiling for any potential contract Conner will sign past 2020.
Should trends continue, the market will gradually trend upwards, with Saquon Barkley ready to hit the jackpot and a handful of other backs earning second contracts. Conner included.
In terms of a ceiling, perhaps Mixon's new deal is one of great height with beautiful chandelier, a ceiling that Conner probably won't reach. When assessing realistic contracts on an annual value basis, Conner's more likely to replicate deals such as Austin Ekeler's $6.125 million or Melvin Gordon's $8 million annually.
I may be selling Conner and his negotiation team short, but with an undervalued position that rests within a saturated market, I'll take my chances with a lower figure regardless of the year Conner has in 2020.
As for a contract prediction, I'll say $7.8 million as my ballpark guess for annual value with a maximum of four years.
Whether that's in Pittsburgh or not remains to be seen. Many media members in Pittsburgh are pegging the Steelers to move on from paying Conner the money he potentially desires. This can largely be attributed to the presence of young running backs Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, both of whom have had impressive training camps thus far.
The salary cap for 2021 also presents itself as an issue for keeping Conner around long term. Per OverTheCap, the Steelers are set to have $26 million in cap space for 2021. However, that's working under the assumption that the salary cap shoots up a whopping $15 million, a figure that simply seems unlikely given the NFL/NFLPA's agreement that the cap would drop to no lower than $175 million next season.
In a timeline that currently sees the NFL losing a substantial amount of money, the cap is more likely to drop below the current $198 million than increase into 2021. With a shrunken salary cap and a plethora of potential free agents to pay that include JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, and Mike Hilton, among others (let's not forget Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt still need new deals that will both likely reset the market), the likelihood of Conner returning to Pittsburgh remains questionable at best, as the Steelers would likely opt to spend tight money elsewhere.
Wherever Conner ends up, however, he will earn more quite more than the near $800,000 annually he's made already. Although the season has yet to be played, contracts such as Mixon's help give a clearer picture as to what Conner may realistically ask after the 2020 season.