The 2017 running back draft class is already considered one of the best, deepest classes in recent memory. Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were taken in the first round, and the Day 2 picks include Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt. Even the Day 3 crop features Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, and Chris Carson. All nine of those players have at least 2,700 yards from scrimmage in their careers, and many have established themselves as among the best in the league at their position.
Three years later, the non-first rounders are set to hit free agency in 2021. As the groups' rookie contracts wind down in an era where big-money deals for running backs are increasingly viewed as risky or wasteful, what happens next could say a lot about the future of the position.
On Monday, the first domino fell. McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million extension with the Panthers, keeping him in Carolina through at least the 2024 season. The $16 million average annual value of the deal will make him the highest paid running back in NFL history, surpassing the $15 million AAV in the six-year, $90 million deal Ezekiel Elliott signed a year ago.
The McCaffrey news is notable for every running back listed above, as well as 2018 draftees Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb. The market has now been reset for running backs, and there will be plenty of players looking to benefit from McCaffrey's payday. Kamara's reaction to the news says a lot.
Cook is another player whose situation is affected by McCaffrey's new deal. A potential extension for the Vikings star has been widely discussed since last season ended; it was one of the first things we dove into in our offseason roster questions series in January. Cook had a breakout year in 2019, finishing second in the NFL behind McCaffrey in yards from scrimmage per game.
Now, as Cook and his agent approach negotiations on a potential extension, Cook has a benchmark that he can aim for. After saying last week that he believes he's the best back in the league, Cook presumably feels he's every bit as deserving of $16 million per year as McCaffrey. The Pioneer Press recently reported that Cook's camp "has been paying close attention to the McCaffrey negotiations."
That's not great news for the Vikings, who may be forced into a difficult decision. It could become a choice between meeting Cook's demands – thus risking an even more expensive repeat of the disastrous Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Le'Veon Bell deals – or letting one of their best players and faces of the franchise head elsewhere.
Cook showed his value to the team throughout the season, and both parties would – in theory – like to continue their relationship for many years to come. But considering Cook's injury history, the presence of Alexander Mattison, and Minnesota's salary cap constraints, giving Cook a comparable deal to what McCaffrey received might be a questionable allocation of resources.
Whether the Vikings like it or not, the McCaffrey extension has changed things when it comes to Cook. However, it's important to note that the two situations are far from equal. McCaffrey hasn't missed a game in his career and is a unique case because of his historic production as a receiver out of the backfield. Injuries have kept Cook out of 19 games in three seasons, and while he's a good pass-catcher, he's not on McCaffrey's level in that department. McCaffrey has over 5,400 yards from scrimmage (2,900 rushing, 2,500 receiving) and 39 touchdowns in the NFL. Cook has just over 3,000 yards (2,100/900) and 19 TDs.
According to Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic, McCaffrey's dual-threat ability played a role in negotiations with the Panthers.
All throughout negotiations, McCaffrey’s ability as a receiver after a 1,000/1,000 season was touted, elevating the status of the contract above the standard running back deal.
Still, that may not matter much for the Vikings. Whether it's reasonable for Cook to demand $16 million or not given his injury history and lack of McCaffrey-esque production, there's little reason to expect otherwise. When healthy, Cook is right up there with McCaffrey, Elliott, and Barkley, and he knows it.
That's why it'll be so interesting to see what happens next. If the Vikings follow the Panthers and make Cook one of the highest-paid running backs in the league, they'd be going against analytics and making a big-time bet on his health. But if the team and Cook can't work out an extension this offseason, there's a possibility he could consider holding out in 2020.
Carolina made their decision. Now it's time for several other teams – the Vikings chief among them – to make theirs.
Join the conversation at InsideTheVikings by clicking the follow button in the upper right-hand corner of this page, and follow @WillRagatz on Twitter.