NFL running back controversy: Team grades on 7 biggest veteran RB deals since Ezekiel Elliott contract

NFL running back controversy: Team grades on 7 biggest veteran RB deals since Ezekiel Elliott contract

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In case you haven’t noticed, veteran NFL running backs have seen better days.

Perhaps the most alarming news pertains to the three franchise-tagged running backs, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard. None received a long-term extension by Monday’s deadline as the market is still feeling the effects of three bad deals handed out to Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell in recent years. 

There’s no denying it may not be wise to pay a running back. They are uber-talented, but expendable, coupled with a short shelf life. However, with the recent uproar around the state of the running back it’s also worth noting how recent backs are turning the tide on an ugly history of veteran contracts at the position.

Here I grade the last seven veteran running backs to sign a contract worth at least $10 million annually since the Elliott deal in 2019. The grades are from the perspective of the team to give out the contract.

2021: Nick Chubb (Browns)

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3 years$36.6 million$20 million guaranteed

Grade: A-

Chubb has shown no signs of slowing down in two seasons since signing his deal. He finished third in the league in rushing last season behind Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry, and became the first player in NFL history to average at least five yards per rush in five straight seasons (minimum 100 rushes each season). He could have easily won the rushing title last year had Cleveland’s offense not sputtered so much after Deshaun Watson made his team debut. The only reason he’s not graded higher here is because he doesn’t offer much catching the ball out of the backfield. 

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4 years$48 million$13 million guaranteed

Grade: B

Jones hasn’t been dominant by any stretch since inking a four-year deal in 2021, but he’s been solid while sharing the load with teammate A.J. Dillon. Jones finished seventh in the league in scrimmage yards last season (1,516), while averaging more than five yards per carry. He’s shown no signs of slowing down, as he averaged 0.69 yards per rush over expected last season, right around his career average (NFL Next Gen Stats).

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5 years$75 million$34 million guaranteed

Grade: C

Kamara’s stock is dropping as he enters the fourth year of a lucrative five-year deal signed back in 2020. He started the deal off with a bang in 2020, leading the NFL in yards per touch (6.3) and touchdowns (21). But he’s been pedestrian ever since, partially because he’s been underutilized in the passing game following the retirement of Drew Brees. This deal may get even worse with a potential suspension looming to begin the season.

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5 years$63 million$28 million guaranteed

Grade: C

On one hand, Cook was second in the NFL in rushing behind only Derrick Henry in three seasons since signing a five-year deal in 2020. You can hardly call his deal a disappointment. However, he was released by the Vikings this offseason after his declining production was no longer worth his high salary. Among the top 13 running backs in rush yards last season, he was the only one with negative rush yards over expected (NFL Next Gen Stats). 

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4 years$48 million$10 million guaranteed

Grade: C-

Mixon took a pay cut last week on the four-year deal he signed back in 2020. He ranks 11th in the NFL in scrimmage yards (3,340) and 10th in touchdowns (29) since signing that deal, but underwhelmed with 3.9 yards per rush and 4.5 yards per touch in that span.

2020: Derrick Henry (Titans)

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4 years$50 million$26 million guaranteed

Grade: A-

Despite the trade rumors, Henry is still on the Titans entering the final year of his four-year deal. The first three years have been pretty darn good, besides a slight downtick in his yards per carry average.

2020: Rushed for 2,027 yards, the fifth-most in a season in NFL history2021: Led the NFL with 937 rush yards through Week 8 (288 more than anyone else) before missing the rest of the regular season with an injury2022: Finished second in the league in rushing (1,538)

The injury was a setback in 2021, but flirting with a rushing title in each of the first three years of this deal is also remarkable. Henry’s play hasn’t put the Titans over the top, but I think his production is about all they could have asked for.

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4 years$64 million$36 million guaranteed

Grade: F

McCaffrey gets an F from the perspective of the Panthers after signing a deal that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL ($16 million per season). He missed 23 of 33 games in the first two years of the deal from 2020 to 2021, and Carolina was actually better after trading him in 2022 with a RB timeshare of D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Carolina at least parlayed his hot start in 2022 to a second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round pick from the 49ers, but CMC still costs $18.3 million against the Panthers’ 2023 cap. McCaffrey returned to superstar form in 2022 and looked like he could carry San Francisco to a Super Bowl, but they also didn’t give him his long-term deal. 

Those seven contracts are a mixed bag, although mostly positive, from a team perspective.

The player perspective tells a slightly different story. Those seven players all ranked among the top 16 fantasy running backs in 2022.

Christian McCaffrey

2nd

Derrick Henry

4th

Nick Chubb

6th

Aaron Jones

9th

Joe Mixon

10th

Dalvin Cook

11th

Alvin Kamara

16th

As a group, they’ve outperformed their rookie deals, averaging more yards and touchdowns per season, with a slight downtick in efficiency. 

This also doesn’t even include Austin Ekeler, who led the NFL in touchdowns scored in each of the last two seasons and is playing on a four-year deal worth $24.5 million. 

Rookie deal

Scrimmage yards

1,401

1,260

Touchdowns

10.3

10.0

Yards per touch

5.1

5.4

It’s a start, but it’s going to take more than a few OK deals to reverse years of diminishing returns on lucrative contracts handed out to veteran running backs. 

In case you need a reminder on the biggest flops:

Ezekiel Elliott was released this offseason (and remains unsigned) after he finished last in the NFL in yards per touch (3.9) in 2022 and clearly looked like a shell of his former self. He was set to enter the fifth year of a six-year deal.Todd Gurley was released two years into a four-year, $60 million dollar deal after a down year in 2019. He played one more season in his career.Le’Veon Bell was released by the Jets halfway through the second year of a four-year deal worth $53 million. 

A deeper look at the 20 largest contracts ever given to veteran running backs (in terms of guarantees) supports the buyer beware sentiment.

Of the 16 completed deals, only three players actually played the full length of the deal with the team that signed them: Adrian Peterson. Steven Jackson. Jonathan Stewart.

If you look at the collective efforts of those 20 deals, you’ll see a decline in returns from what they did over their rookie deals. 

The contracts of DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart really brought down the averages.

Rookie deal

Scrimmage yards

1,206

1,409

Touchdowns

7.9

9.8

Yards per touch

4.8

5.4

What does it all mean? The history of veteran running backs to get massive paydays is still ugly, but improving. With the exception of the Panthers and McCaffrey, I don’t think there’s extreme buyer’s remorse on the most recent veteran RB deals. 

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