Between hiring head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, while cutting ties with franchise favorites Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, it’s safe to say that the Panthers have undergone a lot of turnover this offseason. However, in an attempt for some sort of long-term continuity, they’ve reached an agreement with running back Christian McCaffrey on a four-year, $64 million extension. This deal makes McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the NFL, and will keep him in Carolina through 2025. From the player’s perspective, it’s nice to see McCaffrey, who does a lot of work for the community, get rewarded for his contributions. However, from a team perspective, it’s clear that the Panthers have fallen into the same trap as others previously; no running back is going to live up to such a monstrous contract, not even McCaffrey.
As discussed in our latest study, running backs are the least impactful position in the NFL currently, based not just on Pro Football Focus’ WAR, but the lack of variation present at the position. In other words, not only do running backs fail to generate much value, but there isn’t a noticeable difference between the elite players and the serviceable players- it’s a very replaceable position. In fact, since the average running backs average the same WAR as a single offensive lineman, they are five times less valuable than their offensive line, which proves a major key point; they are heavily reliant on their surrounding core. Yet, if you’re paying a running back $16 million per year, it’s going to be very difficult to retain talented players around him, so McCaffrey’s production could suffer as a result. Even if they could, if a strong offensive line and limited box count are major components of running back success, why pay the running back? From a team-building standpoint, there simply is no room to pay a player at the least-valuable position in the NFL top-dollar.
Proponents of McCaffrey’s contract will be quick to point out that he’s the exception. Not only is he considered the top running back in the NFL, but he’s a do-it-all playmaker after rushing and receiving for 1000 yards each, and was the most valuable player in fantasy football leagues. That’s precisely what his new head coach was quick to point out to Kyle Bailey of WFNZ; he claimed that they “see him as a weapon” who can’t be put at one particular position. However, how valuable is McCaffrey truly as a receiver? Sure, he had 1000 receiving yards, but it took him 135 targets to get there, as he averaged just 8.7 yards per reception. That number ranked lower than slot receivers like Cole Beasley and Jamison Crowder, so the argument that he can thrive in the slot, where he played just 10.2% of the time, isn’t valid. In fact, that 8.7 yards per reception ranked just 14th among running backs, while his 1.76 yards/per route run ranked just 41st among all players, per Pro Football Focus. He’s a nice fit in Joe Brady’s scheme, which relies a lot on the running back being a receiver, but it’s clear that his receiving ability is being overblown.
Another major problem with paying running backs is the wear and tear they deal with, which caused them to breakdown by the time they get to their second contract. That’s a major reason why Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and other running backs have failed to live up their major contracts, and McCaffrey also has some serious long-term durability concerns. He had the most touches (rush attempts + receptions) in the NFL last season, and has had 300 in each of the past two seasons. Carolina could compensate for that by giving him a lesser role in hopes of preserving him, but at that point, why pay him $16 million?
So, what should the Panthers have done? They still had McCaffrey under team control for two more years, and had the option to franchise tag him twice. Per Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, that likely would have paid him less than $50 million, which would’ve at least made more sense. Or, they could’ve shopped him in a trade. After all, Teddy Bridgewater is a solid bridge quarterback (pun intended), but he’s probably not the team’s long-term answer, and they could be looking towards the 2021 NFL Draft to land Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields. Extra draft capital to help them draft one of those quarterbacks would’ve been extremely beneficial, especially since they also have major long-term holes with their offensive line and entire defense after the retirement All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. If there was ever a time to sell-high on McCaffrey, it was now, but, unfortunately, too many decisions are made for sentimental reasons.
No running back has yet to prove that they can be worth a massive second contract in the modern NFL, and rather than believing the next player is going to be the exception, it’s time to come to the conclusion. Carolina had the chance to have McCaffrey’s services without committing to him long-term, similar to the Steelers with Le’Veon Bell, but they ultimately chose to prioritize fan happiness over long-term winning. This is a team with plenty of long-term holes, including at the game’s most important position, and paying McCaffrey will only hamper their ability to fill those holes further. Will any more teams fall into this trap? We’ll see. Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, and Joe Mixon are all due for new contracts, and those teams are smart, they’ll let them leave and collect the compensatory pick, or trade them now. In the end, McCaffrey got his contract for what he has done, but in the NFL, it’s about paying for future performance. Sentimental contracts rarely work out, and believe it or not, McCaffrey won’t be the exception.