Christian McCaffrey was an MVP candidate last year—and his team finished 28th in offensive DVOA. Teams should have figured out by now that the success of their running back and the success of their offense are more divorced than ever, yet here we go again down the running-back-value rabbit hole. On Monday, the Panthers made McCaffrey the highest-paid back in football history:
Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey is signing a four-year extension, averaging $16 million per year, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 13, 2020
By now we should all be familiar with why running back value has declined: Over the past few years, teams started to notice that having a great running back does not directly translate to overall success. Running backs can still be stars, because they touch the football a ton and score touchdowns, but they are highly dependent on their offensive lines and offensive scheme. Plus, rushing itself is dwarfed in importance by passing offense—so quarterback talent, wide receiver talent, and scheme once again. Overall, rushing isn’t nearly as valuable as it used to be, and running backs are even less so.
But the Panthers would surely argue that McCaffrey is not any old running back. He’s a deploy-him-anywhere playmaker whose versatility can transform an offense. There is some truth to this: McCaffrey just became the first player since Marshall Faulk in 1999 to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season. The Panthers can move him around the formation, in the slot, out wide, or right there in the backfield to create and exploit mismatches. He’s not a running back, he’s a weapon.
However, the same thing was said about Todd Gurley in 2018 when he signed his four-year, $57.5 million extension with $45 million guaranteed; about David Johnson when he inked his three-year, $39 million extension with $32 million guaranteed that same year; and about Le’Veon Bell when he agreed to his four-year, $52.5 million contract with $27 million guaranteed last spring. All of those deals have aged like milk. Even Ezekiel Elliott’s six-year, $90 million deal (with $50 million guaranteed) nearly kept the Cowboys from retaining Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, two players who are much more crucial to the team’s success. Teams keep looking for a running back who can become the exception to the rule. They keep failing to find one.
McCaffrey is more similar to those above rushers than you’d expect. While his 1,000 receiving yards in 2019 dwarfs the figure of any other running back, CMC is no wide receiver. McCaffrey split out into the slot 58 times last year, good for fourth most among running backs, but that was one less time than … Gurley. It was also only eight more slot snaps than part-time Chargers back Austin Ekeler took last year, and Ekeler just received a deal that will pay him a hair over $6 million per year for the next four seasons. As far as running back contracts go, Ekeler’s is the model for teams to follow.
There is also very little chance for McCaffrey to repeat the success he had this year. Since 2007, only 16 running backs have gotten 370 or more touches in a season. Nearly all of them saw their production decline in the subsequent year:
Take from this what you want, but this is a complete list of all RBs with 370+ touches in a single season since 2007 and what they did the following season: pic.twitter.com/vAzKv98Fgq— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) April 13, 2020
If for the next few seasons the Panthers get production out of McCaffrey that’s similar to his 2019 performance, his deal might be worth it—but again, even his historic season did not translate to team success. And if his production does fall off, the team could come to regret McCaffrey’s deal sooner than later.
It was only five years ago that the Panthers fielded a 15-1 team with the eighth-best offensive DVOA. Their leading rusher that season was Jonathan Stewart, and he totaled less than half the total scrimmage yards (1,088) than McCaffrey did in 2019 (2,392). It didn’t matter, though, because running backs just don’t have a very large impact on team success. There’s no better back to bet on to break the typical running back mold than McCaffrey—but it still doesn’t look like a very good bet.