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  • Ben Drain

Can a Running Back Be Worth $16 Million?

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Christian McCaffrey recently signed a 4-year, $64 million extension with the Carolina Panthers, setting a new record as the highest-paid running back in NFL history. As the NFL game has evolved, the running back position has lost its importance, with teams often refusing to invest significantly in the position. Many factors may contribute to this trend: the growing emphasis on passing, the amount of wear and tear that running backs accrue over the years, or possibly the exorbitant quarterback contracts that are taking up an increasingly large portion of each team’s salary cap. Whatever the reason, there has been a leaguewide shift away from the running back position, yet the Panthers decided to invest in McCaffrey. Is this a wise decision financially?

Dion Lewis was the only highly paid running back to make the playoffs in 2019.

Last season, out of the top 10 highest-paid running backs, only one player’s team made the playoffs. That one player was Dion Lewis, the Titans’ backup running back. It appears like paying a running back a lot of money is not conducive to team success. When teams invest a significant amount of money in the running back position, they lose the ability to invest elsewhere, a sacrifice that does not seem to be worth it based on recent results. However, part of the appeal in investing in McCaffrey is the fact that he is more than a running back, he is also a receiver. While McCaffrey finished the season third in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, he also finished second in receptions and 28th in receiving yards while finishing in the top 15 for catch percentage. Not only was he a top 3 running back, but he was arguably a top 20 receiver as well. When the Panthers are investing $16 million per year in McCaffrey, they are getting the production of both an elite running back and a top receiver.

Despite Christian McCaffrey’s production, the question of whether this production justifies the investment is still unanswered. To find out, let’s look at the cost of a top 3 running back and a top 20 receiver. For the 2020 season, the 3rd highest-paid running back is David Johnson, who is making $11.2 million. The 20th highest-paid wide receiver is Albert Wilson, earning $10.8 million. This helps to put McCaffrey’s $16 million per year in perspective as his production is the same if the Panthers were to spend $22 million. From a purely statistical standpoint, it looks like the Panthers got a steal.

There are other aspects of a player’s value not reflected in the statistics. Perhaps the most significant factor for running backs is their durability. The reason that the values of running backs are so depressed is because of the beating that their bodies take throughout their career. This is a massive concern for the Panthers as McCaffrey is getting the touches of two different players, meaning twice the number of hits. Despite the magnitude of touches, McCaffrey has never missed a game since being drafted in 2017. Injuries have yet to be an issue in his career, but only time will tell if this trend continues.

Todd Gurley was released from the Rams within 2 years of signing a then record-breaking contract for a running back.

Whenever somebody sets a record for the largest contract in history, it attracts attention. The magnitude of McCaffrey’s deal, combined with the trend against paying running backs and the aftermath of Todd Gurley’s massive contract, only magnifies the stakes of the Panthers’ decision. Considering the type of player that McCaffrey is and the level of production that he has displayed, I think it may actually be a good deal for both parties. As is always the story in the NFL, as long as Christian McCaffrey stays healthy, this may spark the revitalization of the running back position as an essential position for title-winning teams.


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