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Is Christian McCaffrey worth the richest running back salary in NFL history? Let’s debate

McCaffrey will get an average of $16 million per year. Is any running back worth that much?

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New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Christian McCaffrey was due for a contract extension after exceeding expectations through three years in the NFL. The Panthers delivered — and made him the league’s most expensive running back in the process.

Carolina handed its star runner/receiver a four-year contract extension worth $64 million. McCaffrey’s $16 million annual average salary eclipsed the $15 million Ezekiel Elliott earned through the six-year contract he signed with the Cowboys last September. That’s a lot of money for a rebuilding team to commit to one non-quarterback or non-pass rusher, but it could be a bargain if McCaffrey can keep up his All-Pro level of play over the course of his new deal.

The Panthers are making a $64 million bet on a young running back less than a month after the Rams swallowed a massive chunk of dead cap space to release once-treasured weapon Todd Gurley. Will Carolina come to regret this move? Or was locking in to a McCaffrey-Teddy Bridgewater tandem in the backfield the right play for a team in need of direction after a turbulent year?

Let’s talk it out.

Is Christian McCaffrey the NFL’s most valuable running back?

Christian D’Andrea: McCaffrey just led the league in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns despite playing for a team that started Kyle Allen and Will Grier for multiple games. Opponents knew what was coming and he still dropped a 1,000/1,000 rushing/receiving yard season on them — something only two other men in NFL history (Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk) have ever done before. He won’t turn 24 years old until the summer.

I’m not sure I like paying any running back more than $12 million annually, but if you’re going to break the bank, McCaffrey’s about as safe a bet as you can find in 2020.

Adam Stites: I agree, it’s hard to make the argument for anyone else. There are more traditional backs like Elliott, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, and Dalvin Cook who would be more reliable running straight up the gut. Then there are multi-faceted players like Austin Ekeler and Alvin Kamara who aren’t far off from McCaffrey’s abilities as a receiver. But nobody combines every skill as well as McCaffrey.

There’s no doubt McCaffrey outplayed the four-year, $17.2 million contract he signed as a rookie. That was set to expire after the 2020 season, although Carolina could’ve picked up a fifth-year option to extend his deal until 2021. But $16 million per year? That’s one hell of a leap.

Will the Panthers regret this expensive extension?

D’Andrea: This move wasn’t just about locking in an invaluable piece of the lineup. It was an overture to fans who saw various core pieces of the Panthers’ identity — Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, and Ron Rivera — leave town over the past seven months. Extending McCaffrey keeps a beloved young player in town and shows Carolina fans there’s still something familiar to root for in Charlotte. That’s a tidy price team owner David Tepper can roll into McCaffrey’s paychecks.

This new deal will take him through the 2025 season. It will likely be relatively frontloaded to either prep McCaffrey for another extension in 2023-24 or allow Carolina the chance to get out from the remainder of the contract while eating limited dead salary cap space. As a result, it’s likely the club is tied to paying big money for the age 24 to 27 or 28 years of McCaffrey’s career.

Those are good years! Faulk didn’t become his prime All-Pro self until he was a 26-year-old with the Rams. Three of Craig’s four Pro Bowl campaigns came after age 26. While McCaffrey’s usage is a concern — his 506 carries are fifth-most in the NFL since 2018 and his 729 combined touches rank second behind only Elliott — there’s a reasonable chance he maintains his high level of play through the bulk (if not all) of this deal.

Stites: Maybe the Panthers needed this extension to keep fans relatively optimistic about the Matt Rhule era. But the case to trade McCaffrey made much more sense to me than an extension.

Carolina needs a lot of work. The Dolphins were the only team that allowed more points than the Panthers last season. Now Kuechly, James Bradberry, Mario Addison, and Gerald McCoy are all gone.

While Bridgewater was signed to supplant Cam Newton and Kyle Allen at quarterback, the offensive line is worse off after trading Trai Turner to the Chargers and allowing Greg Van Roten to walk in free agency.

Even if McCaffrey continues to play well over the course of the next four seasons will it even matter? In 2019, he had the third-most yards from scrimmage a player has ever had in an NFL season and the Panthers still only won a grand total of five games.

McCaffrey was due a huge extension and he had all the leverage to land a contract that averaged at least $15 million. Carolina didn’t have to be the team to pay it, though. A player as elite as McCaffrey probably would’ve fetched significant draft capital on the trade market. That could’ve been used to rebuild the Panthers’ offensive line and defense.

Instead they’re spending $16 million per year on a position that’s usually not worth the investment.

Is any NFL running back worth more than $15 million annually?

D’Andrea: McCaffrey’s value isn’t just that he’s good for roughly six yards per touch — it’s that he fills three different roles on his own. He took more than 86 percent of the Panthers’ non-QB carries last season, outpacing Reggie Bonnafon atop the team’s leaderboard by a 287 to 16 margin. He played more offensive snaps (93 percent) than anyone else on the roster except offensive linemen Taylor Moton and Matt Paradis. With McCaffrey in the lineup, you don’t need to worry about a third-down back or particularly blitz-absorbing bruiser in pass protection; he does it all.

That’s an obscenely useful trait that allows the team to build roster depth elsewhere, and we haven’t yet gotten to the point that he had more catches last fall (116) than anyone in the league but Michael Thomas. Remember when Le’Veon Bell said he wanted to be paid like a top running back and a No. 2 wideout? McCaffrey checked off all those boxes between 2019 and 2020. Now he’s getting the contract Bell once wanted.

That said, few positions take the abuse a tailback does, and the risk of burnout is very high. McCaffrey hasn’t missed a game in his pro career, but the track record for players who get the ball as much as he does isn’t great. Since 2000, only 13 players have averaged at least 300 touches per season in their first three years in the league. That ranges from inspiring (LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte) to concerning (Domanick Williams, Alfred Morris, Gurley). All those hits add up, which makes devoting eight percent of your salary cap to a single back a tough bet to lay.

I wouldn’t be happy paying anyone elite cash out of the backfield, but if I had to pick one guy, I’d go with the 23-year-old who just trashed the league for more than 2,000 total yards.

Stites: Recent history is all the evidence you need to argue that running back isn’t worth a lofty price tag. That’s unfortunate, because few running backs even get the chance to sign an extension and McCaffrey has clearly earned a raise.

But an extension for David Johnson burned the Cardinals, the Jets immediately regretted signing Bell, and the Cowboys would’ve been better off paying Dak Prescott before Elliott. A huge contract for a running back didn’t push any of those teams closer to competing for a Super Bowl.

It’s been an extremely long time since the blueprint for a championship squad included a significant chunk of the salary cap being dedicated to the running back. The 2019 Chiefs didn’t even have a player with more than 500 rushing yards in the regular season.

Yes, McCaffrey is more than just a four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust bruiser. But the Panthers’ prospects in 2020 and beyond weren’t improved by this contract.