Long-term running back deals aren’t as universally acclaimed as they once were, with Todd Gurley serving as 2020’s latest example of a big contract gone bad. But that didn’t stop the Carolina Panthers from resetting the entire RB market on Monday by making Christian McCaffrey the (per annual salary) at his position in NFL history.
With the Panthers paying big bucks to keep their former first-round draft pick around for the long haul, the question now becomes: Who’s next? You’d think the Gurleys and Le’Veon Bells of the world might dissuade teams from devoting heavy cap space to even the most proven of RBs, but now that McCaffrey’s been rewarded, we might as well look ahead.
Here are five RBs that could be next up for lucrative or long-term deals in the next year or two:
This is the no-brainer of the bunch. Barkley proved human in 2019, missing three games and looking pedestrian in others because of a lingering ankle injury, but he’s still a freakish play-maker when healthy. There’s also the fact Dave Gettleman and Co. spat in the face of modern scouting and took him second overall with a clear need for a long-term quarterback in 2018. As long as he’s in charge, Barkley is a shoo-in for a Brink’s Truck haul in one of the NFL’s top markets. Unless the Penn State product takes a huge step back in 2020, he’s bound to eclipse McCaffrey’s per-year average and become the game’s next highest-paid RB.
Henry isn’t nearly as dynamic as Barkley or McCaffrey, but the latter’s $16M annual average definitely boosts his value. The Titans were hesitant to commit long term this offseason, instead paying big for a less proven commodity in QB Ryan Tannehill, but if Henry is even close to his 2019 form again, Tennessee’s going to have to choose: Either tag him again (and risk throwing a wrench into the relationship), let him walk (and lose arguably the center of the offense) or bite the bullet and give him something like four years for anywhere between $12 million and $14 million per year.
Cleveland has struggled to retain consistent play-makers over the years, but Chubb is arguably their most promising in recent memory. He’s not the youngest (a year older than McCaffrey), but he’s held up for all 16 games in each of his first two seasons, twice averaging at least 5 yards per carry. New coach Kevin Stefanski knows well the value of a reliable RB after his days working with Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook in Minnesota, and first-time general manager Andrew Berry hails from the Howie Roseman school of extending young talent before they get a chance to test market value.
Both Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock really value toughness, and Jacobs has that in spades, even if it might have partially contributed to him missing three games as a rookie. Something also tells us Gruden, in particular, doesn’t really care whether RBs are worth big investments these days. He helped ensure Vegas drafted Jacobs 24th overall, and after a well-rounded debut, there’s no indication Jacobs won’t be the centerpiece of the Raiders‘ offense for years to come.
This might be the most far-fetched possibility on the list considering Howie Roseman has found success in swapping out RBs during the team’s recent playoff runs, using trades and free agency to milk veterans such as Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. But we’ve also seen that Roseman is willing to reward RBs when they deliver from a young age (LeSean McCoy got a five-year, $45 million deal in 2012). He’s also swung and missed on a lot of mid- to late-round draftees, so he might be inclined to finally lock up one of his better decisions in Sanders, whose rookie year suggested he’ll be a multi-dimensional weapon for years to come.