(Note: This was originally written in November of 2020, but has been updated and re-published following the release of Ezekiel Elliott earlier in 2023, and Dalvin Cook on June 8th)
The Saturday before the start of the 2020 regular season saw a pair of big contracts get signed. The New Orleans Saints signed running back Alvin Kamara to a five-year, $75 million extension and the Minnesota Vikings signed RB Dalvin Cook to a five-year, $63 million extension.
(Future Chris: Cook was released by the Vikings today, June 8th, 2023, to create salary cap room)
As things stand now, this is what the landscape for running back contracts looks like as we entered the 2020 season:
Highest Avg. $ Running Backs— Spotrac (@spotrac) September 12, 2020
C. McCaffrey, $16M
A. Kamara, $15M
E. Elliott, $15M
L. Bell, $13.1M
D. Johnson, $13M
D. Cook, $12.5M
D. Henry, $12.5M
J. Mixon, $12M
So what do the New York Giants have to do with any of this?
Well, you don’t exactly have to be a soothsayer to see the eventual Saquon Barkley contract looming on the horizon.
Barkley is already one of the highest paid running backs in the NFL, with his $31.2 million in guaranteed money coming in just below David Johnson (before the Kamara and Cook contracts have been factored in). But Giants fans need to be aware of the landscape, because we are looking at the possibility of Barkley not just exceeding these contracts, but blowing past them.
The Giants can’t sign Barkley to a contract extension right now — teams can’t sign draftees to extensions until after three accrued seasons. But they can start thinking about it during the 2021 off-season. That also happens to be when Aaron Jones and Kareem Hunt will hit unrestricted free agency, and potentially move the needle even more.
There is the distinct possibility that the Giants could make Saquon Barkley the NFL’s first $20 million per year running back within the next couple years.
“[The Giants] Are gonna have to,” Ed said when I was chatting with him about the new RB contracts today.
But... Should they?
Whether or not the Giants feel like giving Barkley a mega deal or feel like they can’t not sign him to an extension is another thing. They’ll make whatever decision they want to make.
The question which should be asked is whether or not these massive running back deals are actually good for the team. Looking back at the play of the backs who have received mega deals, it’s difficult to argue that they were worth it.
The Atlanta Falcons made Devonta Freeman the richest running back in league history with a 5-year $41.25 million contract extension in 2017, before releasing him to create cap room in March of this year.
The Los Angeles Rams continued the movement to pay running backs with a 4-year $60 million contract for Todd Gurley in 2018. He was released this past off-season, just two years later.
The Pittsburgh Steelers went through a couple contentious years with Le’Veon Bell before letting him walk in free agency in 2019, where the New York Jets signed him to a four-year contract with a max value of $61 million. Bell provided no value to the Jets and has since been released and signed to a one-year deal by the Kansas City Chiefs.
David Johnson signed a sizable three-year, $39 million contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, but he too was traded before the start of the 2020 season when the Texans agreed to take on two years and $20 million of Johnson’s contract in exchange for DeAndre Hopkins. Johnson is just barely averaging 4.0 yards per carry (103 carries for 408 yards and 3 touchdowns), but has only had more than 4 yards per carry twice this season and is currently on the injured reserve with a concussion.
Then there’s the contract signed by Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million contract just before the start of the 2019 season. He was productive last year, but his production has fallen well off this year, averaging 3.8 yards per carry and scoring just 6 total touchdowns through nine games. It could be argued that Elliott’s contract prevented Dallas from retaining Byron Jones and Robert Quinn, the loss of whom has contributed to their collapse this year.
Looking back at Christian McCaffrey’s monster contract, the Panthers haven’t exactly gotten their money’s worth so far. McCaffrey has only played in three games, rushing for 225 yards and 5 touchdowns in an injury-riddled season.
(Future Chris again, Elliott was released to create cap room on March 15th, 2023. Christian McCaffrey was traded to the San Francisco 49ers during the 2022 season, effectively kicking off the Panthers’ rebuild)
So far Dalvin Cook, who is having a career year, is averaging 5.5 yards per carry with 13 total touchdowns. He’s on pace to blow past his previous high-water marks in the next week or two, is providing value for his team. Kamara continues to be a star for the Saints as well, picking up yards and scoring touchdowns as a runner and receiver. Granted, playing in Sean Payton’s offense helps, but Kamara is playing well, though we’ll see what happens as Drew Brees is sidelined by multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung.
It could be argued that Derrick Henry is giving value to the Titans as well, but his production has varied wildly from one week to the next. He’s averaged less than 5.0 yards per carry in 6 of 9 games this year, and averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in 5 of those 6.
So why do these big running back contracts so seldom work out?
In my view a lot of it has to do with the position itself. While there is currently a glut of good (and great) running backs in the NFL, the position itself just doesn’t have much value on its own and sinking resources there limits what you can commit to more valuable positions.
I caught a lot of flak back in March for arguing that the running back position is the least valuable on the entire roster — including the specialists. My reasoning was, and still is, that a successful running back depends on the entire team. We know that much of a running back’s production depends on field position and defensive alignment. The easiest way to influence both of those is with the passing game. An average passing attack can pick up 7 yards at a time and efficiently move the offense into position where the running game has the most value. A great passing attack can do even better — the Titans’ A.J. Brown has averaged more than 20 yards per reception in three of the last four games which quickly puts Henry in position to play where he has the most impact. The passing game can force defenses to play with light boxes and smaller sub-packages, allowing the offense to create a numbers advantage on the play side of runs. That has been the theory behind the shift to running out of 11-personnel packages.
Likewise, we’ve also seen it vividly illustrated by the Giants’ running game through the first half of the year that much of the rest of runners’ production is directly related to how well their offensive line blocks for them.
Even the hidden yardage and little points gained by specialists can play a role in whether or not a running back is used or effective. A bad return can have the offense backed up to where a defense can plan to stop the run, or a made or missed field goal can determine whether or not the offense can run the ball or have to throw it.
There’s also the issue of injuries. Running backs have the shortest careers of any position group and a big part of that is injury related. McCaffrey, Johnson, Bell, and Cook have all dealt with injuries this year. Giants fans have seen injuries degrade and cut short the careers of Brandon Jacobs, Ahmahd Bradshaw, Andre Brown, and David Wilson.
So let’s bring this all back to the original question: Can the Giants really afford to sign Saquon Barkley to the mega-deal he’ll be expecting?
We already know that signing any player to a mega-deal is a risk and signing running backs to massive contracts is a riskier proposition than most, so the question becomes whether or not Barkley is worth taking that risk.
At first blush the question will likely be met with scoffs and a resounding “Of course he is!” And it’s certainly true that Barkley is the Giants’ only real blue-chip, impact playmaker. He is a player with rare athletic traits and the ability to hit a home run and flip the script of a game on any given play. At least that’s the narrative.
But I don’t go in for narratives, to me they’re lazy and often leave out the context and nuance necessary to really understand a subject.
Barkley has 2,344 rushing yards on 497 carries for the Giants (4.7 yards per carry) and 17 rushing touchdowns to go with 149 receptions for 1,219 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s also played in 31 of 48 games since being drafted, missing 17 due to injury (high ankle sprain and a torn ACL) over the last two seasons.
While his averages are certainly impressive, anyone who has watched the Giants over the last three years knows that Barkley is a boom or bust runner. Like his idol Barry Sanders, Barkley will rack up carries of 3, -1, 4, 2, and then 17 yards on his way to a 5.0 yards per carry average. Over his 31 games as a Giant, Barkley has averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry 14 times (4.0 exactly once). And even in the most efficient game of his career, the 170-yard (12.14 per carry) outburst against Washington at the end of 2018, 130 of Barkley’s 170 yards came on two carries. He averaged 3.3 yards on his other 12 carries that game.
This also brings us to the injury issue. Barkley has already sustained two significant lower-body injuries. That doesn’t mean he will be hobbled or unable to be a great player in the future, but it does it highlight the risks of investing in the position. We don’t know the future, but we do know that for all the amazing things Barkley can do he is still human. Lower-body injuries have a way of adding up over time and there is a real risk that Barkley can see his athleticism degrade or become a part-time player.
If the Giants do sign Barkley to a landmark contract it will be because they are building around him as a centerpiece to their offense. But before the Giants do that, they need to ask themselves whether or not it’s wise to build around a player who is so inherently inconsistent.
They also need to ask themselves if they really need to sign Barkley. The adage is that running backs are a dime a dozen in the modern NFL and one runner’s production replaceable by another runner. We’re getting proof of that from Wayne Gallman Jr., who has given the Giants a consistent rushing attack for the first time this year.
Gallman averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry as a rookie back-up before riding the bench for the next two and a half seasons under Pat Shurmur and Jason Garrett. Even this year, he didn’t get onto the field until the Giants’ hands were forced by the injuries to Barkley and Freeman. Gallman has started the last three games and scored at least one touchdown in the last four, all with the worst run blocking offensive line in the NFL. He also happens to be in the last year of his contract and many (including our own Ed Valentine) spent most of training camp predicting that he would ultimately be a casualty of final cutdowns.
Can the Giants extend Saquon Barkley? Sure, of course they can. It’s their money and they can spend it as they please. They could make Barkley the NFL’s first $20 million running back, and they could certainly find the justification. He is an explosive playmaker who is well-regarded for his work ethic and leadership in the locker room.
But the economics of the position and of roster construction as a whole demand the Giants be sure. If they are going to potentially devote a quarter or fifth of their salary cap to Barkley they need to be sure that Barkley can be a consistent presence on their offense — a player who is a key cog and worth not signing other players. They need to be sure that his production can’t be replaced by a low cost player like Gallman or some future mid or late-round draftee. And they need to be sure that they’re not convincing themselves that they need to spend the money to justify the second-overall draft pick spent on him in 2018.
“We couldn’t afford NOT to sign him” isn’t a sound argument, it’s a variation on the plot of an I Love Lucy episode... A couple of them, if I remember right.
Because as good a player as Barkley is, they probably don’t need to extend him. The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing pretty good without Bell. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl after parting ways with Kareem Hunt. They played the San Francisco 49ers who let Carlos Hyde walk in 2017 rather than pay him a big contract.
None of this is to say that not paying a running back is a recipe for success, just that there’s life after parting ways with star runners. And as we’ve seen elsewhere, big paydays for running backs hasn’t been working out for teams either.
Perhaps the most cold-bloodedly “Patriots” (considering the Giants’ new ties with New England) course of action is to let Barkley recover from his torn ACL, rebuild his value in 2021 and move him in a trade. After all, that would likely net more than the third round compensatory pick the Giants might get for letting him walk and leave his second contract be another team’s to figure out.