The landscape of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL shifted dramatically during the 2020 offseason. After a quieter period last year, who is the highest-paid RB in the NFL, and which other backs round out the top 10 at the position in 2022?
The highest-paid running backs in the NFL | 2-10
Which running backs make up the top 10 highest paid in the league when it comes to the annual average value (AAV) of the deals? Additionally, which of the players on this list is currently set to have the highest cap number heading into the 2022 NFL season?
10) Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts | AAV: $6.2 million
Nyheim Hines is probably not a name you expected to see when you opened this article. But ahead of the 2022 free agency period, he sits in the 10th spot when it comes to the highest-paid running backs in the league. Hines agreed to the three-year contract extension with the Colts on September 10, 2021.
The total value of the deal is $18.6 million with a reported $12 million in guarantees during the life of the deal. He received a $1.5 million signing bonus and will head into 2022 with a $5.14 million cap number. Depending on where all the guarantees are in the deal, he could be a cut candidate this time next year, where he would leave behind potentially just $3 million in dead money.
9) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants | AAV: $7.8 million
Saquon Barkley is heading into the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, and right now his future is very much up in the air. The official value of Barkley’s contract is based on the original four-year, $31.2 million contract he signed after being drafted No. 2 overall.
His fifth-year option is actually marginally below that value at $7.2 million, which is his cap number this season. Barkley has missed 18 games in the last two seasons and did not look his old self when on the field in 2021. Whether he remains in New York beyond the 2022 season could very much depend on his performance this season.
T-7) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals | AAV: $12 million
It is when we reach a tie for the seventh highest-paid running backs that we see a real jump in AAV. There’s a difference of more than $4 million per year in the contracts of the top eight and Barkley in ninth.
Joe Mixon’s deal is for four years, but the 2024 season is a club option. If the team declines the option, they’ll leave $10.38 million on the table. That would make Mixon’s contract a three-year deal worth $37.62 million ($12.54 million AAV). The Bengals could even move on after the 2022 season, where they would save $7.35 million in cap space by doing so.
T-7) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers | AAV: $12 million
Aaron Jones’ contract has a really odd look to it after a restructure ahead of the 2022 league year. Through the first two seasons of his four-year deal, Jones has counted just over $10 million against the Packers’ cap. In terms of cash, he will have earned less than $20 million in cash through the first two years.
The contract has an intriguing look in 2023, with $8.1 million in salary and $7.4 million in roster bonuses for what would be a $20.02 million cap number. However, there’s no report that any of that money is guaranteed. If it’s not, could we see Jones released to save $15.5 million in cash in 2023 and more than $10 million in cap next season?
6) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns | AAV: $12.2 million
Sitting in as the sixth-highest paid NFL running back, Nick Chubb is the only player of those who signed deals last offseason to be over the $10 million per year mark. His three-year contract extension is worth $36.6 million with $12 million as a signing bonus and $20 million in guarantees.
It looks likely that Chubb will at least play out the next two years on the deal. The cap number is $5.21 million in 2022, rising to $14.85 million in 2023. However, releasing Chubb ahead of 2023 would result in more than $10 million in dead cap due to prorated bonus money and $2.866 million in guaranteed salary in 2023.
5) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans | AAV: $12.5 million
Derrick Henry’s contract will see him as the second-highest paid RB in terms of cap number in 2022 ($15 million) as things currently stand. The contract now becomes fascinating because the guarantees have finished and the deal is essentially two option years.
The only dead money that would be left on the cap right now is the remaining proration from the $12 million signing bonus. That would see the Titans left with $6 million in dead money if they did shock the world by moving on this offseason. What’s more likely, however, is we see the Titans look to restructure the deal and move some of Henry’s $12 million base salary into future years by adding as many as three void years to the end of the contract.
4) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings | AAV: $12.6 million
Sitting atop this little tier is Dalvin Cook, who also has the longest deal of any we have seen so far on this list. Cook’s five-year contract extension has four years left to run. Additionally, the cap numbers start to jump up from this year with an $11.88 million hit in 2022 ($5.11 million in 2021).
The 2022 season could be telling for the future of the contract. If the Vikings want to move on from the deal, they have until the third day of the 2023 league year until a portion of his 2023 base salary becomes guaranteed. Moving on after 2022 would see the Vikings save around $8 million in cap space as it stands. However, given the Vikings’ cap situation, it would not be surprising to see his contract restructured in 2022.
T-2) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints | AAV: $15 million
Alvin Kamara currently sits tied for the second-highest-paid running back in the NFL at $15 million per year. The 2022 season will be the second of the five-year extension as his cap number jumps from $5 million in 2021 to $14.5 million. His deal contained $33.833 million in guarantees, including a $15 million signing bonus.
As it stands, the Saints could move on from Kamara after the 2023 season with relatively minimal dead money. However, Kamara’s recent arrest during Pro Bowl weekend could change the dynamics of that if the guarantees in his contract were voided. In that event, the Saints could move on as early as this season.
T-2) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys | AAV: $15 million
The rise of Tony Pollard brought Ezekiel Elliott’s contract into the limelight during the 2021 season. Elliott is only now set to enter the second year of what was originally a six-year contract extension. In terms of his cap number, Elliott is the highest-paid RB in the NFL in 2022 ($18.22 million). However, the Cowboys can pretty easily move a large chunk of that money into the future if they desired.
As it stands, the Cowboys could move on from Elliott after the upcoming season. However, it would leave $11.86 million in dead money, and that would rise with any restructure. It seems likely that Elliott’s contract is going to be on the Cowboys’ books for at least the next two seasons.
Who is the highest-paid running back in the NFL?
While Elliott has the crown as the highest-paid RB in terms of cap number in 2022, there is another player who leads the league in terms of AAV. Let’s take a look at who tops the list and what their contract structure looks like in 2022 and beyond.
1) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers | AAV: $16 million
Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year contract extension in the 2020 offseason. The deal was worth a little over $64 million and included a $21.5 million signing bonus. McCaffrey also received $38.2 million in guarantees, which includes his full 2022 salary ($8.4 million). Since signing the contract, McCaffrey has played just 10 of a possible 33 games for the Panthers and been on the field for only 543 snaps.
As it stands at the end of February 2022, McCaffrey has a $14.3 million cap number for the upcoming season. The Panthers could move some of that around, but with his cap hit set to reach $17.7 million in each of the next two years, that would be a brave decision. If nothing changes, the Panthers could move on from the deal after this season for $12.8 million in dead money. Unless McCaffrey can be on the field regularly in 2022, this deal is going to look like the worst on this list by some distance.