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Who are the highest-paid running backs in the NFL in 2021?

Who are the highest-paid running backs in the league entering the 2021 offseason, and which RBs could join them in the coming months?

Who are the highest paid running backs in the NFL in 2021?
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 29: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers during the second half during their game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

After several big deals were signed last offseason, the landscape of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL shifted dramatically. Who is the highest-paid RB in the NFL, and which other backs round out the top 10 at the position?

The highest-paid running backs in the NFL | 6-10

Which running backs sit in the bottom half of the top 10 when it comes to average annual value (AAV)?

10) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants | AAV: $7.8 million

Entering into what could be the final year of his rookie deal, Saquon Barkley’s contract is set to be the fourth-highest total among running backs in terms of cap hit in 2021 ($10.1 million). Barkley could see the AAV of his deal boosted in 2021.

Related | Who are the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL in 2021?

If the Giants choose to pick up Barkley’s fifth-year option, he will earn $8.7 million in 2022. That would mean his rookie contract would be worth just over $40 million in total. However, if Barkley can prove his health, he has the potential to be the highest-paid running back in the league in a couple of years.

9) Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos | AAV: $8 million

In the second year of his two-year deal, Gordon will be the fifth-highest paid RB in terms of cap hit. After earning $7 million of his $16 million in 2020, Gordon will count for $9 million against the cap. With a big year in 2021, Gordon has a chance to remain on this list of the highest-paid running backs in 2022 and beyond.

8) Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals | AAV: $8.5 million (Transition Tag)

Drake spent the 2020 season playing on the transition tag for $8.5 million. He should enter free agency in 2021 after a somewhat underwhelming year. Despite only rushing for 955 yards, Drake still ranked 13th in rushing yards gained on the season. He also ranked 10th in the league in rushing touchdowns.

There is a chance we see him on this list of the highest-paid running backs again following free agency, as Spotrac has Drake valued at around $8.3 million per year on a two-year deal.

7) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals | AAV: $12 million

Mixon is now entering the first season of his four-year contract extension that was signed prior to 2020. Mixon had a tough year with injuries last season. However, when he was on the field, he demonstrated why the Bengals were willing to invest so much in him. Looking at Mixon’s contract structure, it appears likely he will be in Cincinnati for at least the next two seasons.

6) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans | AAV: $12.5 million

After avoiding playing on the franchise tag by signing a four-year, $50 million extension, Derrick Henry lived up to the contract. Henry led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for a second straight season. Entering his sixth season in the league, Henry has demonstrated little sign that he is slowing down. That is something that will please the Titans, given they cannot really consider moving on from Henry until after the 2021 season.

The highest-paid running backs in the NFL | 2-5

Which running backs make up the top five in terms of the highest-paid at the position?

5) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings | AAV: $12.6 million

After signing a five-year contract extension ahead of the 2020 NFL season, Cook lived up to the billing. In 14 games, he was second in the league in rushing yards with 1,557. Cook’s cap hit is still relatively low at $5.1 million in 2021. However, by 2022 and 2023, his cap hit will have risen to $12 million and $14.1 million, respectively.

4) David Johnson, Houston Texans | AAV: $13 million

Johnson took over the honor among running backs as being the highest-paid in 2018. However, he has since been passed by three players, as well as being traded. Now, after a tough season in Houston, we could see Johnson cut in the 2021 offseason. With just $2.1 million in guarantees remaining on the deal, the Texans could save as much as $6.7 million by moving on from Johnson in the coming weeks.

T-2) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints | AAV: $15 million

Kamara is another back who signed a contract extension just before the start of the 2020 NFL season. He, much like Cook, has demonstrated why that was a good investment. In the regular season, Kamara scored 21 touchdowns and totaled a career-high 1,688 yards from scrimmage. Among the four highest-paid running backs in the league, only Kamara delivered on his price tag in 2020.

T-2) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys | AAV: $15 million

Elliott will actually be the highest-paid among running backs in the league in terms of cap hit in 2021. Elliott is set to count $13.7 against the cap next season. That is an increase of $2.8 million in cap hit for the Cowboys’ franchise back. However, given that Henry is set to count $16.5 million against the cap in 2022, $13.7 million suddenly doesn’t seem so high.

Elliott is only now entering the first season of his six-year contract extension. However, with the final guarantees on the deal due in 2022, Elliott could be a potential cut candidate as soon as 2023.

Who is the highest-paid running back in the NFL?

1) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers | AAV: $16.0 million

McCaffrey became the highest-paid RB in the league early in the 2020 offseason. After the first year, the investment may concern Panthers fans who saw their star running back for just three games. However, in those games, he scored 6 touchdowns, with 374 total yards. If McCaffrey played 16 games at that pace, he would have 32 touchdowns and 1,995 total yards. McCaffrey will count $12.5 million against the cap and is tied to the Panthers through at least the next two seasons.

Which RBs could be next to join this list?

Which running backs could join the list of the highest-paid at the position in the coming offseason?

Nick Chubb | Cleveland Browns

Nick Chubb could be looking to join the list of highest-paid RBs in the NFL with a contract extension in 2021. Chubb ranked third in the league in yards per game with 88.7 while scoring 12 touchdowns. At 5.6 yards per attempt, only J.K. Dobbins was more efficient at the position when carrying the ball than Chubb.

Chubb’s role in the passing game is limited, with just 577 receiving yards in his career. Therefore, we are likely looking at a number in the region of Joe Mixon, as opposed to challenging the top-five highest-paid running backs.

Aaron Jones | Free Agent

Jones is an option who could wind up among the top-five highest-paid running backs. Jones has had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons while scoring 30 touchdowns in the two seasons combined. He lacks the receiving upside of a McCaffrey or Kamara, which may limit his ability to compete to be the highest-paid RB. However, on the open market, we could see Jones getting a big deal in the $15 million a year region.

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