Is paying Joe Mixon and Alvin Kamara all that bad?

    Running backs and their contracts have been a divisive conversation across the NFL landscape. For Joe Mixon and, soon, Alvin Kamara, that topic will be brought up once again.

    The more people talk about football, the more running backs are put down. What have they done to deserve the malice and backlash of playing a position that is essential to a well-rounded offense? Just moments after Joe Mixon signed a new extension with the Cincinnati Bengals and Alvin Kamara asked for one, you’d think the world had ended based on NFL Twitter. In reality, what’s wrong with offering running backs contracts?

    Mixon and Kamara aren’t two run of the mill backs with one big-time season. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Both players have become factors for their franchise since being drafted in 2017 in the second and third rounds, respectively. Mixon’s a reliable option in “Who Dey” Nation that enjoys the Bengals’ culture. Kamara is more than a one-trick pony when it comes to his approach while representing the “Who Dat” slogan.

    People say never pay running backs, and with the league turning into a more pass-first system, the big bucks will be headed to pass-catchers. To say running backs aren’t worth a nice income because their roles are being depleted might be fine, but the value of production will always win. Nowadays, it feels like runners going into negotiations like prepping for a chance to play “The Price is Right”. Thus, the question must be asked: Is paying Mixon and Kamara all that bad?

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    Mixon’s mighty success

    The Bengals took a risk on Mixon in 2017 following his troubled past at Oklahoma. They might as well reward him not just for his behavior, but also his production as one of the emerging top backs. After rushing for 626 yards in his rookie campaign, he rebounded immensely with back-to-back 1,100-plus yard seasons and scoring 17 touchdowns along the way.

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    Mixon is just the fifth running back in Bengals’ history to eclipse 1,000 yards more than once. During a lost season in 2019, he and Tyler Boyd were the two bright spots in the battle for the No.1 pick. Collecting 994 of his 1,424 total scrimmage yards in the final eight games, including a career-best 162-yard performance in the season finale, Mixon was the epitome of consistency.

    In return, Mike Brown will now pay him like one. A fan-favorite and locker room blessing, the team would be foolish to at least not come with an offer to keep him around in what looks to be a promising rebuild.

    “He’s a valuable part of not only what we’re doing on offense, but what we’re building as a team,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “And so just felt like we needed to get it done, and you know, everybody walked away very happy.”

    Paying Mixon is a risk, yes — perhaps one Taylor knows too well. As a member of the Rams’ coaching staff that offered Todd Gurley a max deal following his near-MVP season, the downfall after payment can be a sickening thought.

    The difference? Mixon was entering a contract season while Gurley still had a year left on his rookie deal. One could be out a few dollars if the deal goes south, while Los Angeles is hemorrhaging $20 million in dead cap space.

    Kamara and his consistency 

    Kamara could have learned behind Mark Ingram when drafted out of Tennessee. Instead, he complimented him as perhaps the league’s top 1-2 combo during the 2017 season. New Orleans finished with the fifth-ranked rushing offense and second in total yards with Kamara picking up 1,554 on the year.

    Since entering the league, Kamara is fifth in rushing touchdowns (27), fifth in yards from scrimmage (4,476), and second in all-purpose yards (5,061). He’s the only player in NFL history to finish with 2,000 yards in rushing and receiving while making the Pro Bowl in all three years. And as a receiving option? His 243 career receptions and 2,068 yards rank second among running backs behind the likes of Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey.

    Related: What is Alvin Kamara’s fantasy outlook for 2020?

    One could say that last year was a down one for Kamara as the feature back in New Orleans. With career-lows in receiving yards (533) and total touchdowns (six), perhaps the pressure could have gotten to him as the team’s primary runner. That, or it was more likely due to the fact he was playing on “one leg” for three months after suffering a torn MCL in Week 6 against the Jaguars.

    Kamara has stated he’s fully healthy and ready to see his production increase in a contract year. That includes his broken tackle rate, which averages around 25 misses a season. Following his injury last year, Kamara only forced 13 in the final nine games.

    Despite his injury status as a concern for the future, why would New Orleans be willing to trade anything for Kamara as they look to contend in 2020? Then again, this is the franchise that shipped Brandin Cooks to New England for a first-round pick after his third season in the Bayou.

    Why paying Mixon isn’t a bad idea 

    Mixon’s new four-year, $48 million deal will bring him an average salary of $12 million per season. And yes, this is the cheap Bengals who are floating him that hefty payday as their primary offensive weapon of the future. While that sounds like plenty of money, it’s a contract most fans should get behind.

    If Mixon’s production drops, the Bengals could opt-out of the deal following the 2021 season. If that’s the case, they would only lose $6 million in dead cap for the season. If they release him in 2023, they’d only lose $4 million and $2 million if released in the deal’s final year.

    Related | Joe Burrow adapting to the Bengals offense quickly in training camp

    As for those wondering if the Bengals would have been wise to spend that money on bolstering their offensive line, the question would be which right tackle is worth $12 million? Jack Conklin, the prime right tackle free agent this season, was given an annual salary of $14 million from the Cleveland Browns. Outside of him, was there a legitimate option hitting the market in either 2020 or 2021?

    Instead, the Bengals lock up two prime pieces for Joe Burrow’s progression in Mixon and Boyd. Should the team struggle, they’ll be in prime position to draft another receiver and offensive tackle early in April’s 2021 draft. Throw in their rookie deals, plus Jonah Williams’ fifth-year option, the team would have their building blocks on offense locked up until at least 2024.

    Why paying Kamara isn’t a bad idea

    Unlike Mixon, Kamara is looking for a bit more. Injuries aside, the multi-talented running is worth closer to his asking price, which is reported at $15 million. Although he’s yet to surpass 1,000 yards rushing, his versatility nearly matches McCaffrey, who was given a $64 million extension this offseason.

    Related | Can Saints QB Jameis Winston make an impact in New Orleans?

    The Saints, who always seem to be a cap-strapped roster, can’t extend Kamara in-season due to their $3.75 million cap entering 2020. After 2020, they will need to clear even more space to pay stars such as Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and Demario Davis — all of whom will be on the market by 2021. Plus, with $40 million going in guarantees to Taysom Hill, Janoris Jenkins, and Andrus Peat, that should make Saints’ fans sick since the money could have gone to Kamara.

    Even if the Saints go all-in and let loose after 2020, Kamara’s value as a pass-catcher adds value to his contract. Entering negotiations with any team, all the Saints’ runner will have to do is show his balanced production to earn more than Mixon or Tennessee star Derrick Henry. Plus, if he shows last season’s miscues were clearly due to injury, that adds a few extra bucks in the signing bonus alone.

    Running backs still matter 

    Mixon and Kamara headlined a loaded 2021 running back free-agent class before Tuesday’s deal was finalized. Unlike Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook, or Chris Carson, the duo’s consistency gives them an advantage in entering negotiations.

    Related: The top ten running backs in the NFL

    Jones led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (16) but only has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark once in three years. Carson’s consistency on the field is evident with back-to-back seasons in the one-thousand-yard mark, yet also has fumble concerns, averaging 4.5 per year. Cook exploded as the NFL feature runner for 2019 but has also missed 19 games with multiple lower body extremities.

    Mixon is one of three running backs who has surpassed 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons and is the only one not to record a fumble. Kamara’s dual-style play has allowed him to finish with at least 1,300 total yards each season — part-time or as lead back. Outside of McCaffrey or Henry, have there been two runners more valuable to their roster than them?

    One could say the Bengals are foolish for paying a player that thrives in their system. They’re not. Another could say Kamara’s numbers aren’t worth top dollar on the market. They are. Ultimately, whether fans like seeing running backs earn their salary or not, so long as the production is there, a handful of teams will be willing to open their wallets to pay a position some believe “doesn’t matter”.

    Numbers don’t lie, and running backs do matter; just look at Mixon and Kamara’s value down in the jungle or the Bayou to see the final answer.

    Cole Thompson covers the NFL for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson and @PFN365 for all up to date NFL content.

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