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Week 1 NFL Recap: Sunday was a big day for big-money running backs

Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, and other running backs signed big contracts this offseason. Their Week 1 dividends were decidedly mixed. Our NFL Recap breaks down their performance.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Running backs may not matter, but they still get paid like they do. Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings each agreed to big-money extensions on Saturday, capping an offseason in which Christian McCaffrey and other young rushers received huge contracts, despite the fact that young rushers rarely remain effective long enough to justify huge contracts. Will Cook, Kamara, and company buck the trend? NFL Recap looks at the deals, Sunday’s early dividends, and what the future holds beyond Week 1 for these young RBs and their teams. 

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Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

The contract: A five-year, $63-million extension with $28-million in guarantees, per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero

Sunday recap: Cook rushed 12 times for 50 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Alexander Mattison rushed six times for 50 yards and was more effective as a receiver. That’s a perfect summary of why giving a running back a fat contract is almost always a terrible idea. The Vikings, ostensibly a “ball control” team, only controlled the ball for 18 minutes and 44 seconds in a 43-34 Packers win, which was not nearly as close as the score.

Tanier’s Season preview | The Vikings are (somehow) serious about rebuilding around Kirk Cousins

The skinny: The Vikings do everything according to the Commandments of Conventional Football Wisdom, which were carried down from the mountain on stone tablets by Vince Lombardi in 1966. Thall Shalt Establish the Run is the first commandment, Thall Shalt Keep Your Veteran Nucleus Intact is the second, so naturally, the Vikings ignored Cook’s durability issues and all of the analytics heresy by paying big bucks for a player who is temporarily 10-15% better than the widely-available low-cost alternatives.

Conventional wisdom is great if your goal is to go broke paying old-fashioned workhorse runners and pocket passers like Kirk Cousins to lead you to Wild Card berths. The Vikings spent the first half of this offseason climbing out of the hole they dug with long-term contracts, which all looked wise at the time. This deal positions them to dig themselves a fresh new hole. 

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

The contract: A five-year, $75-million extension with $35-million guaranteed, per Spotrac

Sunday recap: Kamara caught five passes for 51 yards and a TD and rushed 12 times for 16 yards and one TD in the Saints’ 34-23 victory over the Buccaneers. Those are fine numbers for your PPR fantasy league, but NFL Recap wouldn’t pay $35 million guaranteed for five years of ’em.

The skinny: The Saints have been managing their salary cap like Mafia accountants for years. When Drew Brees retires, they’ll have to disappear with their families into the Ozarks. Until then, keeping Brees’ nucleus intact is all that matters.

This long contract keeps Kamara’s 2020 cap number low and the Saints solvent in the short term. They will be happy to eat a king’s ransom in dead money when Brees is gone, and Kamara is ordinary in three years if it wins them a Super Bowl in 2020. If not, they’ll always have Taysom Hill to fall back upon.

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

The contract: A four-year, $64-million contract, with just over $30 million fully guaranteed, as announced in April.

Sunday recap: McCaffrey rushed 23 times for 96 yards and two TDs, adding three catches for 38 yards in the Panthers’ back-and-forth 34-30 loss to the Raiders. Curiously, he wasn’t involved in the passing game much in the first half and didn’t get the ball on 4th-and-1 late in the game when fullback Alex Armah got stuffed on a fullback plunge.

Why pay a running back $64 million if you aren’t going to let him do what he does best or give him the ball in maximum-leverage situations? Chances are Rhule and his staff will chalk up Sunday’s loss as a valuable learning experience.

The skinny: Per Sports Info Solutions, McCaffrey caught 20 passes for 191 yards on 27 targets when in the slot or split wide last year; only Tarik Cohen and Austin Ekeler were more productive in such situations.

McCaffrey is closer to being a “positionless offensive weapon” than a running back, making him more likely to be useful come 2023 than a battering ram like Cook or Derrick Henry (who plays Monday night, which is why he’s not here).

That said, the McCaffrey deal is heavily, dangerously back-loaded. There’s a chance that the Panthers will be deciding whether to pay McCaffrey $16-million or so in 2023 when he is a third-down back who wore himself out by absorbing 25 touches per week for a bad team for two years. 

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

The contract: A four-year, $48-million contract with a $10-million signing bonus, announced on September 1st. 

Sunday recap: Mixon rushed 19 times for 69 yards and one devastating fourth-quarter fumble in the Bengals’ 16-13 loss to the Chargers. For the record, Mixon did not fumble at all in 2018 or 2019.

The skinny: With no real guarantees beyond the signing bonus, this is more like a three-year, roughly $25-million deal with some fluff at the end. As such, it’s a fair price for Mixon’s services as a security blanket for Joe Burrow while the rookie quarterback develops. Getting Mixon done before Cook and Kamara was a wise move for the Bengals.

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

The contract: A two-year, $13.25-million extension with $8.5 million guaranteed, per ESPN’s Jake Trotter

Sunday recap: Hunt rushed 10 times for 60 yards in Sunday’s 38-6 loss to the Ravens, adding four catches for nine yards. Nick Chubb rushed 13 times for 72 yards and a four-yard reception. The Browns offense appears to have problems that a pair of running backs cannot fix.

The skinny: This is the shrewd approach to paying running backs. The Hunt deal is short but sets him up as a valuable committee back and potential challenger/replacement for Nick Chubb, who will be angling for big money next year. The best-case scenario for the Browns will be for the backs to share touches this season, which will lower Chubb’s asking price to Joe Mixon-levels next year, and thus, giving the franchise options as to how to proceed.

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

The contract: A four-year, $24.5-million extension with $15-million in guarantees, announced in March.

Sunday recap: Ekeler rushed 19 times for 84 yards and caught one three-yard pass. Rookie Joshua Kelly added 12 carries for 60 yards and one TD in the 16-13 Chargers win over the Bengals.

The skinny: As mentioned earlier, Ekeler is (usually) a big part of the Chargers passing game and is often used as a slot receiver. His contract is also relatively modest and top-heavy: It’s practically a two-year guaranteed deal with frosting. By 2022, Ekeler will be about 90% as effective as McCaffrey and Kamara while taking up about half as much cap space. 

Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons

The contract: A one-year, $5.5-million deal, fully guaranteed, signed after the Rams released Gurley for cap purposes at the start of the offseason.

Sunday recap: As a member of the Atlanta Falcons, it’s Gurley’s job to produce good fantasy stats in frustrating high-scoring losses. Gurley delivered with 13 carries for 56 yards and one TD in a 38-25 loss to the Seahawks.

The skinny: A running back of Gurley’s pedigree is worth $5.5 million on a look-and-see deal in the same way that a storage shed on the outskirts of Millionairesville is worth $100 and a hefty pair of bolt cutters on the chance that there’s a bag of diamonds inside. The fact that the Rams are eating $11.75 million on the contract Gurley signed after winning the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year award should inform your opinion of all this offseason’s running back deals.

Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The contract: A one-year, $2 million, with incentives that could increase the value to $3.5 million. The Bucs signed Fournette after the Jaguars released him to avoid giving him Cook-Kamara-McCaffery-Mixon money.

Sunday recap: Fournette rushed five times for five yards in the Buccaneers’ loss to the Saints. Tom Brady actually out-rushed him with nine yards, while Ronald Jones paced the Bucs with 66 rushing yards. Welcome to the Peak Fournette Experience.

The skinny: The Buccaneers did this right. Assuming Fournette grades out as a useful committee back in future games, they can then offer him Hunt money to stick around. If not, Le’Veon Bell or Gurley will probably be available for change-plus-incentives next year, Henry or Cook the year after that.

Meanwhile, an undrafted rookie from Illinois State named James Robinson rushed 16 times for 62 yards in the Jaguars victory over the Colts for a salary of minimum NFL wage plus (maybe) catfish nuggets in sauce.

Adrian Peterson, Detroit Lions

The contract: A one-year, $1-million contract with incentives, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, announced on September 6th.

Sunday recap: Peterson rushed 14 times for 93 yards and caught three passes for 21 yards in the Lions’ 27-23 loss to the Bears.

The skinny: Peterson can still get it done — he ripped off a pair of 14-yard runs when the Lions were unsuccessfully trying to munch clock in the fourth quarter — so he’s worth having around if he is OK with a low salary and a committee roll.

Of course, the fact that the 35-year old Peterson arrived a week ago and immediately earned the featured role over recent second-round draft picks Kerryon Johnson, and D’Andre Swift speaks to some deep Lions organizational problems. Come to think of it, so does letting Mitch Trubisky throw three fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat you.