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Should NFL Teams Pay Up for Mixon, Kamara and Rest of Loaded 2017 RB Class?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 14, 2020

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 05: Alvin Kamara #41 of the New Orleans Saints in action during the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers eventually might regret making Christian McCaffrey the NFL's highest-paid running back with a four-year, $64.1 million extension that could keep him in Charlotte through 2025. Then again, he might sustain his All-Pro-level play well into the 2020s and live up to his lucrative contract. 

Regardless, it's a done deal. 

Now, other teams that spent draft picks on members of the talented and highly touted 2017 running back class will have to decide whether to follow suit. 

Backs from that draft have already earned a combined eight Pro Bowl nods, an Offensive Rookie of the Year honor and a dozen 1,000-yard seasons. 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

McCaffrey is the headliner after amassing a league-high 2,392 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns in 2019, but beyond that, there's this:

  • New Orleans Saints third-round pick Alvin Kamara has made three Pro Bowls in three seasons.
  • Cincinnati Bengals second-rounder Joe Mixon has put together back-to-back campaigns with at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons under his belt.
  • Minnesota Vikings second-round pick Dalvin Cook exploded with 1,654 yards from scrimmage in 2019.
  • Green Bay Packers fifth-round selection Aaron Jones matched McCaffrey with 19 total touchdowns in 2019.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers third-round pick James Conner was a Pro Bowler in 2018.
  • Indianapolis Colts third-rounder Marlon Mack had nearly 1,100 rushing yards last year.
  • Seattle Seahawks seventh-rounder Chris Carson has somewhat quietly scored 18 touchdowns in back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons. 
  • Kansas City Chiefs third-round pick Kareem Hunt (who now plays for the Cleveland Browns) led the league in rushing as a rookie. 

And that's without including undrafted Western State product Austin Ekeler, who should have been a Pro Bowler after compiling more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage in 2019. He already landed a four-year, $24.5 million extension from the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. 

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Dealing with running backs on expiring rookie deals is tricky, especially since most of them fail to deliver on second contracts. The position has been greatly devalued by the league's continued emphasis on the passing game, and backs typically have short shelf lives as well. 

According to Spotrac, seven running backs had non-rookie contracts with average annual salaries higher than $6 million in 2019. None of those seven participated in the playoffs. 

The Los Angeles Rams bailed on Todd Gurley less than two years after signing the three-time Pro Bowler to a massive extension. Ditto for the Arizona Cardinals with David Johnson, while Devonta Freeman lasted only three uninspiring seasons after the Atlanta Falcons gave him a lucrative new contract in August 2017.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The New York Jets made Le'Veon Bell the AFC's highest-paid back last spring, and the two-time first-team All-Pro rewarded them by averaging a conference-low 3.2 yards per carry as the Jets won seven games behind the NFL's second-lowest-scoring offense. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys made Ezekiel Elliott the league's highest-paid back last offseason and immediately missed the playoffs. 

Good teams can find helpful backs practically anywhere. Nine of the aforementioned 11 backs who have excelled from the 2017 class weren't first-round picks, and each Super Bowl LIV team's No. 1 running back wasn't even drafted.

A team featuring the league's rushing champion hasn't won the Super Bowl since 1998, and only three of this century's 20 Super Bowl-winning teams had a Pro Bowl back on their roster.

All of this could mean the Panthers and Chargers erred in extending McCaffrey and Ekeler, respectively, although the counterpoint is that both are atypical backs who significantly contribute to the passing game.

McCaffrey just became only the third player in NFL history to compile 1,000-plus rushing yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards in a single season, while Ekeler has more career receiving yards and touchdowns than rushing yards and touchdowns. 

If those guys are exceptions to an emerging rule about paying running backs, the nine backs mentioned who are on the verge of contract years could have to fight for satisfying deals in 2021 and beyond. Here's a case-by-case breakdown: 

      

Kamara has a shot 

Like McCaffrey and Ekeler, Kamara is a stellar receiver. The three-time Pro Bowler has caught exactly 81 passes in all three of his pro seasons, and he's only the second player in modern NFL history to go over 500 yards as both a rusher and a receiver in each of his first three campaigns. 

On the down side, Kamara's yards-per-catch average has dropped substantially in consecutive seasons. He also scored only six touchdowns in 2019 after scoring 31 in his first two years, and injuries finally took an obvious toll on him in his third season. 

When Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was asked last month about how McCaffrey's deal might impact Kamara's contractual future, he said he hadn't "really thought about that yet," according to WWL's Doug Mouton.

It's possible the Saints will force Kamara to play out an age-25 contract year before deciding how to approach said future. And with the franchise tag in their back pocket, can you fault them for waiting? They might want to see if Kamara peaked early. 

     

Mixon's case is old-school

With 515 carries over the last two seasons, Mixon has proved he has workhorse potential. The Oklahoma product has yet to turn 24, and Cincinnati will likely seek continuity surrounding new franchise quarterback Joe Burrow. That might push the Bengals to invest in a long-term deal for a talented player who might hold out in the absence of an extension, according to The Athletic's Paul Dehner.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 29:   Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In a recent conversation with Lance McAlister of 700 WLW (h/t Pro Football Talk), Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin spoke about the state of extension negotiations:

"Joe's obviously a guy that's shown a lot of ability. He's in a year that he can be extended, and he is a guy that we visited with. We'll go through those discussions and see if there is a fit or a match for a long-term contract with him, obviously a guy we value quite a bit. The great thing about Joe is he goes about it the right way. ... He's the type of guy you want to lock up to a long-term deal. We'll see if we can find the commonality to get that done over time here."

However, Mixon has a subpar 4.2 career yards-per-attempt average, has never had a 300-yard season as a receiver and has caught only four touchdown passes in three years. The Bengals are famously frugal, and this might be a situation in which drawing a line in the sand is the right approach.

      

It's likely a make-or-break scenario for Fournette

Fournette is the only first-round running back from 2017 still on a rookie contract, and his future in Jacksonville became clouded when the Jaguars recently declined to exercise his fifth-year option for 2021. In April, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the former LSU star could be on the trading block this offseason. 

Fournette is a complete-package back coming off his best season yet as both a rusher and a receiver despite limited support in an inconsistent offense, but he still hasn't lived up to expectations. At this point, it's fair to wonder whether he'll ever become a consistent game-changer in the NFL. It doesn't help that he's missed 12 games in three years, and it's concerning that the Jags have seemingly soured on him. 

To earn a megadeal, Fournette will have to put up superstar numbers and stay healthy in 2020. If that doesn't happen and the Jags again fail to excel offensively despite his presence, he could be looking at a prove-it deal elsewhere at the age of 26.

And once you start down that path, it's hard to get paid big bucks. 

      

Cook has one big thing to prove

Cook has to stay healthy. His third season looked like it would be his first 16-game campaign, but the Florida State product hurt his shoulder in December, missed the final two games of a breakout season and averaged only 3.0 yards per carry in the playoffs. 

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 05: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings reacts against the New Orleans Saints during a game at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

He went over 500 yards as a receiver and made the Pro Bowl in 2019, but he's missed 19 games in three years. He also averaged only 3.3 yards per attempt in the second half of his breakout campaign. 

Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in March that the Vikings "have had some talks about a possible contract extension" for Cook, but a big commitment would be ill-advised after 2019 third-round pick Alexander Mattison averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a rookie. 

      

The Packers have already indicated they might not pay Jones

ESPN's Rob Demovsky reported in February that the Packers were scheduled to meet with Jones' agent about a potential extension, but they then used a second-round pick on Boston College product A.J. Dillon.

With Jamaal Williams also on the roster, the Packers could eventually decide Jones isn't worth the premium. 

Then again, few franchises have been as unpredictable as Green Bay as of late. The Packers might try to lock up Jones now at a discount since he has yet to make a Pro Bowl despite exploding for 1,558 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns in 2019. 

If a deal can be had, that might be a smart move for the Packers. Jones should have plenty of tread on his tires as a result of light usage in his first two seasons. 

      

Conner needs a special season

All signs point to the Steelers moving on from Conner unless they get a bargain deal for him after the 2020 season. 

In February, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert came out and flatly said the 2018 Pro Bowler had a disappointing season," according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And while Colbert also expressed optimism that Conner could bounce back if he can stay healthy, that's a big if. 

The Pittsburgh product has missed nine games over the last two seasons, and he hasn't quite been the same since he went for 100-plus yards in four consecutive games midway through the 2018 campaign. 

"I don't think they will sign Conner to a new contract this year as he enters the final year of his rookie deal," The Athletic's Ed Bouchette wrote in March. "The rest, really, is up to Conner. He has shown he can be a good halfback but he also has not been durable."

The Steelers also drafted running back Anthony McFarland Jr. in Round 4, which doesn't seem to bode well for Conner. The 25-year-old needs to suddenly become a healthy, consistently productive star in 2020. 

      

Ditto for Mack

Conner and Mack were two of only nine backs who averaged more than 20 rushing attempts per broken tackle in 2019, and Mack didn't fare much better in that category in 2018. The latter has exceeded expectations as a middle-round pick, but his playmaking ability has been lacking, and it's safe to say he's no longer in position for a big contract under current circumstances. 

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 17:   Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star reported in February that the Colts were discussing an extension with the South Florida product, but team owner Jim Irsay denied that to Mike Chappell of FOX59/CBS4. 

Then Indy went out and used a second-round pick on running back Jonathan Taylor, who put up more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive seasons at Wisconsin. 

Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni might see Taylor and Mack as a "1-1 punch," but Taylor is more likely to emerge as the top dog, and sidekick backs don't get paid. 

      

Carson is fighting multiple battles

Not only is Carson recovering from a fractured hip that he suffered in Week 16, but he'll have to beat out 2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny (who averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a sophomore), 2019 sixth-rounder Travis Homer (who averaged 6.3 yards per carry on limited work as a rookie) and rookie fourth-rounder DeeJay Dallas. 

Throw in that the Seahawks seemingly haven't closed the door on Marshawn Lynch, and there might be too much for Carson to overcome in 2020. At the very least, they may want Penny to emerge because of the draft capital they used on him. 

There's no reason for Seattle to pay Carson right now, or in the near future. 

     

Hunt isn't a candidate for a big-money contract

Hunt has had far too many off-field problems, and he's unlikely to earn enough reps while working behind Nick Chubb, who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per attempt as a breakout sophomore in 2019. 

Hunt is incredibly talented, but his career has gone off the rails since he led the league in rushing as a rookie. 

He'll play under a second-round tender as a 25-year-old backup in 2020 and isn't likely to ever land a lucrative, long-term deal. 

        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon

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