What Derrick Henry's Mega Contract Means for Rest of RB Market

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 16, 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

If you figured the NFL's devaluation of running backs might finally prevent top-tier ball-carriers from earning eight-figure salaries on long-term contracts, Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry proved you wrong this offseason.

A few months after McCaffrey reset the market at that position by signing a four-year, $64.1 million extension with the Carolina Panthers, Henry and the Tennessee Titans beat the deadline for teams to sign franchise-tag recipients to long-term deals by agreeing to a four-year, $50 million pact with $25.5 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Five backs now make more than $12 million per year, and four of those deals were inked in the last 16 months. What does all of it mean for the dozen or so notable backs slated to hit free agency between now and next spring?

Let's make some predictions, all of which assume the backs in question avoid falling off cliffs in 2020.

      

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

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The 24-year-old hasn't hit a peak as high as Henry did in 2019, but he's been to three Pro Bowls in as many seasons compared to only one Pro Bowl nod for Henry. He also isn't a battering ram like Henry, and his limited usage as a between-the-tackles back should give him more staying power.

That potential longevity could bode well for the versatile game-changer. If he agrees to an extension later this summer or remains a star and signs next offseason, he should get more green than Henry.

Potential contract: Four years, $60 million with $30 million guaranteed

     

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

The Vikes might be apprehensive about guaranteeing Cook a lot of scratch since he has yet to make it through a 16-game season healthy. The 24-year-old did come close during his breakout 2019 campaign, but he injured his shoulder in December, missed the final two games of the regular season and averaged only 3.0 yards per carry in the playoffs.

Even though he was one of the NFL's most productive backs with 1,654 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns last year, health concerns could prevent him from landing the lucrative extension he's seeking. That could change in 2020, but he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt for now.

Potential contract: Three years, $38 million with $20 million guaranteed

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 19: Aaron Jones #33 of the Green Bay Packers warms up prior to their game against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game at Levi's Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Harry How/
Harry How/Getty Images

     

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

Jones broke out with a league-leading 19 total touchdowns and 32 broken tackles in 2019, and he has the third-highest yards-per-attempt average since coming into the NFL in 2017. However, the Packers curiously used a second-round pick on Boston College running back AJ Dillon in April.

Jones should still be fresh considering his light workload in 2017 and 2018, but a blockbuster contract will likely require another strong season, and that deal might have to come outside of Wisconsin.

Potential contract: Four years, $45 million with $20 million guaranteed

     

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon is turning only 24 this month, and he's coming off back-to-back seasons with 1,400-plus scrimmage yards. With that said, the 2017 second-round pick's yards-per-attempt average plummeted from 4.9 in 2018 to 4.1 in 2019. That might concern the Bengals in the process of contract talks, which were reportedly taking place earlier this offseason.

Might he have peaked as a sophomore? That wouldn't be too unusual for a running back, but Mixon's young age and strong track record should put him in Henry's range this summer or next spring.

Potential contract: Four years, $42 million with $20 million guaranteed

     

Matt Breida, Miami Dolphins

Breida has a chance to land a surprise payday. He's averaged 5.0 yards per carry through three NFL seasons and will likely earn plenty of reps in a backfield that otherwise features Jordan Howard and Kalen Ballage.

If the 25-year-old can remain healthy and consistently put up the kind of rate-based numbers he posted in San Francisco, the lack of tread on his tires could make him an appealing option on the open market. But we can't assume that will happen, because it didn't come to fruition with the 49ers. Instead, he'll likely have to settle for a shorter-term deal.

Potential contract: Two years, $20 million with $8 million guaranteed

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 15: Leonard Fournette #27 of the Jacksonville Jaguars runs the ball against the Oakland Raiders during the second half at RingCentral Coliseum on December 15, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

      

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags declined to exercise Fournette's fifth-year option for 2021, and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported earlier this offseason that he was a trade candidate. That means the 2017 No. 4 overall pick will likely need a breakout fourth season to earn a huge payday inside or outside of Jacksonville.

He did tally a career-high 1,674 scrimmage yards while averaging a stellar 3.2 yards per carry after contact in 2019, but questions about his consistency and durability and potential concerns about his 4.0 career yards-per-attempt average could hold him back barring an explosion in 2020.

Potential contract: Four years, $34 million with $18 million guaranteed

     

Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

Following a breakout run with the Cards, Drake is locked in under the transition tag for 2020. He tweeted Wednesday that an extension will "come in due time," but the team might want him to prove last year was an emergence rather than an aberration. Arizona made a huge mistake by handing David Johnson a hefty deal and might be skittish about giving another running back a big-money deal.

Still, Drake averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns in eight games after coming over from the Miami Dolphins in October. One full season like that could entice somebody to pay up for an intriguing player who would have limited tread on his tires even though he'll turn 27 in January. We'd like to be bullish because of those circumstances, but the sample is small and the market will likely be flooded.

Potential contract: Three years, $25 million with $10 million guaranteed

     

Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons

The ship has likely sailed for Gurley, who has been severely limited ever since suffering a knee injury late in 2018 and wasn't himself in a reduced role last year.

A strong season in Atlanta might give him a shot at a multiyear deal elsewhere, but it's hard to imagine teams committing a ton of money to a 26-year-old with major injury questions. Luckily, Gurley has already made more than $38 million in his NFL career, according to Spotrac.

Potential contract: Two years, $12 million with $4 million guaranteed

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

      

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

A lack of reps could be a problem for Mack in a contract year. The 24-year-old compiled nearly 1,100 rushing yards in 2019, but his YPA dropped off by 0.3 yards in an offense that was already cutting out reps for Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins before adding Jonathan Taylor in the second round of April's draft.

Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni might see Taylor and Mack as a "1-1 punch," but Taylor is highly touted after registering more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive seasons at Wisconsin. Mack might have to prove himself on a one-year deal elsewhere in 2021.

Potential contract: One year, $6 million with $3 million guaranteed

      

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Carson is quietly coming off back-to-back 1,300-scrimmage-yard, nine-touchdown campaigns, but he's entering his age-26 season and isn't likely in line for a new deal as he recovers from a significant hip injury.

The Seahawks reportedly plan to use Carson as their top dog again this season, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, but veteran Carlos Hyde, 2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny and rookie fourth-round pick DeeJay Dallas are also on the roster. Despite his recent success, Carson has little margin for error in his effort to avoid dropping into a running back abyss on the verge of 27, especially considering how many standouts could be on the market next offseason.

Potential contract: Two years, $10 million with $5 million guaranteed

     

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

Even if Hunt defies expectations and overtakes the sensational Nick Chubb for the lead role in the Cleveland backfield, he probably kissed a big-money deal goodbye after getting pulled over in January with marijuana and an open container in his car, which came after the NFL suspended him in 2019 in part for shoving and kicking a woman in a hotel in 2018.

The soon-to-be 25-year-old's career has been off the rails ever since he led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2017, and one strong season in 2020 likely won't convince anybody to pay up for him considering the alternatives.

Potential contract: One year, $5 million with $800,000 guaranteed

     

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

Conner would be in big trouble on this deep running back market. The 2018 Pro Bowler has missed nine games over the last two years, and after breaking out as a sophomore, his yards-per-attempt average sunk from 4.5 to 4.0 in 2019. He was also utterly unable to break away from tackles.

The Steelers have expressed disappointment in that campaign. And while they have indicated that they're optimistic about his chances of bouncing back in 2020, The Athletic's Ed Bouchette predicts they'll "cut back" on his reps with Jaylen Samuels, 2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell Jr. and rookie fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland Jr. on the running back depth chart. He faces an uphill battle to earn anything but a one-year prove-it contract.

Potential contract: One year, $3.5 million with $3 million guaranteed

      

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

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