The Cleveland Browns spent the better part of a decade rebuilding in an extreme and thorough fashion. Now they're contenders, but they've also reached the point at which they're having to pay up to keep the band together.
Star edge defender Myles Garrett has already been paid, and they'll almost inevitably follow suit with quarterback Baker Mayfield in the next year or two. And now there's chatter surrounding the expiring rookie contract that belongs to running back Nick Chubb.
"It would mean a lot," Chubb said last week of a potential new deal. "Cleveland drafted me and trusted me and put their faith in me to help build this culture and this team I'm a part of. Cleveland is where I want to be. Hopefully everything can work out in that direction."
Chubb was a second-round pick in 2018, which means there's no fifth-year option on the table. If he isn't re-signed or hit with the franchise tag, he'll become an unrestricted free agent at the age of 26 next March.
What should Chubb expect? What does he deserve? It's complicated because he's a running back and it's become increasingly difficult for teams to justify paying players at that position. There's plenty of evidence that teams can experience considerable success without great backs, while many have failed to contend despite paying top dollar for accomplished backs.
What's Chubb's shelf life? Would the Browns be buying high and inevitably selling low? Kareem Hunt is also on the roster and he's less than a year older than Chubb. But the Browns are a run-first team, so this situation could be exceptional, right?
See what I mean by complicated?
Lucrative new television deals that will soon kick in are expected to cause the salary cap to skyrocket, and Chubb's agent will likely use that reality in the negotiation process. He'll probably note that if Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara signed contracts worth at least $15 million per year during the COVID-19 pandemic and if Ezekiel Elliott was deemed worthy of a then-record $15 million per year back in 2019, Chubb must at least be in that range.
And that's fair to an extent, because Chubb and reigning Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans are the only players who have rushed for 2,500-plus yards over the last two seasons.
The Georgia product bested Henry in yards per attempt during that stretch by a margin of 5.25 to 5.24, and he broke tackles more frequently than Henry in 2020.
Potential counterpoints from the Browns? Henry re-signed with the Titans last offseason for far less money than McCaffrey, Kamara and Elliott ($12.5 million over four seasons), likely because he's a bruiser who takes more of a physical beating and isn't as much of a factor in the passing game.
Hunt plays that pass-catching role for the Browns right now, and he'll cost the team more than $11 million over the course of the next two seasons. If Cleveland feels the need to keep both backs so that they can essentially perform the tasks handled single-handedly by McCaffrey in Carolina, the team is not going to be willing to give Chubb McCaffrey-level money on a long-term deal.
Most of the league would likely feel the same way if posed with the opportunity to sign Chubb, but there's a good chance that won't happen either, with the franchise tag on the table at approximately $11-12 million (it was $11.1 million in 2021).
Another bargaining chip for the Browns? Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers has been more productive than Chubb over the last two years in terms of both scrimmage yards (3,017 to 2,989) and touchdowns (30 to 20), and he just signed a long-term deal in the same range as Henry's ($12 million per season over four years).
The pandemic might have factored in there, but that and the Henry deal could also be a sign that the league is truly starting to experience widespread trepidation when it comes to handing big-money contracts to running backs.
Elliott's numbers have declined, and the Cowboys have gone just 14-18 since they signed him to that blockbuster deal in 2019. The injury-prone McCaffrey was hardly available to the five-win Panthers in the first year of his new deal. Kamara was fantastic in the first season of his new contract, but the talented New Orleans Saints still failed to make a deep playoff run.
Six running backs cost their teams $7 million or more last year, and none of those six teams made the playoffs. And in 2019, none of the 10 most expensive backs played a single snap in the postseason.
Like Henry, Chubb is a violent, physical player. The Browns would be right to wonder if he'll hold up long-term and if he's worth even as much as Henry or Jones despite the anticipated upward trajectory of the salary cap.
Mayfield and fellow 2018 first-round pick Denzel Ward will soon become a lot more expensive (and if they don't, the Browns might have bigger problems on their hands). Meanwhile, breakout starting guard Wyatt Teller is entering a contract year as well.
The NFL's top three rushers from the last eight years were all Day 2 selections, and none of the top seven rushers last year were drafted in Round 1. Neither was the top rusher on this year's Super Bowl winner, or last year's.
And of course, Chubb himself wasn't a first-rounder. With Hunt on the payroll, the Browns could consider the frequency with which high-impact backs are found on the cheap and attempt to trade Chubb in for a fresh non-first-rounder in 2022 or 2023 (possibly following a year under the tag).
Last time one of the league's three highest-paid backs won the Super Bowl? Reggie Bush with the New Orleans Saints in 2009. Todd Gurley came close after signing a four-year, $60 million extension with the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. But that was also the season he began to wear down, and he lasted just one more year in L.A. So that's not exactly a shining example of a running back paying off.
The fact is that they almost never do these days. The position is losing value in this pass-happy era. So Chubb might very well be one of the best running backs in the sport, but don't expect that to result in a record-breaking contract in Cleveland or elsewhere.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.