With just 24 hours to go until the first slate of Sunday NFL games, two star running backs in the NFC have inked lucrative extensions that will keep them with their respective teams for the next six seasons.
Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, running back Dalvin Cook signed a five-year, $63 million extension with the Minnesota Vikings that included $28 million guaranteed at signing. Just moments later, news broke of a five-year, $75 million extension with $34.333 million guaranteed at signing for the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara.
The amounts guaranteed at signing for both Cook and Kamara are very impressive, as Christian McCaffrey’s six-year, $64 million extension with the Carolina Panthers had just over $30 million guaranteed at signing.
McCaffrey was also a first-round pick in 2017, unlike Cook and Kamara, so a fifth-year option was awaiting him in 2021. Cook and Kamara may have taken a little bit less on an average-per-year basis than expected, but it appears that they prioritized upfront guarantees. This is absolutely the correct approach in all NFL contract negotiations, but particularly so at running back.
Both players had very productive 2019 seasons, with Dalvin Cook the No. 8 running back in WAR and Alvin Kamara just ahead at No. 7. Both also at least considered the possibility of holding out of the fourth and final year of their rookie contracts. Cook was selected 41st overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, and Kamara went one round later at 67th overall to New Orleans. Their paths to today’s extensions have been far from similar, however.
Kamara had to beat out former Saints first-round pick Mark Ingram II and future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson for the top job in New Orleans but did so in relatively short order. Since then, he’s had three straight seasons with 81 receptions, with a good chunk of those not coming out of the backfield but rather when Kamara demonstrated his versatility and lined up in the slot or out wide.
He’s not your typical bell-cow back, but his contract being a dead-on match with Ezekiel Elliott, at $15 million per year, demonstrates just how valuable his skill set is viewed in New Orleans. Since 2017, Kamara has been the second-most-valuable running back in the league, and his 2017 season is the most valuable by a rookie at his position during the PFF era.
Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook: PFF grades and rank since 2017 (min. 300 rush attempts, min. 100 targets, postseason included)
|Player||PFF rushing grade||PFF receiving grade|
|Alvin Kamara||84.2 (12/44)||91.9 (3/35)|
|Dalvin Cook||83.2 (13/44)||58.1 (33/35)|
Cook, on the other hand, stumbled out of the gate, unfortunately missing 12 games in his rookie season following a torn ACL. He battled through some more nicks and bruises in his second season and then burst onto the scene in 2019 with almost 1,700 all-purpose yards.
Cook brings more in the passing game than the recently signed Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon, but not to the level of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. Cook’s average-per-year number falls right at $12.6 million (if $63 million is the true total), which just narrowly beats Henry at $12.5 million and Joe Mixon at $12 million.
We are perhaps seeing the three running back markets more clearly define themselves in the modern NFL. The do-it-all backs are in the $15-$16 million per year range with McCaffrey, Elliott and Kamara, while the dominant downhill runners who can take the occasional checkdown are in the $12-$13 million per year range. And finally, the third-down pass-catching running backs like Ekeler, Duke Johnson Jr. and Giovani Bernard fall in the $5-$6 million per year range.
It remains to be seen how much Ekeler will be utilized in 2020 and if he truly is the every-down back with the Chargers. Ekeler went undrafted and was signed in 2017 and since then has amassed 443 total carries and receptions in three seasons working behind bell-cow Melvin Gordon III.
Dalvin Cook has 561 total carries and receptions over the same span, good for 118 more. Both teams have seen somewhat similar workloads from their guys to date, and obviously the two bring very different things to the table, but the Chargers look pretty smart for locking up Ekeler immediately after the season. That’s the leverage that can come from a guy not earning much on his rookie contract, much like how the Vikings were able to sign Adam Thielen to a modest $4.8 million per year extension in 2017 with Thielen coming off a 1,000-yard season. He has since reworked that deal because it was clearly too much of a discount.
For better or worse (our money is on worse), both the Vikings and the Saints can now fully turn their attention toward Sunday. Each team had a saga with a pass-rusher late in the offseason (the Vikings successfully traded for Yannick Ngakoue; the Saints could have “traded” for Jadeveon Clowney if not for the NFL rules). And while these deals almost never work out for the team that signs them, both Minnesota and New Orleans are making a bet that these two will be different, hoping that their receiving adds more value than the average running back’s does (not very much), that perturbations to offensive line play won’t dampen the difference between these two players and replacement players at the position (doubtful) and that game scripts won’t do more to dictate the volume each player receives than his actual talent does.
Both clubs seemed to set themselves up for a potential out, with the Vikings drafting Alexander Mattison in the third round in 2019 and the Saints signing Latavius Murray to a four-year deal worth $3.6 million per year through 2022. Instead, they chose to still commit big money to the position and have effectively spent double with their insurance policies. It’s never a bad thing to have depth or a backup plan, but one of these days a team has to trust the process here.
This past week, we saw the Browns extend running back Kareem Hunt for two more seasons on top of his 2020 RFA tender, keeping him under contract in his hometown Cleveland through 2022. Nick Chubb’s rookie contract is set to expire in 2021, meaning the Browns very smartly bought themselves a fallback option in advance. Everyone will be quick to point out that Chubb was the NFL’s leading rusher last season; some would even argue he’s the most important piece of the Browns offense. Well, the 2019 Browns were an absolute trainwreck and finished 6-10 in a down year for the AFC North. So, while rushing titles are great and all, they don’t do much in terms of actually winning football games. Let’s see if the savvy, analytically-minded Browns front office that is led by Andrew Berry will be the first to resist caving in and giving huge money to their running back.
Perhaps there’s a potential playoff rematch in store for the Vikings and Saints? For now, we know they’ll have Cook and Kamara, respectively, with the hopes that they will help them get back to playing football in January.