There was a wave of running back contracts completed prior to the kickoff of Week 1, but none of them managed to improve the difficult market forces facing that position. Assessing the critical metrics of the recent deals for Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara paints a bleak portrait for the landscape at the position, with teams continuing to devalue it since the heady days of Adrian Peterson in Minnesota a decade ago. While Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey have nudged the market a bit in the right direction, the stark reality for running backs remains that with a high injury risk and the increasing import of the passing game, teams are not having to invest in their position nearly to the degree they have in the past.
The key metric in the new running back deals is what the players earn in the first three years; it's the heart of basically every NFL contract given their non-guaranteed nature, and particularly for running backs who teams often move on once they hit age 30. In many cases, even elite running backs are getting roughly 33% of their deals guaranteed, rather than the 50% threshold most agents aim for, and for the most part this group of backs was held on their three-year average relatively close to the projected future franchise tag for backs.
While much was made on the gross earnings Kamara received from the Saints, that deal included a non-guaranteed $25 million salary in the sixth year, a device that inflates the numbers but serves no other real purpose. In reality, Kamara's three-year average is $9.8 million, just a smidge above Mixon ($9.6M), while Cook came in at $9.1 million.
The 2020 running back franchise tag was roughly $10M, and league sources said several of the teams involved in these negotiations essentially had the same approach. They offered to pay the backs upfront now at a time when they would otherwise be making around $1 million or less, and basically securing them for upwards of five years in exchange for two successive franchise tag values now that are guaranteed. Running backs are generally eager to get an extension as early as possible with multiple years remaining on their rookie deal, given how age and injury conspire against them, but that works in the team's favor as well on the average salary front, with teams holding leverage of still having years of control on the player.
McCaffrey is the only running back deal in the past few years to average more than $13 million per season over the first three years of the deal. And it seems unlikely that is going to change in the near future.