- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
This is hardly what the Carolina Panthers envisioned in 2020 when they rewarded versatile running back dynamo Christian McCaffrey with a four-year, $64 million contract extension that guaranteed a whopping $38.2 million.
In the less than two seasons since McCaffrey cashed in with a deal that made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back, he has played a grand total of 10 games. Like last season, when McCaffrey played just three games, his current campaign was halted by a season-ending injury. This time, it’s an ankle.
When this season is completed, the 205-pound McCaffrey will have missed more than twice as many games (23) than he has played (10) since signing the contract that averages $16 million per year.
Sure, football’s a tough game with inherent risk. The next play could be the last.
Yet McCaffrey’s case also underscores the risk that teams grapple with in committing long-term contracts to players at a position with the highest injury rate.
“It’s buyer beware,” former NFL executive Joe Banner told USA TODAY Sports. “And it’s predictable, for obvious reasons. Most running backs weigh in the lower 200s. It’s no surprise that something can happen when they are hit 20-30 times a game. If you’re building a team, you’ve got to factor that in.”
STAY UP-TO-DATE: Subscribe to our NFL newsletter, "Fourth and Monday"
McCaffrey is certainly not an isolated case. Of the NFL’s five highest-paid running backs, four are injured. Alvin Kamara ($15 million per year) missed his fourth consecutive game for the Saints on Thursday night, nursing a knee injury. Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook ($12.6 million) is out indefinitely with a dislocated shoulder. And Tennessee’s Derrick Henry ($12.5 million), the league’s reigning rushing champ, is out indefinitely while rehabbing from surgery for a fractured foot.
Of the five highest-paid runners, only Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott ($15 million) has appeared in each of his team’s games. But Elliott has been far from 100% healthy, with playing time reduced due to a knee injury that has hampered him for weeks.
The sixth- and seventh-highest paid runners, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb ($12.2 million) and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones ($12 million) have returned since also missing time to deal with injuries.
Still, despite the injury risk, the elite runners are essential.
Sure, the NFL is a passing league built around the quarterbacks. But consider the rise of the Colts this season behind star running back Jonathan Taylor and remember the Titans as a force when Henry was in the flow.
It’s a double-edge sword: You can’t win big without them.
“I think it’s stupid when people say that running backs are not valuable,” Banner said, adding that the impact in the passing game factors into the equation.
“They’re all big risk,” he added. "But not the same risk. I’d feel better about Henry (listed at 247 pounds) because at least he can match up physically against many of the defenders that he faces.”
Banner, co-founder of The33rdTeam.com, a website offering NFL analysis, recalled the running back progression during his tenure as Eagles GM. Philadelphia went from Ricky Watters to Charlie Garner to Duce Staley to Brian Westbrook to LeSean McCoy as the featured running backs during an era before and during the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb coach-quarterback combination.
The key for teams comes with managing the risk, Banner said, with combinations at running back that reduce the reliance and wear-and-tear on one running back, even a star player.
Yes, they are plenty valuable – when available.
Especially this time of year, when the weather becomes more of a challenge in many places, and the stakes are raised during the stretch run toward the playoffs. Even the most pass-happy teams need a reliable runner or runners to lean on when they want or need a rushing attack to win a game.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bell: Star running backs provide high-risk, high-reward conundrum