December 2, 2022

Entering the 2022 NFL season, the Giants appeared to have a difficult emotional decision — but an easy one financially — regarding their second overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft: Have Saquon Barkley play out the fifth-year option on his rookie deal and then let him walk in free agency during the 2023 offseason. The 25-year-old looked like he had lost a gear or two last season, his first one back after missing the final 14 games of the 2020 season with a torn ACL. 

The 2021 season output was the worst of his career: 856 scrimmage yards — his first season under 1,000 when playing at least 10 games — while shaking off the rust from the knee injury. The 2021 campaign was also his first season averaging under 4.5 yards per carry (3.7 in 2021). 

That season couldn’t have been a stronger juxtaposition of what Barkley showed as a rookie. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,028) in 2018, joining Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999) as the only rookies in NFL history with over 2,000 scrimmage yards. He followed that fast start year with another solid season — 1,443 scrimmage yards — in 2019.

This season, he’s nearly matched his 2021 total with an NFL-best 676 scrimmage yards through the first five games. Barkley’s three rushing touchdowns this season are more than he had in his 15 games played in 2020 and 2021 combined (2). He’s on pace for 2,298 yards from scrimmage in 2022, which would rank as the 12th-highest single-season total in NFL history. Barkley’s comeback isn’t just about numbers; he’s displaying the same amount of burst and agility as when he entered the NFL in 2018. Last week, he left the ankles of Green Bay Packers defenders across the Atlantic Ocean, strewn about the field, or pitch in London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Barkley’s first five games (2018 vs. 2022)

Scrimmage Touches

102

115

Scrimmage Yards

582

676

Scrimmage Yards/Touch

5.7

5.9

Scrimmage Touchdowns

5

3

* 2018: Led NFL in scrimmage yards & won Offensive Rookie of the Year

The market the New York Giants would be stepping into, should they decide to enter extension discussions with Barkley, ranges from $12 million to $16 million per year based on the other top contracts at his position. Barkley is making $7.8 million on his fifth-year option this season, and every contract amount above his option year is in that neighborhood.

Highest average per year among RB contracts

Here’s a breakdown of how each of those deals have aged, from projected perspectives of the front offices that handed out these contracts, and then where the Giants could go with Barkley moving forward.

Teams that might have some regrets: Cowboys (Elliott), Panthers (McCaffrey)

Ezekiel Elliott: 6 years, $90 million

When the Dallas Cowboys signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million extension with two years remaining on his rookie deal to tie him to the team through the 2026 season, Jerry Jones and Co. must have envisioned an Adrian Peterson-like run of dominance. Elliott led the NFL in carries and rushing yards in two of his first three seasons while leading the league in rushing yards per game in each of his first three seasons. His 57 career rushing touchdowns are tied for second-most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016 with Todd Gurley, trailing only fellow draft classmate and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry’s 70 touchdowns.

However, Elliott’s rushing yards per game declined in each of his first six seasons in the NFL, prompting noise about whether or not he will finish out the contract. Elliott’s deal runs out of guaranteed money after this season, making it much easier for the team and its salary cap to move on from Dallas’ longtime feature back via trade or an outright release despite his four seasons remaining (2023-2026). His 2022 rushing yards per game through five games have increased slightly from 2021, up 2.1 yards to 61.0. 

There’s a stark difference when comparing Elliott’s early career rushing yards per game to his last three seasons (after signing the extension):

  • First three seasons: 108.7 (2016), 98.3 (2017), 95.6 (2018)
  • Last three seasons: 84.8 (2019), 65.3 (2020), 58.9 (2021)

Not only was Zeke much more dominant in his few first three seasons, he also led the league in rush yards per game from 2016 through 2018.

Elliott’s backup, 2019 fourth-round pick Tony Pollard, leads the NFL in scrimmage yards/touch (6.3) since the start of the 2021 season among the 39 running backs with over 200 touches in that span. Pollard also showcased a level of explosiveness last week against the Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams that Elliott just doesn’t seem to have anymore.

Christian McCaffrey: 4 years, $64 million

Christian McCaffrey’s abilities are undeniable. The eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft is the only player in league history to with more than 2,500 career rushing yards and 2,500 career receiving yards in their first three seasons (2017-2019). Following his historic 2019 campaign in which he racked up 2,392 yards from scrimmage — the third-most in a season in NFL history — with over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving (third player in NFL history to do so in a season), the Panthers showered the then-23-year-old with his four-year, $64 million extension. The $16 million average annual salary is the highest in the NFL at his position. 

Unfortunately for Carolina, McCaffrey showed immediate wear and tear, missing 23 of a possible 33 regular-season games during the 2020 and 2021 seasons with a variety of injuries: ankle (11 games), hamstring (five games), quadricep (four games) and shoulder (three games). This season, he looks to be back on track with 512 scrimmage yards (ninth-most in the NFL) while playing in all five games so far. However, dealing with significant injury concerns at a position like running back that notoriously ages poorly likely gives the Panthers some slight buyer’s remorse at McCaffrey’s price tag. 

Too early to tell: Saints (Kamara), Vikings (Cook), Bengals (Mixon)

Alvin Kamara:  5 years, $75 million

Kamara has been arguably the most productive running back in the NFL since he entered the league as a third-round pick in 2017. His 7,814 career scrimmage yards are the second-most in the NFL since 2017 behind only Elliott (7,968), who entered the league a year earlier in 2016. Kamara’s 67 scrimmage touchdowns are also the second-most in the league during the span of his career, trailing only Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (68), who also entered the NFL a season earlier in 2016. However, there have been some warning signs for Kamara since the 2021 season.

In 2020, Kamara led the NFL with a career-high 21 scrimmage touchdowns while averaging 6.3 scrimmage yards per touch, the second-highest of his career. Last season, he had nine scrimmage touchdowns while averaging a career-low 4.7 scrimmage yards per touch, which can partly be attributed to his four-game absence from Weeks 10-13 with knee and hamstring injuries. 

Kamara currently has yet to find the end zone this season, but he snapped out of a lull from his first two games with 194 scrimmage yards — the second-most in a game in his career — in a Week 5 win against the Seattle Seahawks. 

Touches

29

29

Scrimmage Yards

119

194*

Receiving Yards

19

91

* Second-most in a game in his career

The bounce-back performance was nice against the NFL’s worst total defense (the Seahawks allow a league-high 430 total yards per game), but he’s started to show some signs that his 1,343 career touches (fourth-most in the NFL since 2017) could start weighing on him. Kamara has three years left on his contract after this season, and he is likely staring down a suspension of at least six games following multiple charges stemming from allegedly punching and injuring a man at a nightclub on the eve of the Pro Bowl. Those charges include a felony count of battery resulting in substantial bodily harm. Climbing into his age 28-30 seasons from 2023-25 without the comfort of Drew Brees feeding him the football could have the Saints’ front office contemplating their salary cap budget and where the last few years of his deal fit into it.

Dalvin Cook: 5 years, $63 million

There is nothing to question about Dalvin Cook’s production as a Minnesota Viking: He has made the Pro Bowl in every season since 2019, accumulating 5,402 scrimmage yards — the second-most in the NFL behind only Derrick Henry’s 5,507 — and 39 scrimmage touchdowns, tied for the third-most in the league in that span. However, injury issues have been part of Cook’s career narrative since the 27-year-old entered the NFL in 2017. A torn ACL in his left knee cut his rookie season short after four games and from 2018-21, he has missed a combined 13 games with hamstring, chest, shoulder and groin injuries plus a one-week stop on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Cook doesn’t have any guaranteed money left on his contract across its final three seasons from 2023-25, and there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will have enough faith in his durability to keep him on that deal through his age-30 season. 

Joe Mixon: 4 years, $48 million

The defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals are off to a rocky 2-3 start this season, and Joe Mixon’s production is a direct reflection of those struggles. The 26-year-old was the NFL’s No. 3 rusher a year ago with his career-high 1,205 rushing yards behind an offensive line that was perceived to have been a weak spot. This year, the entire Bengals offense has taken a step back across the board despite importing four new starters on their line. 

Mixon is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, the second-fewest in the NFL among qualified rushers this season, ahead of only Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers’ 3.0 figure. Akers is still working his way back from a torn Achilles he suffered in July of 2021. 

Mixon’s first five games (2021 vs. 2022)

Carries

93

96

Rushing Yards

386

302

Rushing Yards/Att

4.2

3.2*

Rushing Touchdowns

3

1

* 47th out of 48 qualified rushers this season 

Anxiety has clearly arrived in the Bengals’ locker room as Mixon himself called for a meeting with his offensive line to address concerns surrounding their ground game.

“I think that’s going to take us a long way, especially down the road,” Mixon said on Oct. 3. “If you watch the film, we’re literally just one piece away or one block away. Whether it’s frontside, backside or me seeing something and actually hitting it faster. Everything goes hand-in-hand.”

Cincinnati is hand-in-hand with Mixon through his age-28 season in 2024. He’ll likely finish out this contract, but the bottoming out of the Bengals’ rushing offense is something their front office will monitor closely as he ages. 

Happily Invested: Titans (Henry), Packers (Jones), Browns (Chubb)

Derrick Henry: 4 years, $50 million

The Tennessee Titans’ identity of playing hard-nosed, smashmouth, never-give-up football is encapsulated in one player: running back Derrick Henry. The Titans couldn’t have asked for a better first season of Henry’s deal in 2020 as he became the eighth player in NFL history to run for over 2,000 rushing yards (2,027) en route to winning the Offensive Player of the Year award. Last season was more problematic as he missed the final nine games of the regular season with a fractured foot. A factor that likely played a significant role in Henry’s breakdown in 2021 was his workload: He led the NFL in carries (a combined 681, over 100 more than Dalvin Cook’s 562) in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. 

However, the 6-3, 247-pound running back is an alien, brushing aside concerns of a drop-off after the injury, as he’s once again picked up steam over the last two weeks, running over 100 yards in each game.

Carries

54

50

Rushing Yards

192

216

Rushing Yards/Att

3.6

4.3

Rushing Touchdowns

2

3

Trading Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles instead of handing him the $100 million contract he ended up getting signaled one thing: The Tennessee Titans are Henry’s team.

Nick Chubb: 3 years, $36.6 million

Along with Barkley, Nick Chubb has been the NFL’s cream of the crop at the running back position this season. In the first year of his new contract, he’s leading the NFL in rushing yards (593) and rushing touchdowns (7). He is also the only player in the NFL with more than 100 scrimmage yards in all five games so far this season. Doing anything as a Cleveland Brown to associate yourself with Hall of Famer Jim Brown means you’re doing something right, and Chubb has done just that — joining Brown and Greg Pruitt as the only players in franchise history to have over 100 scrimmage yards in each of a season’s first five games. Chubb’s contract also expires right after his age-29 season, leaving the Browns as nothing but winners contractually as he plays out his prime for them. 

Aaron Jones: 4 years, $48 million

Since Matt LaFleur became the Green Bay Packers head coach in 2019, only Derrick Henry (50) has more scrimmage touchdowns than Aaron Jones (42). That’s about as great of a value as a team could wish for when taking a running back in the fifth round — 182nd overall — in the 2017 NFL Draft as the Packers did. Jones remains productive this season, leading all running backs in yards per carry (6.4). The only drama surrounding the 27-year-old is that he should be getting the ball with more regularity, especially after the Packers opted to throw on third and fourth down despite needing one yard to gain on the New York Giants’ six yard line in a one-score game. 

Verdict

Barkley: 3 years, $40.5 million

The G-Men need to keep Barkley in the fold through the rest of his 20s given the void of playmaking at their wide receiver position. Provided he can finish the 17-game season on a high note in terms of his production and health, it makes sense on and off the field to keep the former second overall pick in-house. The contract terms of three years, $40.5 million sets his average annual salary at $13.5 million, $1 million higher than Cook and Henry’s contracts per year, while at an identical length to Chubb’s. It’s a win-win for both sides as the Giants secure Barkley’s prime while the running back can hit the open market at 30 years old. 

Source link