The elite running back contract history that matters for the Giants and Saquon Barkley

The elite running back contract history that matters for the Giants and Saquon Barkley

There is a puzzling narrative regarding the Giants and their pursuit — and where that effort should take them financially — of Saquon Barkley.

There is no question he is their best player on the offensive side of the ball. There is no question he is the first player opposing defensive coordinators pinpoint as having to contain in formulating a plan of attack. Yes, the dual threat of Daniel Jones — as a passer or a runner — became a growing concern for opponents this past season, but the Giants were not proficient enough in their passing game to keep anyone up at night worrying about getting shredded through the air.

There is really no denying Barkley’s talent and place among the NFL’s top running backs. Can any other Giants player on offense make that claim at his position? Yet there are fans who cannot get past where Barkley was taken in the 2018 NFL Draft — second overall — and seem to think because of that, there is nothing he can do on the field to justify going so high and little he can do to warrant a market-rate contract.

As a free agent, Barkley deserves to be paid, based on what he accomplished during the 2022 season. He did not miss a game because of injury. He finished fourth in the league in rushing with 1,312 yards. He finished seventh in the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,650. And he was held out of the regular-season finale, so there was no padding of his stats.

Barkley does not turn 26 until Feb. 9. There is every reason to think he is in the prime of his career. In Brian Daboll, he has a head coach who understands how to design and implement offensive systems to get the most out of his players. Sure, in the past, Daboll has shown a proclivity to want to throw more than he wants to run. But he also did not forget how the Giants raced to a record of 6-1 leaning more heavily on Barkley than any other player.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) rushes for yardage against the Detroit Lions during the second half at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. The Detroit Lions won 31-18.
Saquon Barkley rushed for a career-best 1,312 yards but said he was not looking to reset the market for running back contracts in free agency.Noah K. Murray for the NY Post

The going rate for top-tier running backs starts at $12 million a year. Barkley deserves to start his negotiations there and expect the Giants to sweeten the pot. No one is suggesting the Giants need to compromise their salary-cap space by bowing to all of the proposals from Barkley’s representatives. He is not a wide receiver, the skill position after quarterback that traditionally gets the big bucks. Barkley has acknowledged he knows the injuries he experienced — which limited his time and production on the field in 2020 and 2021 — hurt his bargaining power. He said he is not looking to reset the running back market with his next contract. But he also is not going to capitulate and accept a cut-rate deal.

The Giants can franchise-tag him, which would put him on the books for an estimated $10.1 million for the 2023 season. He very much does not want that, nor does it seem general manager Joe Schoen wants to go down that road either with Barkley, a team captain, a face-of-the-franchise type of player and a team-first guy all the way. Barkley wants, and deserves, more financial security than the one-year tag offers.

Sure, running backs generally do not have the shelf life of other positions on the field, but it is not as if Barkley is breaking down. There is no reason to think Barkley cannot be a highly productive player for the next three years, at least. His next contract should reflect that and pay him as one of the five best players at his position.

The recent comps

In the past four years, eight of the league’s best running backs signed contract extensions, and most have returned value.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) stiff arms Arizona Cardinals cornerback Jace Whittaker (39) in the third quarter at Levi's Stadium.
After missing much of the past two seasons, Christian McCaffrey showed why he got a $64.1 million deal in 2020 by compiling 1,880 yards from scrimmage this season.USA TODAY Sports

A case can be made that the four-year, $64.1 million deal the Panthers gave Christian McCaffrey in 2020 — setting the standard at the position at $16 million per year — was excessive. Of course, a case can be made that much of what the Panthers have done recently — such as giving a ridiculous seven-year, $62 million contract to lure Matt Rhule away from Baylor and keep him away from the Giants — was excessive. McCaffrey was hurt for most of his first two seasons after signing the mega-deal, but this past season, while playing for the Panthers and 49ers, he appeared in all 17 games, rushed for 1,139 yards, caught 85 passes, totaled 1,880 yards from scrimmage and combined for 13 touchdowns. Nod bad, but not close to the outrageous production he had in 2019: 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns.

Much is said about how Ezekiel Elliott has faded since signing a six-year, $90 million deal heading into the 2019 season. But it’s also possible an eye-catching rookie year that saw him rush for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns set unreasonably high expectations. Since signing his new contract, he has rushed for 1,357 yards, 979 yards, 1,002 yards and 876 yards in four seasons, respectively. Is that worth $15 million per year? Not really, but then again, who told the Cowboys to extend the deal to six years?

Most of the other big contracts for the top running backs have held up decently.

Alvin Kamara signed for five years and $75 million ($15 million average) before the 2020 season, a deal that reflected his total contributions — averaging 81 receptions his first three seasons — rather than his rushing totals, which topped out at 883 yards in 2018. Kamara posted a career-high 932 rushing yards and led the NFL with 21 touchdowns in 2020, and while his rushing effectiveness has dropped a bit (averaging 4.0 yards per attempt this past season), it’s also true that Drew Brees is gone and the Saints offense has suffered. Kamara’s receptions dropped to 47 in 2021 and 57 in 2022.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is tackled by Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman during the second half an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
Alvin Kamara has seen his rushing attempts skyrocket and his reception totals fall since Drew Brees retired.AP

Dalvin Cook also signed a five-year deal prior to the 2020 season, one worth $63 million ($12.6 million per year). That came off of only one excellent season, in 2019, when he rushed for 1,135 yards. Still, Cook was brilliant in 2020 with 1,557 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, both career highs. He missed four games in 2021, but played in all 17 this past season, running for 1,173 yards.

Derrick Henry is another 2020 signee, having inked a four-year extension worth $50 million ($12.5 million average). He quickly showed he was worth the money, rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first year after the deal. He played in only eight games in 2021 because of foot injuries. This past season, Henry ran for 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns and remains one of the hardest men to bring down in the NFL, though his yards per carry dropped to 4.4.

The Browns should not have any issues with the three-year, $36.6 million contract ($12.2 million average) given to Nick Chubb prior to the 2021 season. He ran for 1,259 yards and 1,525 yards the past two seasons, respectively, and totaled 20 rushing touchdowns.

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) runs past Pittsburgh Steelers at linebacker Mark Robinson (93) during the first quarter Acrisure Stadium.
Nick Chubb’s 20 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons has not been enough to get the Browns back into the playoffs in either year.USA TODAY Sports

Joe Mixon cashed in with the Bengals prior to the 2020 season (four years, $48 million, $12 million average), and played in just six games in 2020 because of a foot injury. He rebounded with a career-high 1,205 rushing yards in 2021, but dropped to 814 yards this past season as the Bengals evolved into more of a passing team. He did have a career-high 60 receptions as a safety valve for Joe Burrow.

Aaron Jones signed a four-year, $48 million contract ($12 million per year) with the Packers prior to the 2021 season. He rushed for a career-high 1,121 yards in 2022, but scored only two rushing touchdowns — a far cry from the 16 touchdowns he had in 2019 — while sharing carries with A.J. Dillon. Jones averaged a robust 5.3 yards per carry, though, and his scoring decline was related to the Packers’ overall offensive decline.

History bodes well

Go back a bit further in time and there are even more examples that help make Barkley’s case.

Prior to the 2012 season, LeSean McCoy signed a five-year extension worth $45 million with the Eagles. He played in 44 of a possible 48 games the next three seasons and showed no signs of wearing down, averaging more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage. In 2013, he led the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.

Frank Gore received contract extensions in 2007 and 2011 and kept right on chugging along until he finally wore down. He is third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22) dodges a tackle from Washington Redskins strong safety Kyshoen Jarrett (30) on December 13, 2015, at Soldier Field in Chicago. After eight productive seasons, the 30-year-old Forte faces an uncertain future in Chicago.
Matt Forte missed one game in the first three seasons after signing a four-year, $30.4 million deal with the Bears in 2012.Tribune News Service via Getty I

Matt Forte signed a four-year, $30.4 million deal with the Bears prior to the 2012 season, missed only one game over the next three years and averaged 1,157 rushing yards. He also caught 220 passes in that span.

It is probably unwise to compare any running back to Adrian Peterson given his unmatched recuperative abilities, but in 2011, he signed what at the time was an incredible deal — six years, $84 million — with the Vikings. He averaged close to 1,450 yards the next three seasons, including 2,097 yards in 2012, the second-highest total in league history. He lost the 2014 season to a torn ACL, but in 2015 led the league in carries (327) and yards (1,485).

Marshawn Lynch in 2010 was traded from the Bills to the Seahawks, and made his first Pro Bowl in 2011. The Seahawks gave him a four-year contract worth $30 million. Lynch led the league in rushing the next season.

Maurice Jones-Drew received a four-year, $35.5 million contract from the Jaguars in 2009, and made the Pro Bowl in each of his next three seasons. He led the NFL in rushing in 2011 with 1,606 yards.

The point is, there are a number of running backs who have returned good value on market-rate deals. Barkley is viewed as one of the top running backs in the league and should be paid like it. He wants to stay. If he does not, the Giants create a hole in a roster that does not need any more of them.

Asked and answered

Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:

Is there downtime for the coaching staff now that the season is over?

New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll walks out onto the field and points to fans during pre-game warm ups before the start of the first quarter.
Brian Daboll and his staff will spend the next few months looking at potential draft-worthy additions to the roster.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The long, exhausting hours are a thing of the past, but it is not as if Daboll, his coordinators and assistants booked vacation getaways after the playoff loss to the Eagles and the exit meetings with the players. With no games to prepare for, the focus now shifts to evaluating and improving the roster. That starts  this week in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl, where Daboll and his staff are in attendance for player workouts. There are interviews to be conducted, players to meet and evaluate and reports to write and file. It is certainly not the grind of the season, when workdays of 12 hours (or more) are commonplace. Time off remains a precious commodity. The longest hours the next few months, though, belong to members of the front office, with free agency and the NFL Draft consuming mass amounts of time.

Which of the Giants’ own free agents should we be wondering about, as far as if they are coming back or going to move on?

There are 18 unrestricted free agents for the Giants to consider, and it seems they have major decisions to make at two position groups — wide receiver and offensive line. At receiver, Darius Slayton (46 receptions, 724 yards) and Richie James (57, 569) are free agents. They accounted for 45 percent of Daniel Jones’ completions this past season and 40 percent of his passing yards. The Giants were 26th in the NFL in passing offense, though, and upgrades are needed. On the offensive line, Jon Feliciano started 15 games at center, and Nick Gates was the starting left guard after he was activated in Week 9 off the injured list. Do the Giants want to change two-fifths of their starting line? Do they sign Gates and play him at center, or do they want to bring Feliciano back for another year?