Best & Worst 2015: The Best Running Back contracts

For the last two seasons I have done a summer “Best and Worst” contracts for each team in the NFL, but I decided this year to put that on hold since it recycles so many players and instead take a positional approach to the concept. So during the course of the summer I’ll do my choices for the top three and bottom three contracts at each position from a team perspective. As usual the rules are no rookie contracts allowed in the selection. We start this week with a look at running backs.

Ryan_Mathews3. Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles (3 years, $11 million, $5 million fully guaranteed)

Every now and then it’s worth taking a chance on a player provided the cost isn’t excessive and that is exactly what the Eagles are doing with Mathews. Mathews is pretty well accomplished with a career 4.4 YPC average and two seasons in excess of 1,000 yards rushing. He’s made a Pro Bowl and is a former first round draft pick. The downside for Mathews is that he is an older free agent (he’s 28) and is injury prone (missing 20 games in five years).

But at $3.67 million per year and a $3 million signing bonus, there is little to dislike about this deal. He’s essentially in the same salary category as never weres like Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart, but with much more upside.

The Eagles contract is much better structured than the Saints contracts signed in 2015 with CJ Spiller and Mark Ingram, neither of whom are any better nor significantly healthier than Mathews. Mathews will earn $7 million in the first two years of this deal compared to $9 million for Spiller and $7.8 million for Ingram. That’s not to say those contracts are bad, just that this ended up as a more team friendly contract overall.

What role Mathews will have in Philadelphia is unclear since the team now has such a crowded backfield, but if he plays as well as he did in San Diego they have a steal of a contract. Even if his carries are limited behind DeMarco Murray, for $3.7 million a season they should get a very reasonable return on their investment.

Roy Helu2. Roy Helu, Oakland Raiders (2 years, $4.1 million, $1 million fully guaranteed)

It is not often that I give the Raiders credit for something contract related, but I thought they nailed it with this signing. While nobody expects Helu to be Adrian Peterson the Raiders aren’t paying him to be that player. At the very least Helu is going to be a very good third down running back that gives Derek Carr a solid option in the passing game.

But there is also upside with Helu, who backed up Alfred Morris in Washington. Helu gained over 600 yards as a rookie and has averaged around 5 yards a carry the last two years. While often such numbers mean nothing when extrapolating to a fuller workload, the fact is many “low volume” runners with upside have been securing decent contracts the last two seasons. Helu isn’t one of them.

Helu will earn $2.1 million this season and average just slightly over $2 million over his two year contract. His comparables are players like Toby Gerhart, Shane Vereen, and Joique Bell. Such players are averaging between $3 and $4.25 million a year with basically $7 million being the minimum two year payout. Getting Helu, who essentially has the same upside type of potential and role, for a 40% discount is a steal.

Jamaal Charles1. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (4 years, $27.75 million, $3.95 million fully guaranteed)

You can look at Charles’ contract anywhere from a 6 year contract to a two year extension worth $9 million a year. No matter how you look at it this is a great bargain for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs set themselves up perfectly with this contract back in 2010 which was likely a byproduct of labor uncertainty in 2011. Charles was on his way to gaining nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and settled for a contract that paid him all of $8 million guaranteed, a number that would pale in comparison to the contracts that came one and two years later.

Charles became the most important offensive player for the Chiefs, making the Pro Bowl from 2012 through 2014. He has put up dominant seasons despite playing in an offense which featured no deep passing threat or any passing game in general. He is arguably the most consistent and best player at the position and he’s doing it at a fraction of the cost of the other well known players.

Charles held out last summer to try to get his contract on par with his contemporaries. The Chiefs gave him a well deserved raise of slightly over $5 million across two years, but did nothing to improve his job security. No part of the raise came as a signing bonus, so the team can move on well before his $6 million salary kicks in next season. He received that raise at the age of 28 and at most would earn $11 million in new money by 2016. LeSean McCoy, one year younger, just received $16 million in full guarantees, all paid this year, just to make him happy in Buffalo, a team he has no history with at all. Charles is going to go down as one of the great steals of all time.