Running Back Performance Following a Contract Extension

Last night, Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers was injured on a pretty routine run during the Panthers and Texans game. Hopefully the injury is not too serious but McCaffrey missed nearly all of last season with various injuries and last year also happened to be the season when McCaffrey signed a massive contract extension making him the highest paid running back in the league. While I have spoken a lot about free agent running back signings in the free agent guide I wanted to look at extensions where, for the most part, we have about the most controlled environment possible for a player since he will be playing with a roster and staff he is familiar with.

An extension is a type of contract where a team opts to sign a player for extra years even though the team controlled the players rights through his rookie contract for one or two more seasons. Generally this means the player is younger than a typical free agent and should be more productive. It also generally means the player will be more expensive as players who sign extensions often get the largest annual contract values and guaranteed salaries.

I looked at every player who signed an extension since 2014 that was worth at least $2 million a season and then looked at their total offensive productivity (yards rushing and receiving as recorded by Pro Football Focus) in the year prior to signing an extension. For extensions I included long term contracts signed as a restricted free agent, unless he switched teams. Franchise players were not included. I then wanted to compare the numbers to what occurred in the year they signed the contract and the year afterwards.

First up is the performance in the year of signing. The x-axis shows the yards the player produced in the year of signing while the y-axis shows the change in yards, either positive or negative, in the year the extension was signed. The size of the bubble represents how large the contract was that the player signed.

Certainly not a good start for our group. Our average production change was about -210 total yards. The median was -242. This is more or less a 20% drop in production for the average player. Remember had they not signed an extension they would have still been under contract meaning the price in most cases would have gone down had the team waited.

Only 10 of 30 players improved. Two of those players, David Johnson and Dion Lewis, basically did not play the year before and had nowhere to go but up. Kareem Hunt was suspended 8 games in the year prior to signing and Raheem Mostert only played half the year. Of those who played significantly only 6 improved- Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook. Damien Williams, Chris Thompson, and Darren Sproles, who did it twice.

What about the year after they sign? Some of the players would still be under rookie contract (Zeke, Gurley, etc…) though most would have been free agents. So in a sense this is the year you were really paying for by signing the extension. Here is how the performance of the eligible players broke down.

8 players improved from prior to signing a new contract. Three of those were the Johnson, Mostert, Lewis group while Taiwan Jones was also in that 8 games or less group. That leaves James White, Damien Williams. CJ Anderson, and Danny Woodhead. The average change was -293 yards with a median change of -307.

I know we all say “it wont happen to our guy” when he gets signed, but thus far there have been few instances where waiting to sign a player would have cost a team anything other than the headache of dealing with a contract issue. Maybe Kamara, Cook, and Nick Chubb will be the players to break the cycle, but thus far there is little reason to think the extension is in any way a good idea.