The Outcomes of Running Back Contracts

Despite the recent failures of the big money running backs, the Panthers still went out there and paid big time to retain 4th year pro Christian McCaffrey. Every time a running back signs for big money there is always a lot of debate about the use of so much cap space on a position that many consider replaceable regardless of the name of the player. While there may be some debate over the impact of the position as a whole most fall into the group that says the running back signing is simply bad because the players don’t remain useful for a long period of time, at least until a favorite running back lands a big contract with a team they like as if somehow that one running back will be different. We saw that yesterday with so many opinions that essentially said “well yes it made no sense for Dallas, New York, Arizona, and Los Angeles, but this is different because McCaffrey is different”. I heard that same excuse when the other players signed as well so I wanted to see how things worked out contractually and on the field for players after signing a big contract.

We have records of 68 running backs having signed multi year contracts that were at least three years in length since 2011. 59 of the players have had their contract end and here is how the groups fared based on the initial new contract length.

Outcome3 Year4 Year5+ yearsTotal
Pay cut8.3%9.1%15.4%10.2%

Overall the teams had an unfavorable outcome about 83% of the time with the team overestimating the length of the contract. Granted these numbers can skew negative because a contract of 5 or more years often is an extension with a total length of more than 5 years (for example McCaffrey’s contract is a 4 year extension but will run for 6 years total), so let’s look at the total contract years and see how long the players remained on their original contract or were extended.

LengthLess than 1 Year1 Year2 Years3 Years4 Years5 Years
3 years6.7%26.7%50.0%16.7%
4 years5.6%11.1%38.9%22.2%22.2%
5+ years0.0%9.1%54.5%0.0%27.3%9.1%

The most likely outcome for almost any contract is that the player will remain with the team for two seasons with a majority being released, traded, or having terms modified after the 2nd season after signing. Its only a minority that make it to the back end of the contract.

In this case McCaffrey’s subset of players is the 5+ year contract group since his deal is a 6 year contract. Based on these numbers its pretty much a 35% chance that he would make it past the second contract year, which would be the same year his rookie contract expired. Essentially the numbers (and granted it’s a small sample) would say that Todd Gurley’s ultimate outcome was pretty much the expected outcome. The others to only last 2 or less years were Doug Martin, Ray Rice, Chris Ivory, Devonta Freeman, and DeMarco Murray.

Surprisingly the four year contract group has had more luck than the 5+ year group and a theory I would have on that is generally players who get locked up for more than 5 seasons were considered dominant players who stats were likely inflated by massive workloads early in their careers and perhaps that takes its toll more on those players.

The next thing I wanted to look at was the statistical output of the players based on contract length. I didn’t want to get into anything fancy here just pure volume stats. To do this I turned to our friends at Pro Football Focus and used their rushing and receiving numbers to see where each group was in the year prior to signing a new contract and where their stats went post contract. For players that missed a significant portion of the season in the year before signing (think Le’Veon Bell) I modified their baseline to use their stats from the season prior to the missed season.

Here is the average rushing yardage breakdown for each group for the entire group of players (the average would include terminated players at 0).

Contract LengthPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
3 Year609525311116
4 Year741675556334157
5+ Years1267861773642151178

And here is the percentage difference using the year prior to contract signing as the baseline.

Contract Length1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
3 Year86%51%19%
4 Year91%75%45%21%
5+ Years68%61%51%12%14%

Basically we can see the declining expectations and in particular the 5 year contract players see massive declines which I think reaffirms the point that the production in the years prior to a contract signing are probably unsustainable due to breaking down. Of course these numbers show the expected results because they include cut players. What would happen if we pulled those players out? Here are the results for players who signed four year contracts and five year or longer contracts with the groupings pulling out released/traded players (i.e. 2 years would include those who played 2 or more years while 3 years would just include those who played 3 or more years.

Min Years Played on New ContractPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year
1 year741675
2 years783727612
3 years694773709612
4 years922103711211066662
Min Years Played on New ContractPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
1 year1267861
2 years1219874837
3 years119691210011072
4 years115490610221113436
5 years1037653113910335341155

So what should these numbers tell us? Basically that the most optimistic outcome is a player can give you three effective years after signing. That would be, for McCaffrey, the equivalent of playing out the rookie contract and using the franchise tag and then letting him walk. The reason for the high 5th year number is because only two players made it there and Adrian Peterson had close to 1,500 yards.

How do the receiving yards shake out?

Contract LengthPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
3 Year252.8203.197.245.3
4 Year386.0294.4263.3176.061.9
5+ Years400.2287.2198.0182.548.221.7
Contract Length1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
3 Year80.3%38.4%17.9%
4 Year76.3%68.2%45.6%16.0%
5+ Years71.8%49.5%45.6%12.0%5.4%

The numbers don’t indicate that receiving production holds up any better than rushing production. If anything its worse. Perhaps the teams are more willing to try other players as pass catchers or maybe they are getting better and use the backs less in the passing game. In any event its not as if being a production receiver really holds up much more on the whole as the driving factor in keeping a player seems to be based more on their production in the run game vs the passing game.

Here is the breakdown year by year if we remove the released players from each group.

Min Years Played on New ContractPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year
1 year386294
2 years384291290
3 years386300352322
4 years371262369382168
Min Years Played on New ContractPrior Year1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year
1 year400287
2 years399284214
3 years365271228291
4 years383199200281145
5 years37714413017658141

Overall this is a pretty big drop regardless of how long the players lasted. If anything those who lasted the longest saw their impact decline the most in the passing game. Granted none put up numbers like McCaffrey but its not as if anyone was really immune from it.

On a player by player basis here is how every player who signed at least a four year contract performed for their new team on average in the two seasons post a new contract compared to what they did in the season prior to signing. First is rushing then receiving.

Not sure any of this should instill confidence in any of these decisions. Of players with a meaningful amount of rushing yards the only players to improve in the short term were Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray (for the Titans), and Frank Gore. From a receiving perspective Chris Johnson, McCoy (twice), Lynch, Dion Lewis, Mark Ingram, James White, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Murray, Forte, Anderson and Pierre Thomas saw their numbers stay status quo or improve. Of those players only McCoy, White, Bush, and Sproles had baseline years over 250 yards so most came from low starting points.

I think overall the implication is that the decision to wait is backed up by pretty much all the data available. In almost every case the players value was likely going to fall, not rise, in the two years remaining on that rookie contract. Id argue from looking at the list of players the ones who bucked the trends overall were Peterson, McCoy, Forte and Lynch. So maybe McCaffrey will be like those four players. Its about a 10% chance that his value would remain constant and over the next two years the Panthers and fantasy owners will be happy with the performance. $16 million for a 10% chance. I wouldn’t call that a great management or decision making but we shall wait and see how things unfold over the next two seasons.