The stock market isn’t the only thing crashing right now.
NFL free agency has seen running backs (all of them, except for maybe a few) as a collective and colossal loser, which is starting to match how the data views them in terms of importance in winning football games relative to the quarterback position.
It started when the Arizona Cardinals were able to not only unload David Johnson’s lucrative contract to the Houston Texans, but somehow receive DeAndre Hopkins in return. Instead of paying Johnson $13 million over the next 12 months, they’ll have Kyler Murray throwing footballs to the game’s best wide receiver.
On that same day, the Atlanta Falcons released Devonta Freeman, who was set to make $21M over the next three years with the team. They were able to replace Freeman with a more cost effective option in Todd Gurley a few days later because the Los Angeles Rams wisely released him after failing to find a trade partner. The Rams are still on the hook with just over $20M because they irresponsibly handed him a four-year $60M deal just two years ago, but at least they can start healing from their wounds.
Gurley signed a one-year deal worth $5M with the Falcons not long before free agent Melvin Gordon sign a two-year deal worth $16M with the Denver Broncos. Gurley’s injuries tanked whatever market he had, but Gordon is still a capable back that’s maintained his health. Seeing how the landscape has dramatically shifted for running backs, it’s entirely possible that Gordon’s $8M average annual value is the new market for top running backs.
Along with A.J. Green, the Bengals will be looking to keep Mixon around for the next handful of years. The former second-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft is entering the last year of his rookie contract and he’s proven his ability as one of the league’s most talented ball carriers over the past two seasons. The issue is attempting to appropriately compensate for the true value of being a great running back while avoiding a holdout situation like the Cowboys almost experienced with Ezekiel Elliott.
And as a brief reminder, the true value of a great running back does not equate financially to what the Cowboys begrudgingly handed over to Elliott. If you don’t know that by now, it’s because you don’t want to believe it.
Elliott’s specific deal (six years, $90M, $50M guaranteed) doesn’t seem like it’ll be replicated anytime soon, unless the Carolina Panthers foolishly use it as a benchmark for Christian McCaffery’s deal. There’s just too great of a risk in seeing that money going to waste too soon based on how things are trending.
What this means for the Bengals is that they’ve seen the market for running backs likely shrink by half its size just as the window for extending their own running back has opened. They’re already set to pay Giovani Bernard over $8M for the next two years and have intriguing depth options in Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson. Adding a behemoth contract for Mixon would create another imbalance in positional spending like the one we’re seeing at cornerback with Dre Kirkpatrick likely staying on. The difference between the two, however, is that cornerback is a significantly more valuable position than running back could ever dream to be in today’s NFL.
Instead, a more manageable deal for Mixon in the $8-9M AAV range would more accurately represent his value than a $14-15M AAV deal would. The Bengals would also presumably be able to get out of the deal if they need to, and at this point, it’s safe to assume that any team will need to in this situation.
This is all fine and dandy for Cincinnati, but Mixon himself probably isn’t feeling too good about it all.
Still just 23 years old at the time of this writing, this is Mixon’s one and only chance to break the bank in a time where his position is only decreasing in value. Had he entered the league a year or two earlier, he may’ve already been able to secure a Elliott or Le’Veon Bell-type deal.
The only arguments left for giving him a second contract like that involves subjective factors such as “perceived maturity” and “emotional impact to the franchise and fanbase”. While they make you feel good, justifications like that can disrupt truly effective roster construction if the player in question doesn’t objectively impact the game very much.
And make no mistake, Mixon is an extremely talent running back as well as a very likable personality. But for all the good he’s done, the Bengals’ offensive output doesn’t reflect his individual contributions, however impressive they’ve been. That’s just the nature of the sport now.
We’re about a month away from a first round in a draft that will likely feature no running backs taken and the NFL has had a collective realization of how risky it is throwing money at that position. It’s a telltale sign that Mixon’s extension this offseason will look much more affordable than what we previously thought it would be.