Background: Dec 15, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake (41) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half against the Cleveland Browns at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian
One of the great NFL debates over the past few years has been just how much NFL teams should value the RB position.
My own opinion comes down to one simple point—-if your RB touches the football more than any other offensive players (other than the QB), then the case can be made that the RB is most important skill player.
As NFL fans have become increasingly aware, many NFL GMs have sworn that they would never take a RB in the 1st round of the NFL draft. Much of this has to do with the expected shelf life on an NFL RB, which means that for teams that draft a RB in Round 1, they would likely only have that player for 4-5 years. Because, as fans know, things get a little sticky when teams try to sign RBs to second contracts.
Jeremy Fowler of ESPN Insider has been polling NFL GMs as to how they rank players at each position. This week he and the GMs took a close look at the RBs:
Guess who the top 3 are?
Yup, you got it:
- Saquon Barkley, NYG
- Christian McCaffrey, CAR
- Ezekiel Elliott, DAL
What do all three of these RBs have in common?
Yup, that’s right, all three were 1st round picks.
Saquon Barkley is heading into the third year on his 1st Round rookie contract and at $7.8M he’s the #8 highest paid RB in the NFL. Despite the fallout from recent high paid RB disappointments such as Todd Gurley (4/$60M) and David Johnson (3/$39M), the Panthers and Cowboys have recently made Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott the top paid RBs in the NFL, with McCaffrey signing this spring for 4 years @ $64M ($16M a year) and Elliott signing in 2019 for 6 years @ $90M ($15M a year).
Of all the current NFL RBs, Christian McCaffrey makes the most compelling case to be the highest paid because he is the consummate triple threat at the position—-rushing, receiving and blocking. McCaffrey pulled off a rare feat this past season as he was named twice to the 1st Team All-Pro offense, as the #1 RB and as the #1 “Flex” runner/receiver.
It is in this spirit of the triple-threat RB that the Cardinals have recently invested heavily at the position. With David Johnson, the Cardinals made two avoidable mistakes, in my opinion: (1) signing Johnson (following his 2018 minicamp holdout) to a 3 year $39M contract extension through 2021 with one year remaining on his rookie 3rd round contract and with him coming off back to back games where he was knocked out of the game, with the knee injury versus the Rams in Week 17 of his historic 2016 season and with the broken wrist injury he incurred versus the Lions in Week 1 of the 2017 that placed him on the season-ending IR.
(2) The second mistake was, after signing Johnson to the lucrative deal, hiring Mike McCoy as OC, who clearly lacked the requisite imagination and play calling innovation to maximize Johnson’s unique talents as a runner and receiver. One could argue that by running DJ into a brick wall, 7 man box ad nauseam in 2018, it took a lot of the fun and aggressiveness out of the game for him—-and for the entire offense, for that matter.
Coming off his 2018 hammering, in 2019 DJ was asked to play for his 4th OC in 3 years—-and while Kliff Kingsbury brought the kind of imagination and innovation that a multi-dimensional RB like DJ could thrive under—-as Cardinals’ fans know, it takes a while for DJ to feel comfortable with his assignments in any offense.
On the flip side, once DJ and Chase Edmonds were injured, when the Cardinals traded for Kenyan Drake, Drake came right in and not only learned Kingsbury’s offense about as quickly as any coach could imagine, Drake immediately excelled in his first game and was giving Kingsbury and Sean Kugler the kind of all-purpose ability they were looking for.
This off-season the Cardinals made it clear that one of their top priorities was re-signing Kenyan Drake—-which helped pave the way for the Cardinals’ trade with the Texans which sent DJ to Houston and WR DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona.
While the Cardinals made every effort to try to sign Drake to a multi-year deal, Drake, empowered by his 8 game success with the Cardinals, the best 8 game stretch of his 4 year career, was asking to be paid like a top 10 RB. So, rather than make a lucrative long term decision, the Cardinals elected to use the transition tag on Drake, which he readily accepted because his full $8.5M salary (#6 highest RB salary in NFL) is a top 10 RB salary and by virtue of the tag it is guaranteed.
When one looks at some of the stats and analytics, the Cardinals have done Kenyan Drake quite a favor by tagging him at $8.5M. In ESPN’s poll of NFL GMs, neither DJ nor DK was listed in the top 15 RBs on their list—-if you are curious and were unable to open the link the GMs’ top 15 RBs are 1—-Barkley (NYG); 2—-McCaffrey (CAR); 3—-Elliott (DAL); 4—-Kamara (NO); 5—-Henry (TEN); 6—-Cook (MIN); 7—-Chubb (CLE); 8—-Mixon (CIN); 9—-Jacobs (LV); 10—-Bell (NYJ); 11—-Jones (GB); 12—-Carson (SEA); 13—-Connor (PIT); 14—-Gordon (DEN); 15—-Fournette (JAX).
The top 10 highest paid RBs in 2020: 1—-McCaffrey ($16M); 2—-Elliott ($15M); 3—-Bell ($13.1M); 4—-Johnson (HOU—-$13M); 5—-Henry ($10.3; 6—-Drake (ARI—-$8.5M), 7—-Gordon ($8M); 9—-Fournette (6.8M); 10—-Ekeler (LAC—-$6.1M).
The top 10 graded RBs in running game 2019 (per PFF)—-based on running, fumbling and blocking metrics:
- 88.7—-Nick Chubb
- 87.3—-Josh Jacobs
- 87.1—-Christian McCaffrey
- 85.2—-Austin Ekeler
- 85.1—-Aaron Jones
- 81.4—-Dalvin Cook
- 79.8—-Mark Ingram
- 77.9—-Chris Carson
- 77.0—-Ezekiel Elliott
- 76.2—-Derrick Henry
20. 72.2—-David Johnson
23. 71.2—-Kenyan Drake
The top 10 RBs in the passing game (RBs with over 250 yds. receiving), based on receiving, drops, fumbles and pass blocking metrics (per PFF):
1. 93.6—-Ekeler; 2. 92.4—-McCaffrey; 3. 89.8—-Connor; 4. 85.3—-James White; 5. 83.4—-Kareem Hunt; 6. 82.2—-Aaron Jones; 7. 80.8—-DeAndre Washington; 8. 77.3—-Bell; 9. 74.7—-Miles Sanders; 10. 74.5—-David Johnson
19. 65.1—-Kenyan Drake
2015: 71.9 ....................... 2016: 65.6
2016: 79.9........................2017: 74.4
2018: 64.1........................2018: 65.6
2019: 72.7.........................2019: 71.2
Ave: 72.2..........................Ave: 69.2
DJ-Rushing: 781/3,128/4.0/33-TDs.-Receiving: 208/2,219/10.7/15-TDsTotal: 5,347 yds., 48-TDs
KD-Rushing: 456/2,175/4.8/17-TDs-Receiving: 144/1,107/7.7/6-TDsTotal: 3,283 yds., 23-TDs
2020 Cap Hits:
DJ: $11.2M......KD: $8.5M
2021 Cap Hits:
DJ: $9.0M......KD: UFA
DJ: 28....KD: 26
DJ: 6-1, 224...KD: 6-1, 211
DJ: 4.50....KD: 4.45
DJ: 41.5”....KD: 34.5”
DJ: 127”...KD: 124”
DJ: 6.82...KD: 7.04
What those numbers suggest:
Drake is faster and Johnson is more explosive.
Where DJ could have the advantage over KD in 2020:
Giant chip on his shoulder, playing for coach who will ride him like BA did in 2016 and could have huge season if he can learn his 4th offense in 5 years while avoiding the injury bug.
Where DK could have the advantage over DJ in 2020:
2 years younger, is lead RB (first time in career) in a system that caters to his strengths, more tread on tires, minimal injury history—-the question is can he hold up and be as productive as the bell cow RB for the entire season as he was in 8 games for the Cardinals in 2019?
You make the call: Who has the bigger year: DJ or KD?