How Do Star Running Backs Perform After Signing Big Contracts? (Fantasy Football)

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…or, “The Far-Fetched Case Against Drafting Christian McCaffrey First Overall.”

During the offseason, the fantasy football community is inundated with hot takes, bold predictions, and lengthy arguments about every player’s ADP. But there’s one thing all fantasy managers can agree on this year: Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey should be the first overall draft pick in all league formats.

McCaffrey absolutely dominated last season. His 413.2 total fantasy points (in half PPR) were not only good enough to make him 2019’s clear RB1, but it was more than the total points between the WR1 (Michael Thomas: 225.6) and TE1 (Travis Kelce: 157.3) COMBINED. Out of all players – including QBs – McCaffrey had the second most fantasy points overall, only coming behind the ultimate fantasy cheat code, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.

However, McCaffrey would prove to be the lone bright spot of a disastrous 5-11 season that ultimately resulted in the departures of their former MVP QB Cam Newton, head coach stalwart Ron Rivera, and defensive staple LB Luke Kuechly. To spark their rebirth, the Panthers went out and signed veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater, former Baylor coach Matt Rhule, and re-signed McCaffrey with a record-shattering 4-year, $64,063,500 contract that includes $38,162,500 guaranteed (GTD).

Panthers owner David Tepper was certainly unafraid to pay up for his guy.

But now that Carolina has their star offensive playmaker for the foreseeable future, will Tepper, Rhule, and the rest of the regime want to continue throwing McCaffrey out there to make play after play, potentially risking his long-term health? His usage has only skyrocketed with every succeeding season. From his 2017 rookie year to 2019:

[lptw_table id=”164893″ style=”default”]

That is insane volume, and McCaffrey has proven durable thus far by not sustaining any major injuries or needing time off. He rightfully deserves to be the #1 draft pick in all fantasy formats given his production.

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However, football is a brutal, unforgiving, collision sport, and no one is unbreakable forever…so is there any concern about McCaffrey’s high usage that could be used as an argument against drafting him at 1.01?

Testing the Theory

An oft wondered thought within the fantasy football community is whether running backs will lose touches after they’ve signed a huge contract extension in order to preserve their health for the long-term. For the purposes of this exercise, I will look back at the last five years and identify RBs who’ve signed similarly colossal contracts with the same team, then compare their fantasy-relevant stats from before and after signing.

Some notes on the methodology:

  • Reviewed the top-5 running back salaries in cap number for each year per Over The Cap, then identified those that had signed a new contract that year.
  • Compared stats from the season prior to signing contract and the season after; stats via The Fantasy Footballers Ultimate Draft Kit, Fantasy Data, and Football Outsiders.
  • New contract/extension must be with the same team; does not include franchise tags (e.g. Le’Veon Bell in 2017 & 2018 with the Steelers, etc.) or contracts with new teams (e.g. Lamar Miller with the Texans in 2016, Bell again in 2019 with the Jets, etc.).

Here are the RBs that meet the above criteria:

[lptw_table id=”164894″ style=”default”]

Here’s how their stats compared in the season after signing vs the season before:

[*Note: Adrian Peterson (suspension) and David Johnson (injury) both only played one game in the season before signing their respective contracts, so data from the prior season was used instead] [lptw_table id=”164895″ style=”default”]
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[lptw_table id=”164896″ style=”default”]

“What does it all mean, Basil?”

Right away, it’s evident that aside from ageless legend Adrian Peterson, all other RBs performed worse in nearly every metric AFTER signing their huge contracts extensions.

The data also reveals that while their number of touches (rushing attempts plus receptions) per game were not significantly changed, albeit slightly lowered, their total touches decreased considerably for most players:

Based on the above charts, one can infer that coaches are not afraid to continue relying on their stud RBs and will continue feeding them at a high rate, but by the end of the year their total numbers suffer. A possible explanation is found when comparing the total number of games played, as most of the players showed a decrease:

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This difference could allow us to infer that they’re likely unable to sustain such high usage and will eventually succumb to injury; however, this theory clearly did not apply to everyone in the sample.

But we’re here to talk about fantasy football, so what about their fantasy numbers? Like the previous charts, the ones below show that while their average fantasy points per game were relatively the same (and even improved for some), their total fantasy points at the end of the year were generally LOWERED by a significant amount:

Addressing the Anomaly

As mentioned earlier, the only outlier appears to be the everlasting one, Adrian Peterson. However, his 2015 contract was actually a restructured contract from his original extension in 2011. If we instead compare his stats from before and after his first contract extension, then his results become much more in line with the others:

[lptw_table id=”164903″ style=”default”] [lptw_table id=”164904″ style=”default”] [lptw_table id=”164905″ style=”default”]
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Cherry-picking concerns aside, these results are virtually unanimously unfavorable for RBs – especially in regards to fantasy output.

I know, I know, “correlation does not imply causation,” and this is admittedly too small of a sample size to deter anyone away from drafting McCaffrey at 1.01 (nor should it). But there’s something to be said about teams that invest heavily in retaining their star RBs, only to discover they’re in the midst of athletic and/or performance deterioration. Fun fact: five of the eight teams involved in this study saw their win-loss records worsen, some to a substantial amount.

So what does that say about McCaffrey and other stud RBs that have or will sign similarly large contract extensions? Based on these findings, there are valid concerns that while these elite rushers should maintain the same usage and production, they are more likely to end the season with lower fantasy totals that will prevent them from improving – or even maintaining – their coveted RB1 status.

Mo’ money mo’ problems, indeed.


Bob says:

Why at the bottom did you seemingly arbitrarily start the axes at 17.5 and 16? You seem to have done that to support your conclusions because it’s a big no-no when using bars.

Kvnklly says:

Why did you skip over zeke? I would have dove more in depth for zeke than AP. He was virtually the same rb before and after the contract. 6 point difference on 3 less touches per game is about as insignificant as you can get

Observer says:

Great idea and great analysis. This does make intuitive sense. I wonder if coaches would think to conserve star running backs when offenses are expected to underperform in a given year. Since Matt Rhule has such a long and large contract, it would make sense to conserve McCaffrey for next year when Carolina will undoubtedly be better.

WalkItLikeILockett says:

This is a great analysis Peter. Very thoughtful. I’ve looked for data regarding how RBs perform in the last year of their contract. Do you think you could run a similar analysis for that data? I guess it would be the inverse of this? But i think it’s different…because not all the RBs get paid those big contracts you mentioned here. This article (link below) attempts to capture the “contract year performance” of RBs … what are your thoughts?

amoore31321 says:

So you’re saying Mahomes should go number 1 over McCaffrey in a Dynasty Superflex Startup League?

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