Why the Panthers bucked the trend with Christian McCaffrey's contract

McCaffrey agrees to extension making him the highest-paid RB (1:19)

Dan Orlovsky hopes Christian McCaffrey bucks the trend of high-paid running backs underperforming after signing big contracts. (1:19)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was the week before the 2017 NFL draft, and then-Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren was gushing so much about running back Christian McCaffrey that it begged the question: What’s his downside?

Bloomgren paused and chuckled: “He left before his senior year, so I don’t get to coach him another year. I sound like I’m anointing this guy as the second coming ... but what I am telling you, as a football player, as a kid, as a guy you want around my own children."

The Carolina Panthers saw no downside, making McCaffrey the eighth overall pick.

They've been right so far, as McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in one season.

That’s why in an era when running backs have been devalued in terms of super-rich, long-term second deals, Carolina was willing on Monday to anoint the 23-year-old McCaffrey the highest-paid back in NFL history, with an average of $16 million per year in a four-year extension.

New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, the next high-profile backs in line for extensions, are certainly paying attention.

The whole league has to be after the Los Angeles Rams recently released running back Todd Gurley two years after he signed a four-year, $60 million extension and the Los Angeles Chargers moved on from Melvin Gordon before he could get a big, long-term payday.

Judging from the social media response, the Panthers made the right move. New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas tweeted, “Yesssirr smart money.” Former Carolina tight end Greg Olsen wrote, “Beyond deserving.”

The accolades, similar to those from Bloomgren three years ago, went on and on.

When you break down details of the deal, the Panthers indeed appear to have made the right move. Considering what McCaffrey will make this season under his rookie contract and the value of the fifth-year option, his new contract essentially equates to a six-year deal worth $12.5 million per year.

That’s a relative bargain for the most versatile back in the league, and it guarantees that the Panthers will get McCaffrey’s best years. This contract will expire before he turns 30, an age when the production of backs typically declines.

The deal also gives first-year coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady someone to build around as the Dallas Cowboys did with Ezekiel Elliott, who last year got a six-year, $90 million deal that at the time made him the highest-paid back, at $15 million per year.

Why is McCaffrey worth more? He can do more as a receiver.

McCaffrey represents all that Rhule wants in a player in terms of performance, work ethic and commitment to excellence in the community.

McCaffrey recently began a “22andYou” program to help raise money for health care heroes in the coronavirus pandemic. He added another layer to that last week by playing a short concert online to raise funds.

“He really builds to the culture you want to have within the building,” Rhule said. “We want to be a serious football place. We want to be a place that is all about the game. That’s who Christian McCaffrey is.”

McCaffrey has become the face of an organization that recently moved on from franchise quarterback Cam Newton and in January lost middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to retirement at the age of 28.

“[McCaffrey is] going to be a special player for us,” Rhule said.

McCaffrey has been special to the Panthers since the day they drafted him. Former Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, who shared the backfield with McCaffrey in 2017, saw it immediately.

"He's pretty unstoppable, as far as coming out of the backfield and running routes," Stewart said during the 2017 training camp. “I can tell you now there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one.”

McCaffrey has rushed for 2,485 yards and 22 touchdowns and caught 223 passes for 1,872 yards and 10 touchdowns the past two seasons. In each of those seasons, he broke the league’s single-season record for receptions by a running back: 107 in 2018 and 117 in 2019.

He has been the most durable back in the league, too, playing 93.5% of Carolina’s offensive snaps this past season and 91.3% the previous season. Elliott, by comparison, played 83.4% of Dallas’ snaps. Kamara played 58.7% of the snaps for New Orleans.

Durability is important, considering the criticism that general manager Marty Hurney has taken over the years for giving big extensions to running backs, including the five-year, $42.5 million extension he gave Stewart in 2012, one year after he gave running back DeAngelo Williams a five-year, $43 million extension.

That fall, Stewart began a series of injuries that sidelined him for 20 games over three seasons.

McCaffrey hasn’t missed any of his first 48 games. Also, he won’t turn 24 until June 7. Kamara and Cook will be 25 before this season.

“[McCaffrey] shows everybody how to work on and off the field with his practice habits, the way he finishes runs in practice like it’s the Super Bowl,” said Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice. “Somebody was an average, marginal NFL talent with his work ethic, I’ve seen those guys stick in the NFL for eight years.

“Now you’re talking about somebody with elite athletic ability, elite change of direction and running a 4.4 combined with that work ethic and feel for the game, and you’re going to enjoy watching him.”

With this new deal, the Panthers can enjoy watching McCaffrey for a long time.