Running backs are expensive. There’s no way around it. As a premier position on offense, it takes significant money to keep elite talent at the position. Alvin Kamara would be no different.
Has #Saints RB Alvin Kamara thought about his contract situation? “We'll see what gets done. I'm obviously in my third year of my rookie contract, so we'll see. Might be something going on.” More on RapSheet + Friends: https://t.co/morHYvWW0u— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 29, 2020
Well the question now is: what would a potential Kamara extension look like?
Let’s look at recent extensions for running backs to get an idea.
Before the 2018 season, David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals, entering his age 27 season, signed a 3-year extension worth “only” $39 million, with $30 million of it guaranteed at signing. Johnson was coming off a significant hand injury, playing in only one game the year before, but two years removed from leading the league in total yards and touchdowns. Two months earlier, Todd Gurley and the Los Angeles Rams agreed to a 4-year contract worth $60 million. Like Johnson in 2016, Gurley led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2017, immediately before signing his contract extension in 2018. Gurley’s deal included $45 million in guarantees with an average salary of just over $14 million per year, re-setting the running back contract market.
Most recently, before the 2019 season, Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys agreed on a 6-year contract worth $90 million, averaging $15 million per year, with over $28 million guaranteed at signing and over $50 million guaranteed over the life of the contract. Zeke was entering his age 24 season, coming off his first three years in the NFL, leading the league in average rushing yards per game.
Let’s look at Zeke and Kamara through their first three seasons.
Kamara played in 45 games in his first three years, missing a couple of games due to injury the past two seasons. Zeke played in only 40 games in three years, missing the majority of his games due to a suspension in 2017. Kamara averaged 53.5 rushing yards per game over the first three years of his career, while Zeke averaged 101.2. But then Kamara averaged 50 yards in the air per game, and Zeke averaged only 30. That means, in total yards, Kamara averaged 103.5 compared to Zeke’s 131.2 - still less, but due in no small part to the presence of Mark Ingram in Kamara’s first two years and Latavius Murray last season.
Zeke was entering his age 24 season before he signed his extension, and Kamara is entering his age 25 season, as Kamara is three years younger than Zeke, but Kamara entered the league one year later than Zeke, playing an extra year in college.
While Zeke has been in Dallas, there hasn’t been another running back to threaten for touches, save for maybe Tony Pollard last year, but that was after Zeke signed his extension. Kamara has always had another capable - if no Pro Bowl-caliber - back alongside him in the New Orleans backfield. What Kamara could do with the same volume of touches afforded to Elliott in the Dallas offense (Zeke averaged 25 touches per game in his first three season while Kamara averages only 16). It’s an unknown if Kamara could put up numbers equal to or better than Zeke with Zeke’s level of touches, or if that amount of touches would wear Kamara down over the course of a game or season, gradually rendering him less effective.
If you’re opposed to paying Kamara top dollar, you use this unknown as an excuse to justify paying him less. If you’re in the Kamara camp, you use this same unknown as the reason to justify making him the highest-paid back in the league. No matter how you feel about it, though, the latter is the likely outcome.
Such is the name of the game, though - each big name player at a position who is up for a contract usually re-sets the market and becomes the highest-paid player at the position. It happened with Gurley, so Zeke needed more than Gurley.
We can all hope that Kamara gives the Saints some sort of discount or he doesn’t insist on re-setting the running back market again, but not one would blame him if he did what he could to secure the most money possible for himself and his family. Now that Zeke got his contract, Kamara now has the opportunity to ask for even more.
This means you would be looking at a contract with an average salary north of Zeke’s $15 million per year. What was also ground-breaking in Zeke’s contract with the length - the longest extension given to running backs before was four years (to Gurley, Johnson, Le’Veon Bell... basically everyone else). Granted, Zeke’s contract had a built-in “out” after the 2022 season, where the Cowboys could elect to take a dead cap hit of $6.7 million in 2023 as opposed to paying Zeke $58 million over the course of the next four seasons.
Knowing the Saints and Mickey Loomis, it’s likely Loomis could try to get creative extend Kamara the “typical” four years, at an average salary of ~$15.5 million per year, but include some sort of “on paper” years that help spread out his cap hit. That likely doesn’t matter one bit to Kamara. When considering the percentage of each contract that is guaranteed, the average seems to be around 53-56% (Zeke at 56% guaranteed, Le’Veon at 52%, and Devonta Freeman at 53%). As long as Kamara gets his money, he likely doesn’t care about the accounting magic Mickey Loomis has to pull.
That means I would anticipate a Kamara deal coming in somewhere around four years, $62 million, with $35 million guaranteed at signing. Such a deal would keep Kamara through his age 28 season, an age generally regarded as the peak of a running back’s career.
But Kamara could take things a different way. Instead of shooting for the highest average annual salary, Kamara could choose to prioritize the guaranteed money. Maybe a contract of $55 million over four years, fully guaranteed, would be more enticing. That would equate to an average salary of $13.75 million per year. Zeke’s previous contract with $50 million in guarantees was $5 million more in guarantees than Gurley, so while settling in terms of average salary, Kamara would be re-setting the market in terms of total guaranteed money.
Again, we can all hope for less, but even coming off a “down” year for Kamara - the worst year of his three-year career in 2019 - he’s still one of the top running backs in the league, and he deserves to be paid as such. Whether it’s in average salary per year or the amount in guarantees, Kamara is likely going to be the highest-paid running back in the NFL. We can all just hope it’s an agreement both sides can reach quickly without fear of any holdout and that the Saints don’t immediately look back and regret this deal as the Los Angeles Rams likely already do with Gurley.