Christian McCaffrey's contract is an outlier for running backs, not a new bar

Other running backs may hope for a contract like the one Christian McCaffrey received from the Niners.

But his extension likely won't be the new benchmark for players at his position.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23)
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) / Thearon W. Henderson/GettyImages

While Christian McCaffrey set a new record for running back contracts, it might be a long while before another tailback receives that kind of payday.

The San Francisco 49ers just dished out a significant chunk of change for star running back Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, who was already the NFL's top-paid tailback at an annual average of just over $16 million, received a two-year extension that includes $24 million in guaranteed cash and now bumps his annual salary up to an average of $19 million.

By tacking on three void years to a deal that now expires in 2028 when McCaffrey will be 32 years old, the Niners actually created cap space in 2024, effectively pushing out the reigning Offensive Player of the Year's cap hit until later.

In terms of annual value, McCaffrey is now $4 million higher than the next highest-paid running back, the New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara, whose $15 million annual average was already trailing San Francisco's star prior to the extension.

So, is that a sign of things to come for running backs?

Probably not.

Don't expect other RBs to cash in like Christian McCaffrey

Like it or not, running backs are devalued in today's pass-happy NFL. This is evidenced by the relatively few first- and even second-round picks used on halfbacks in the draft every year, and it's even further reinforced by the reluctance of teams to extend rushers once their original rookie contracts expire.

Just ask ESPN's Matt Miller, who drew ire from running backs across the league for suggesting this kind of strategy:

Yes, there are outliers. And McCaffrey might be the chief among them.

The former Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick who found his way to the 49ers by way of a 2022 trade set an almost unreachable bar a year later by leading the league with 339 touches, 2,023 receiving yards and 21 total touchdowns.

In fact, "running back" might not be adequate enough a term to describe McCaffrey. "All-purpose offensive weapon" seems much more appropriate.

The rarity of these kinds of stars help illustrate why other top running backs likely won't come close to matching a McCaffrey-like deal anytime soon, at least not until average salaries at the position gradually catch up over the next few years.

To quote ESPN's Mina Kimes, "he's truly one of one."

Did 49ers overpay Christian McCaffrey?

On the surface, it might appear as if the Niners overpaid McCaffrey after already rostering him as the highest-paid tailback in the league prior to his new deal. Paired with head coach Kyle Shanahan's reputation of being able to plug nearly any running back into his offense, it seems as if such a deal was wholly unnecessary.

Well, not exactly.

Shanahan's offense has long shifted toward being "positionless" for many of its players. Case in point, wide receiver Deebo Samuel earned the moniker "wide back" for his All-Pro efforts in 2021 when he netted 1,770 all-purpose yards, 365 of which were on the ground, plus eight rushing touchdowns, which translated into an extension of his own that was valued at $23.85 million per year.

In that sense, McCaffrey's value to San Francisco goes beyond just the position, meaning his new contract should be compared with those of top offensive weapons regardless of position.

When viewed from that perspective, McCaffrey's contract is notably much more affordable.

Since he's such a rare player, though, other running backs aren't likely to match that kind of deal for a long, long time.

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