If you play fantasy football, you've probably noticed that this hasn't been a great season for the league's most prominent running backs. This past week alone saw Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and Minnesota's Dalvin Cook leave games due to injuries, with the former now out for the season. The Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott limped in and out of the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Raiders. Tennessee's Derrick Henry and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara weren't in the lineup after suffering injuries earlier this season.

The rash of absences and injuries leads to another round of the seemingly endless debate surrounding one of the league's most conspicuous positions. Are NFL teams who pay running backs significant money doomed to regret their decision? The conversation gets folded into broader arguments about running backs in the NFL, some of which are bad faith, but it would be impossible to pay attention to the league and not notice how difficult it has been for running backs to sustain their production deep into their second contracts.

The more nuanced position that has popped up over the past few years, both inside and outside of the league, is to acknowledge that running back contracts are generally a bad idea but that a specific deal is likely to work out. Everyone knows the rules at this point, but backs routinely get held up as the exception to the overwhelming evidence that these contracts don't often work out.

So today, I'll run through the highest-paid backs in football and evaluate what the arguments were for those players to be the "exceptions" at the time they signed their deals, as well as what has since happened. There are eight backs in the NFL whose contracts have an annual average value (AAV) of $12 million or more, with the next tier topping out at $8 million. It seems reasonable to focus on those top eight backs. It should be noted that this group doesn't include Todd Gurley II, Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson, each of whom signed deals for more than $12 million over the past three years, only for their teams to abandon those deals before the 2021 season.

 

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

AAV: $16 million

Why he was different: McCaffrey's track record of health before signing his extension in 2020 was pristine. The Stanford star missed one game in school because of a pulled groin and sat out by choice for a bowl game, but he had otherwise been available for every single contest between getting to college and finishing his third pro season. The Panthers had upped McCaffrey's snap count to north of 90% in 2018 and 2019 with no ill effects. Any player can get injured, but there was no reason to think that McCaffrey would suddenly struggle to stay on the field.

What has happened since: McCaffrey has struggled to stay on the field. The 25-year-old has started and finished just seven games over the past two seasons while dealing with a sprained shoulder, thigh and hamstring issues, and injuries to both ankles. An undisclosed injury to his ankle suffered during Sunday's loss to the Dolphins forced McCaffrey from the game and to injured reserve for the second time in 2021, ending the star back's season.

McCaffrey has been productive when available, but the only realistic way to look at his 2019 and 2020 seasons is as two lost years. If the Panthers had gone year-to-year with McCaffrey, they would have paid their star back about $10 million for those two frustrating campaigns. Instead, they paid McCaffrey just over $30.5 million. He's still on the books for $44 million over the next four seasons, a deal McCaffrey probably wouldn't match in free agency this offseason if he were on the market.

 

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

AAV: $15 million

Why he was different: Unlike backs who had emerged after being drafted in the middle and later rounds, Elliott was a premium, throwback prospect. Like McCaffrey, Elliott had been remarkably healthy for a running back, with only a wrist injury in college and a strained hamstring suffered during the preseason of his rookie campaign as notable ailments.

Elliott had missed eight games during his first three seasons, but those included two meaningless Week 17 games and a six-game suspension for domestic abuse. The Cowboys' offense fell off precipitously during Elliott's suspension, leading to a widely held argument that Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott needed Elliott on the field to play at a high level. As a team that ran at the seventh-highest rate in football in neutral situations on early downs between 2016 and 2018, the Cowboys were built around Elliott. You have to pay that guy.