Running back play of the past decade ended with a bang thanks to Christian McCaffrey's historic 2019 campaign.
The Carolina Panthers third-year back became the third player in NFL history to post 1,000 rush yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and broke his own NFL record for single-season receptions by a running back. His impact on the offense couldn't have been more profound during a season that saw the Panthers play three different quarterbacks. McCaffrey has played 90-plus percent of the team's offensive snaps over the past two seasons.
There's one thing to be said about all that: PAY THE MAN.
Carolina can keep McCaffrey for two more years on his rookie deal if they exercise the contract's fifth-year option before May 30, but I have no doubt the team will get a long-term extension done with him this offseason. McCaffrey is the offensive focal point for a team that's starting anew at head coach, and perhaps at the quarterback position, as well. Several other running backs from the 2017 draft class have proved they should get new contracts, including Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, Cincinnati's Joe Mixon, Green Bay's Aaron Jones, Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara. (And I wouldn't be surprised if Kareem Hunt -- due to become a restricted free agent this offseason -- eventually earns some big money.)
While those guys should be rewarded for their play sooner rather than later, what about some of the running backs who have contracts that will expire this offseason? Here are five pending free agents who deserve long-term deals in 2020:
Derrick Henry: Heading into Week 15, I wrote about how Henry should reset the RB market in the offseason. That still stands three weeks later. Henry ran for a season-high 211 yards in Tennessee's Week 17 win over the Texans, securing the NFL rushing title and helping his team lock up a spot in the playoffs. Over the past two seasons, Henry has amassed 518 carries (third most) for 2,599 yards (second most) and 28 rush TDs (second most). Like I wrote last month, he has earned every penny of a market-resetting deal -- whether it comes from the Titans or another team -- given his play since becoming Tennessee's full-time starter in 2018.
Kenyan Drake: Drake has been a problem for defenses since he was traded from Miami to Arizona in October. He has thrived in Kliff Kingsbury's offense with eight rushing touchdowns since Week 9 (tied for second most in the league in that span) and an average of 5.2 yards per carry. He adds an element of explosiveness to the Cardinals' run game as a three-down back. Plus, with David Johnson seemingly being phased out, it makes plenty of sense for the team to do whatever it takes to keep Drake in Arizona for years to come.
Carlos Hyde: Hyde bounced back in a big way from a disappointing 2018 season split between the Jaguars and Browns. He's a strong, downhill runner with the ability to break off long runs (he had a career-high 8 carries of 20-plus yards in 2019). In fact, he has brought some toughness to a finesse offense, registering the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his six-year career. Coming off the best campaign of his career, he should be able to convince the Texans to stick with him and move on from fellow pending free agent Lamar Miller.
Austin Ekeler: Ekeler is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, which means the Chargers likely will be able to keep him for another year on a relatively inexpensive tender. But I think the Bolts should go ahead and lock him up long-term. He has already proven he can be the feature back in this offense after serving as the starter during Melvin Gordon's holdout early this season. Ekeler finished second in the league in receiving yards among running backs (993), and ranked ninth in yards from scrimmage (1,550).
Melvin Gordon: What a whirlwind season for Gordon. It started with a holdout that kept him away from the team during training camp, preseason and the first few regular-season games. Once back with the team, it took him a while to find his footing, and he found himself splitting carries with Ekeler, who had the hot hand for most of the 2019 season. I don't see Gordon re-joining the Chargers for their inaugural season at SoFi Stadium, but he will get paid by a running back-needy team. There's no doubt about that, as the two-time Pro Bowler has logged at least eight rush TDs in four straight seasons.
Now, let's get to the weekly rankings ...
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his TOP 10 each week for the final month of the 2019 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list after the conclusion of the regular season.
As I pointed out earlier, McCaffrey, who held the pole position in my rankings since Week 5, had one of the best campaigns by a running back in the history of the NFL, finishing with an incredible 2,392 scrimmage yards (third most of all time). It's too bad the Carolina Panthers had such a disappointing season because McCaffrey's campaign deserved more love than it received.
Chubb was great from start to finish in 2019 as the most productive element of the Browns offense. Having come so close to winning the league rushing title in 2019, Chubb will enter the 2020 season on a mission and is certainly capable of repeating this season's performance -- it just depends on who Cleveland has running the show.
Elliott is the only player in the top five who didn't have a career year, which says a lot about the type of talent he is. He consistently puts up top-tier numbers and that didn't change after he signed a contract just before Week 1 that made him the league's highest-paid running back.
Mixon said this week that he wants to be a "Bengal for life." I think that's a possibility for the running back after watching him grow on the field and off it over the last three seasons. Cincinnati would be smart to lock up Mixon this offseason, considering he's racked up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons behind that line. That's the reason Mixon sits at No. 6 here. I'm astonished that he was able to perform at such a high level in that offense.
Before a shoulder injury sidelined him late in the season, Jacobs was making a big push to become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He broke several franchise records along the way, and gives the Raiders' rushing attack a solid foundation to build on for years to come.
At the beginning of the season, I believed that Carson or Rashaad Penny could emerge as the Seahawks' RB1. Carson not only established himself as the top running back in Seattle but solidified his standing as one of the league's best at his position, finishing fifth in rush yards for the second year in a row. That's why Carson's season-ending hip injury in Week 16 was so heartbreaking for him and the Seahawks, who head into Wild Card Weekend without the injured Carson, Penny and C.J. Prosise.
Ingram surpassed my expectations in Baltimore, as the offense was even more explosive than I initially thought. Having one 1,000-yard rusher is impressive, let alone two with one being the quarterback. I truly believe the slam-dunk MVP Lamar Jackson wouldn't have been as successful without the physical and veteran presence of Ingram in the backfield. Luckily for this unit, Ingram is playing some of his best football nine seasons into his career.