Let’s talk about the Rhamondre Stevenson extension (2024)

There’s a part in Jeff Benedict’s The Dynasty (not to be confused with the propaganda miniseries of the same name) where then-head coach Bill Parcells talks about how negotiating contract extensions used to go in the pre-salary cap era. Before the NFL instituted the salary cap in 1994, the process with Bill Parcells and his players’ agents went something like this:

-identify all the good players on your roster

-determine “are they still going to be good if/when I give them another contract” (which frequently just translates to “are you over 30 yet”)

-either the player’s agent or the team throws out a starting dollar figure

-both sides just do the “$50!”. “$25.” “45.” “$30.” I-give-a-little-you-give-a-little haggling that you’d do if you were buying a guitar on Craigslist

-Eventually you meet in the middle, the numbers guys in the office cross the t’s and dot the lowercase j’s, and, that’s that.

It’s not exactly as glamorous as Entourage, but hey, it got the job done, and in those days, it’s not like you could only spend X amount of dollars on your roster. The only limit was the owner’s willingness to splash the pot and your imagination!

(nobody tell Cowboys and 49ers fans that this Wild West of salary management helped them win all those Super Bowls and Bill Belichick’s mastery of the salary-cap world makes the Patriots dynasty even more impressive. They hate that.)

So to bring it back to the 2024 Patriots, going into this season, it sure seems like Eliot Wolf and Jerod Mayo were following a similar approach. Despite all the Sports Shouting guys demanding that everyone be cut or traded because “why would you keep anyone from a 4-13 dumpster fire team?!?”, the first thing the post-Belichick Patriots management did was find the good players that can you can build around that need new contracts, and sign ‘em.

Highly controversial, I know.

Enter Rhamondre Stevenson, the fan-favorite running back who, if we’re being real about it, was probably somewhere between 5th and 13th on our fanbase’s collective “gotta re-sign this guy” list in March. There’s also the wild card of which side of the dreaded “do running backs matter” debate you fall on, especially so after for 20 years, Bill Belichick frequently found good-to-playable-in-fantasy level production with a mix of rookies, free agents, and the occasional Kevin Faulk/James White diamond in the rough.

Rhamondre’s extension flies in the face of all that. Granted, we’re not exactly talking about an Adrian Peterson-level megadeal here. Like Oliver Thomas noted last week, the deal is for 4 years, has a max value of $36,000,000, and roughly half of that ($17 million) is guaranteed. $8 million of the guarantees comes in the form of a signing bonus, and there’s also a handful of incentives that could (emphasis on “could”) push the total value of the contract up to $48 million.

(don’t fret about those incentives, by the way. Most of them are in the form of yards from scrimmage and Pro Bowl/All-Pro awards, and Stevenson would have to have borderline Christian McCaffrey-level production to even hit most of them. Which, as the saying goes, would be a great problem to have)

This is the full incentive package for Rhamondre Stevenson, broken down by year and incentive. It begins in 2025 and can give Stevenson’s extension a max value of $48M. https://t.co/90qpi4AHwn pic.twitter.com/cX3kFE17L9

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 20, 2024

If you’re still one of those that wants to draft a running back every 4 years and never pay one more than $987,000 a year, nothing that follows here is going to change your mind on whether this is a good deal for the Patriots to make or not. For the other 95% of Patriots nation, though, let’s run down some pro/cons beyond simply “is paying your good football players good”.

Continuity

Brian Hines talked about this already in his Monday contract analysis article, but the running theme of Year 1 of the Mayo/Wolf management team has been “if one of our own is worth keeping, let’s keep ‘em”. You don’t get any bonus points for continuity just for continuity’s sake. You do, however, get points for recognizing that this isn’t Madden and you can’t just assume that, say, a free agent guard would’ve given you 80% of Michael Onwenu’s production for 50% of the price, or that any old street RB free agent would’ve had the same work ethic/skillset/toughness/loyalty/etc that Rhamondre Stevenson has already shown us for the past 3 seasons.

With Rhamondre back in the fold for the rest of the decade, that’s years that him and the offensive line can really learn to play as a unit, whether that’s the aforementioned Onwenu, Sidy Sow, Antonio Mafi, rookies Caeden Wallace and Layden Robinson, or (gulp) Cole Strange. And the presence of steady, reliable, familiar faces year after year might be most important of all to....

Drake Maye

Now that the football gods gifted the Patriots the quarterback a significant number of us wanted all along, EVERY decision this franchise makes has to be laser focused on giving Drake Maye every chance to succeed. Every frickin’ truism about why Mac Jones failed cannot be repeated. That means on the personnel side, spend the resources - draft picks, free agency dollars, whatever - to build an offensive line that he can not just survive, but thrive behind. Get him the skill position players that’ll make Maye not have to be perfect on every single throw. Get him a running back who can bang between the tackles, get outside on stretch runs, help as a checkdown, show out as a legit downfield passing mismatch, and excel in pass protection. Put another way, don’t make it like some of the latter-day Brady-era Super Bowls where the run game suddenly was nowhere to be found and we were looking at Tom like “....please can you be the GOAT again?”

Rhamondre’s proven all that. You know what, let’s talk about what a Swiss Army knife he is a little more.

Versatility

Aside from watching as many 2023 Patriots games as you could stomach last season, if you had Stevenson in fantasy, you were likely cursing the day you drafted him. After a banger of a 2022 season, a perfect storm of being banged up, the offense in general looking like they’d never played a snap together before, and frequently being down double digits before halftime led to Stevenson barely matching his rookie season’s stat production before he was shut down with a high ankle sprain after Week 13 and eventually placed on Injured Reserve.

Believe it or not, though, there are a couple of bright spots in Rhamondre’s numbers from ‘23 that - if you’re not the doomer type - might bode that he’s still improving, and at minimum slightly outperformed his 2022 stats in areas such as:

  • Rushing Success Rate - Pro Football Reference defines Rushing Success as “gaining at least 40% of the yards required on 1st down, 60% of the yards required on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd or 4th down”. Pretty straightfoward; it’s “are you getting us significantly closer to picking up a 1st down”. In 2022 - the year everyone who drafted Stevenson in fantasy looked like a genius - his rushing success rate was 45.7%. Pretty good! Almost as good as in 2023, when despite the sh*tstorm going on around him, his success rate improved to 49.4%.
  • Yards per Reception - again, incremental improvement from 2022 in spite of *waves hands at the 2023 Patriots offense*. It’s gonna be tough for Rhamondre to match his 8.8 yards/reception from his rookie campaign - for reference purposes, 8.8 yards/reception is a normal Christian McCaffrey receiving season - but he did bump up his 6.1 yards/reception from 2022 up to 6.3. That doesn’t sound like much of anything, but keep in mind we’re grading on a Bill O’Brien/Matt Patricia curve here.
  • Finally, that explosive juice that makes Rhamondre a breakaway threat is still in there somewhere. Stevenson’s yards per carry visibly went down in 2023 (5.0 vs 4.0), but he still managed to rip off a career long run of 64 yards. All while shouldering the primary workload as Zeke Elliot was mostly a change-of-pace option.

Now let’s switch it up a bit and talk about The Market - was this a good investment? Should the Patriots have let Mondre play out the last year of his deal and then do the ol’ “let him go out and find his value and we’ll see if we can match it”?

Money, the salary cap, and the draft argument

If you’re against paying running backs in principle, then the money the Patriots gave Rhamondre Stevenson is going to grind your gears for as long as he’s on the team. And that’s ok, in the sense that “not wanting to pay a running back is certainly an opinion you can have”.

If you’re amenable to the Patriots using the resources that they have in the best way that they’re able to at the moment, though, the simple argument in favor of the Stevenson extension is even if you get some sticker shock, it’s not really that much money.

We don’t have the exact numbers on the year-by-year cap hits with this new deal yet, but here’s what PatsCap is expecting as of today:

Sometime this week we will learn the details of the Rhamondre Stevenson extension. I expect it to
1. Be team-friendly.
2. Contain active roster bonuses and offseason workout bonuses.
3. Follow the Patriots’ typical contract structure of front-loading cash while backloading cap

— Patscap (@patscap) June 24, 2024

Put another way, Miguel is expecting that it’s going to be a deal that Rhamondre will probably never see the end of; he gets a decent chunk of change now, and if he’s somehow still a machine when he’s pushing 30, great, time for a new deal. If he’s not, the cash being front-loaded will probably make him easy enough to cut.

And relative to the cap, $36 million over 4 years with $17 million guaranteed just isn’t that much money. The 2024 NFL salary cap is $255.4 million. That’s over than $30 million more than the 2023 salary cap, and a whopping $70 million more than the 2021 cap. A contract with the average annual value of $9m is barely 3% of the current cap, and that number is only going to get smaller as the cap inevitably keeps getting bigger!

Some comparison points might be helpful, though, so here’s a few notable RB contracts from this past offseason:

Saquon Barkley: 3 years, $37.75 million, $26 million guaranteed ($12.5 million AAV)

Josh Jacobs: 4 years, $48 million, $12.5 million guaranteed ($12 million AAV)

Christian McCaffrey: 2 years, $38 million, $24 million guaranteed ($19 million AAV)

Tony Pollard: 3 years, $21.75 million, $10.49 million guaranteed ($7.25 million AAV)

And one more fun data point that’s not a free agent contract, but notable in this context nonetheless:

Bijan Robinson (on his rookie contract): 4 years, $22 million, fully guaranteed ($5.5 million AAV)

Even after signing Mondre, the Patriots still comfortably boast the most cap space in the NFL, at about $45,000,000, and almost all of the major business outside of a Matt Judon extension in the “Done” column.

As far as the “draft a RB” angle is concerned, it’s not without merit. You’ve doubtless seen some of the stats that indicate offensive line matters much more in rushing success than the individual running back, that a rookie can get you X amount of production while getting paid relative peanuts, yada yada. That’s all fine.

But I would like to point out that this approach does inherently entail that you’re also spending a mid-round pick on a running back every other year or so, because one, you need depth, and two, there’s no guarantee that the latest Bama back or the kid from San Diego State is going to be any good, or stay healthy. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, until you figure that burning a pick on a running back means that pick isn’t available for a Ja’Lynn Polk, or a Javon Baker, or a Caeden Wallace, or a Layden Robinson, or even a Pop Douglas. The decision to pick up a running back in the draft every few years inherently means that those are picks you’re not allowing yourself to use on something else!

Ok. Now let’s look at how this could possibly go wrong.

Downsides

There aren’t any. There is no way this could possibly go wrong.

Jk. There are, though, the standard set of dice rolls you inherently make when paying a player at one of the most violent positions in the sport. “Assuming he stays healthy” is everyone’s famous last words. We’re also banking on Stevenson’s talent not being wasted behind an offensive line that has some potentially nice pieces and one bona fide stud in Michael Onwenu, but is still very much a work in progress. And we’re betting that Rhamondre can thrive in a scheme that’s wildly different from anything he’s run in the NFL so far but has some overlap with the zone running concepts he thrived in at Oklahoma.

And being that Rhamondre is already 26 years old, this is a bet that he’ll stay productive well into his late 20s and possibly age-30 season. 30 is certainly not the omg-gotta-cut-em age that it used to be in the NFL, but at a position that demands strength, speed, and explosiveness, it’s not nothing either.

The key takeaway from all this is that Eliot Wolf and Jerod Mayo are trying to reduce as much risk and eliminate as many variables as possible this offseason to give Drake Maye the best chance they can to succeed. Sure, they could take stabs at upgrading different positions, especially on offense, with unknown quantities like draft picks or free agents. And in a lot of cases, they did. But when you have a proven baller like Rhamondre in the fold already, one who’s proven that he can not only hang, but hang with the best of ‘em in the modern NFL, in the pass game and the ground game, and seems like the exact type of quiet-confidence guy that makes a perfect Patriot......like Big Tom Callahan says, why say no when it feels so good to say yes?

Let’s talk about the Rhamondre Stevenson extension (2024)

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