Anybody who was paying attention over the past two seasons would know that JD McKissic was the quarterback’s best friend, and it didn’t matter if the QB was named Haskins, Allen, Smith or Heinicke.
The surprising thing is that, prior to signing with the Washington Football Team, McKissic was almost an afterthought when talking about NFL running backs. I mean, look at his career production:
McKissic spent his first three years as a pro in Seattle, and then one season in Detroit before joining the Football Team in 2020. He appeared in 16 regular season games in his first season with WFT, playing with 4 different quarterbacks, and he had more receiving yards (589) than he’d accumulated in his first 4 seasons in the NFL combined. In addition, his rushing total (365 yards) was just 37 fewer yards than he’d gotten from 2016 to 2019 combined.
In short, McKissic had a career year, and it came out of nowhere. McKissic picked up 57 first-downs for the league’s 31st ranked offense in 2020. He was explosive with the ball in his hands; he could pass block, and he was not just a pass-receiving 3rd down back; he was able to run the ball effectively at 4.3 yards per carry.
Last year, McKissic’s season was cut short by a Week 12 concussion that he didn’t come back from, finishing the final 6 weeks on IR. But in just 11 games, he was on track to pretty much match his 2020 yards from scrimmage, and his average yards per touch had risen from 5.8 in 2020 to 6.7 in 2021.
His two seasons in Washington were so impressive that, with free agency starting on Wednesday, Mike Garafolo of NFL Network said on Good Morning Football this week that McKissic will be in demand in free agency, and may be able to “get a bag”, with Garafolo suggesting that #41 could end up with $5m or $6m per season on his next contract.
A lot of people have jumped on Garafolo’s words, or more accurately, on a somewhat random tweet from someone else that cited the Mike Garafolo report, and who then suggested that McKissic may not return to the Commanders because of the price tag. It seems to have become almost immediately accepted that McKissic will get paid big dollars by another NFL team and won’t be in the burgundy & gold this season.
I had expected McKissic to command (no pun intended) around $3 - $3.5m per year, but looking at the running back pay list, I can (maybe) see the argument that he could end up in the range that Garafolo discussed.
As you can see circled in blue, there are 11 running backs making between $2.5m and $3.26m per year, though I think 4 of them are actually on rookie contracts, so there are about 7 guys on veteran free agent contracts that are +/- $3m.
The next group of veteran running backs comprise another 7 guys (circled in red) who earn between $5m and $6.2m per year.
I had been thinking that McKissic would be seen as belonging to the first (blue) group, with guys like Phillip Lindsay and Jamaal Williams, but Mike Garafolo is suggesting that he should be grouped instead with Austin Ekeler, Kareem Hunt and Chris Carson.
I can maybe see his point, though I’m not convinced that any NFL GM is gonna see JD McKissic as the equivalent to Hunt or Ekeler. Ekeler, in his last two 16-game seasons, put up 1,500 yards from scrimmage in each (nearly double McKissic’s output) and he had an incredible 20 touchdowns last year.
Kareem Hunt has played 59 games in his career, so his career totals are the equivalent of about 1,400 yards and 12 TDs per 16-game season — averages that are far more than even McKissic’s best year.
In the game of setting player salaries through comparison to similar players, I don’t see McKissic’s agent winning any argument that says his client belongs in this tier.
It can’t be denied that McKissic has been a top-2 back when it comes to receiving targets and yards under Scott Turner, and I believe he’s something special used that way, but he’s too ordinary a runner to get paid like Hunt and Ekeler, who are both more effective runners with more years of consistent per-game production than McKissic.
When it comes to handing out free agent contracts, running backs are the least valuable of the skill position players, and third-down backs are the least valuable backs in the group. I don’t think the argument is there for JD McKissic to be valued with the “red” tier; I think he’s clearly in the “blue” group on the chart above.
A great fit with Scott Turner’s offensive plan
Personally, I love what JD McKissic brings to the team, and I think that #41 was the big difference maker for the Football Team’s offense in both 2020 and 2021. Aside from Terry McLaurin, there is no skill position player that I’d rather see on the ‘22 roster (with Logan Thomas a close 3rd). Like a good recipe that relies on a specific spice to get the flavor “just right”, I think that McKissic was the primary catalyst to whatever success the Football Team’s offense enjoyed in ‘20 and ‘21 — he was the secret ingredient, if you will.
So, I’d like to have him back, and I feel sure that the coaches want him back.
But it’s also my opinion that McKissic should want to return — that he should see a return to DC as being in his own best interest as Washington is his ‘best fit’. After all, McKissic never reached his potential in Seattle or Detroit. I think that a large part of his success has been the commitment that Scott Turner and Ron Rivera have to the concept of the quarterback looking for the big play first, but, when it’s not there, taking the safe option and giving the playmaker a chance if the defense takes away the primary downfield options. This made McKissic an offensive feature with Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke behind center.
Yes, I know that this is not how Carson Wentz has played football for the past 6 seasons. His greatest gift and his greatest curse are one and the same; he never wants to give up on a play, and he holds the ball too long as he keeps trying to push it downfield, sometimes with spectacular results, and sometimes with disastrous results.
But you could say much the same thing about Taylor Heinicke, who is also elusive and who also hates to give up on a play. Scott Turner spent the the first half of 2021 teaching Heinicke not to play ‘hero ball’, and by mid-season, it looked like #4 was starting to find the sweet spot between being too conservative (the nadir in this direction was the Packers game, where he gave himself up too early more than once, probably costing the team the chance to win) and trying to do too much (hero ball like he played in the wildcard playoff against Tampa Bay was great to see, but unsustainable).
I’m hopeful that the Washington coaching staff can help Commander Carson learn to do the same thing, breaking the habits of a lifetime.
But that requires a guy like JD McKissic to give the quarterback reason to believe that an outlet pass to the running back is an option that is likely to turn out well. If Turner can teach Carson Wentz to rein in his hero-ball tendencies and play mentally and emotionally smart football with good situational awareness, then there’s no team that will give McKissic a better chance to showcase his talents the way he’s been able to in Washington over the past two seasons. And having McKissic on the team may help convince Commander Carson that he can take the easy option when it’s there and get a good result.
The danger for JD McKissic, I think, is that he could go elsewhere for a paycheck and find his production back where it was in his days as a Seahawk and Lion. That would be a disappointment.
So, my advice to the Washington front office is: find a way to keep McKissic.
My advice to McKissic is: find a way to stay in Washington.
But that might not happen
But let’s say JD McKissic gets a great offer from a potential super bowl contender and he leaves. What then? Where should the Commanders front office turn?
Options in veteran free agency
Young but proven: Chase Edmonds
Well, the Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds has a similar skillset and has been highly productive over the past two years, putting up 850 yards from scrimmage & 5 TDs in 2020, followed by 903 yards & 2 TDs in just 12 games in 2021.
A 2021 breakout: Darrel Williams
Another option could be 26-year-old Darrel Williams from the Kansas City Chiefs. Williams was an undrafted free agent in 2018. With a Combine 40 time of 4.7, he seems to lack a bit of the explosive speed that you look for when evaluating potential draft picks, but production trumps potential, and after three fairly lackluster seasons, Williams broke out last year, with 1,010 scrimmage yards and 8 touchdowns. His 9.6 yards per reception in 2021 compared favorably to McKissic (9.2) and Edmonds (7.2).
A low-cost reclamation: Duke Johnson
One guy who seemed to resurrect a dying career in 2021 was Duke Johnson. The former Cleveland Brown averaged 850 scrimmage yards per season in 4 years with Cleveland, and kept up a similar pace in 2019 when he signed with the Texans as a free agent. Through his first 5 NFL seasons, Johnson had nearly 4,300 scrimmage yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 9.2 yards per reception and 6.5 yards per touch. In fact, when I first saw JD McKissic in the Washington offense, the guy he made me think of was Duke Johnson.
In 2020, Johnson’s production simply disappeared. He had been targeted 93 times in his best season (2017) with the Browns, but in Bill O’Brien’s 2020 offense, Duke Johnson was targeted just 35 times. He was cut by the team at the end of the ‘20 season when BOB was fired and David Culley took the reins. Surprisingly, Johnson ended up on Miami’s practice squad last season, but was eventually activated for 5 games, mostly at the end of the season. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per reception in limited duty, and cost the Dolphins about $142,000 in cap space for the year.
If Washington wants a budget option with a proven track record, the 28-year-old Johnson could be a reasonable consolation prize, with the size to run between the tackles and the proven explosiveness (in years past) to do exactly what JD McKissic has done for the past two seasons, and probably at just over $1m per year.
I looked at one more guy
Tarik Cohen was released by the Bears yesterday, and that was what initially prompted me to write this article. Cohen, I thought, would be the perfect replacement for McKissic, and I assumed, due to the timing of the move, that his release was cap-related.
I had failed to realize that after tearing his ACL in Week 3 of the 2020 season, Cohen missed not only the balance of that season, but all of 2021 as well. He was released this week with a failed physical and an injury designation.
We get so used to players coming back from ACL tears that we tend to think of recovery as automatic — a big change from the days before the ‘miraculous’ Adrian Peterson recovery — but as any Bryce Love fan can tell you, it doesn’t always work out. I don’t know it for a fact, but it looks like Tarik Cohen’s career as an NFL back could be at an end.
What’s the "right" compensation for free agent JD McKissic to re-sign with the Commanders?
This poll is closed
He needs to be less than $3m a year
$3-3.5m per year for 2 or 3 years is the right offer
He earned a bump to the next tier of $5-6m, especially when you consider the coming growth in the salary cap in 2023
I wouldn’t re-sign him, Carson Wentz doesn’t throw checkdown passes to running backs
It’s time to get a real lead back and let Antonio Gibson handle the 3rd down duties
What should the Comz front office do about the 3rd down back role that JD McKissic filled in ‘20 and ‘21?
This poll is closed
Simple: Just. re-sign. McKissic.
Get younger and better with the proven back, Chase Edmonds
Take a chance on a guy with one great season; sign Darrel WIlliams
Ron Rivera special: sign Duke Johnson to a vet minimum contract and then give him 650 snaps and 80 targets in the passing game.
Look to the draft for McKissic’s replacement
I have a different plan
I’m sorry; did you say that Carson Wentz would learn to check the ball down to his running back?! Hahahahahahahahaha