Will Kenyan Drake's second contract be affected by others backs' failures?

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake is about to play the three most important games of his career.

And this is the player who scored the touchdown in last season's Miracle in Miami.

His rookie contract is approaching its completion, and Drake will enter free agency looking for a big second contract. There's reason for optimism with the recent history of running backs cashing in, but also reason for concern.

All he has to do is look two lockers away, where David Johnson sits. In September 2018, Johnson signed a three-year extension worth up to $39 million. But Johnson has never returned to his 2016 form and is an example of the risk teams take by paying big money to a running back in his second contract.

Drake's value could be affected by deals such as Johnson's, as well as those of Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell. All three signed running back megadeals averaging $13 million or more per year. The next-highest annual average behind Johnson's $13 million is Devonta Freeman at $8.25 million.

None of those backs has played up to his contract this season.

"I see the things that people sign," Drake said. "But at the end of the day, you get paid solely based off your performance, so that's what I'm trying to do is go out here, make plays for this team, do whatever I can."

Johnson has rushed for 336 yards on 89 carries in 2019. He was benched in favor of Drake in the fourth quarter of the Cardinals' loss at Tampa Bay on Nov. 10 and in the second of half of their loss to the San Francisco 49ers a week later. Freeman has 501 yards on 141 carries, Bell has 589 yards on 183 carries and Gurley has 721 yards on 177 carries.

Eight running backs have rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Seven of those eight, including the top four, are on rookie deals (the only exception is the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott).

Drake, 25, was traded to the Cardinals by the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 28, a Monday. Three days later, on Thursday Night Football, he ran for 110 yards against the 49ers. He followed that with games of 35, 67, 31 and 37 rushing yards, but he has taken the starting job from Johnson on a team that's 3-9-1.

"He's a great football player," coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Drake. "He's a guy who shows up, does it to the best of his ability every day, whether it's catching it, running it, blocking it. [He's] hard on himself, conscientious in his preparation."

In five games in Arizona, Drake has run for 280 yards on 65 carries, giving him 454 yards on 112 carries when you account for his six games in Miami. Like many of the running backs mentioned, his skill as a receiver is also important to note; he has 43 catches for 295 yards.

"I'm gonna be the same me," Drake said. "I'm gonna work out, work hard and try to help my team win games."

Outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who signed a five-year deal worth $82.5 million in 2017, handled his option year in 2016 by taking it a game at a time. Jones' older brother Art, who played seven years in the NFL and whose second contract was for $33 million over five years, told him to "just play football and everything else is going to come."

One thing Jones' agent told him during the process was he had to be OK with other players getting more money, even some who didn't seem to deserve it.

"That's just how it works," Jones said. "I'm never the person to look around and say, 'Oh, he's getting that.' At the end of the day, this is what we wanted. This is what we came to agree upon and this is what it is."

Left guard Justin Pugh, a former first-round pick who signed with the Cardinals in 2018 after spending five seasons with the New York Giants, said the magnitude of the second deal is always lingering.

"I mean, it's a life-altering deal," Pugh said. "It's something that can change your life, your family's life, your kids', your kids' kids' life. It's there."

And if that wasn't enough, Pugh said he heard about it every week during his last season in New York.

"You think about it all time," he added. "There's no way you can avoid it. I mean, once you're on the field you're not thinking about it; you're just going out and playing your game. But weekly, people are always reminding you, 'contract year.' Coaches are always reminding you.

"It's everywhere."