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Resetting the Market for NFL Free Agent Running Backs

ESPN analyst, former NFL exec, and co-founder of The 33rd Team Mike Tannenbaum explores the dynamics that will dictate what free agent running backs like Saquon Barkley will get paid in 2023.

As the back half of the 2022 NFL regular season rolls on, there’s much more to play for than just playoff positioning — the offseason’s upcoming free agents are compelled to state their cases for the biggest possible deal. We can note particular intrigue regarding the halfback position, as its use has changed significantly in recent years as more teams have moved away from the feature back model and instead embraced running back rooms featuring two to four backs all serving distinct purposes within the offense.

Examples of this include the Cowboys, Chiefs, Eagles, Lions, Bears, Browns, Ravens, Packers, and Bills; as a result of this wave, the market value of the typical running back contract has slouched accordingly.

We’re simply seeing less ground-and-pound between the tackles and more versatility of schemes and execution. The trend is evident by simply taking a brief glance at the total number of rushers over the last five seasons.

NFL 1,000-yard rushers by year:
  • 2021: 7
  • 2020: 9
  • 2019: 16
  • 2018: 9
  • 2017: 9

Meanwhile, the 2023 class of free agent running backs is set to be one of the deepest in recent memory, creating some interesting contract and salary questions that teams will have to answer carefully.

Standout names on the board include:

  • Saquon Barkley (Giants)
  • Josh Jacobs (Raiders)
  • Tony Pollard (Cowboys)
  • David Montgomery (Bears)
  • Miles Sanders (Eagles)
  • Kareem Hunt (Browns)
  • Damien Harris (Patriots)
  • Jeff Wilson (Dolphins)
  • Jamaal Williams (Lions)
  • D’onta Foreman (Panthers)
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Several of the top names set to hit the free agent market present some potentially tricky questions, however. Barkley has an injury history that prospective suitors don’t have the luxury of being able to ignore, while Montgomery poses health and availability questions of his own. Jacobs’ production during the 2021 season was notably below that of his 2020 and 2019 campaigns. Sanders has been inconsistent for the otherwise explosive Eagles. Elsewhere, Tony Pollard, Kareem Hunt, Damien Harris, Jamaal Williams, D’onta Foreman, and Jeff Wilson have all produced nicely with the touches they’ve been allotted despite not carrying a true RB1 designation.

How much each of these running backs ends up getting paid may not be determined by their production, however, as much as the market-setting precedence of previous deals.

Fellow running backs Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry are currently the NFL’s highest-paid at the position, but after signing big-time deals, each has been forced to miss at least one notable stretch of games.

“I think the average [contract value] per year certainly could be impacted, there will probably be more discussions around the guaranteed amount,” ESPN analyst, former Jets GM, and co-founder of The 33rd Team Mike Tannenbaum told Boardroom in a phone interview of what to expect on the running back salary market this offseason. “I think the conversations will see less guaranteed money and a smaller length of the contract, too.”

These days, teams don’t tend to have much trouble replacing running backs in the draft, whether due to injuries or general roster turnover. Recent examples of this include the Chiefs’ Isaiah Pacheco, who has taken over the starting running back job from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, who assumes an even greater role after Melvin Gordon departed from Los Angeles. Pacheco was a seventh-round draft pick; Ekeler was an undrafted free agent. Khalil Hebert of the Chicago Bears has also stepped in when David Montgomery has had to miss time; he’s since gone on IR himself, swinging the pendulum all the way back in Montgomery’s direction.

A recurring element amid the unique uncertainties teams face regarding running back availability? A salary equilibrium that’s noticeably lower than almost every other position group in the game.

“These are good players and good running backs, and that is why I think the overall running back market stays lower is because the replacement costs are there,” Tannenbaum said.

The task then becomes finding new ways to create as much value as possible. As an anonymous football agent told Boardroom:

“For any young person playing running back in Pop Warner, they have to understand that at minimum, they are going to need to run the ball, catch the ball, pass protect and play special teams. The idea of carrying the ball and [doing] nothing else, those days are just gone, so those other things need to be embraced… I think Derrick Henry is an anomaly at this point. I don’t even think the running back position exists anymore. It is more so an offensive utility position. I would not be surprised if it gets renamed at some point.”

Both Tannenbaum and the agent ultimately agree that we can expect NFL teams to prioritize equipping themselves with multiple modestly-priced running backs rather than paying a traditional RB1 the bulk of their available cash.

Now, the question turns to just who gets the distinction among free agent running backs of setting the salary market this offseason for 2023 and beyond — and who might run the risk of waiting too long and feeling burned as a result.

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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a Staff Writer covering sports business and music for Boardroom. Before joining the team, he previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features he has written include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" - Hampton University - is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.