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Analyzing the NFL Running Back Market for the 2023 Free Agent Class

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
From Saquon Barkley to Josh Jacobs to Leonard Fournette, Boardroom breaks down the NFL running back market ahead of free agency.

The 2022 NFL offseason was dominated by an explosive spending frenzy for quarterbacks and wide receivers amid a $25.7 million salary cap spike. With this, though, returns a relatively bare open market for both positions in 2023. That’s partially why the running back free agent class is particularly interesting — and should lead conversations for the shield’s offseason excitement.

Teams will have $16.6 million more to spend with the salary cap jumping to $224.8 million, and there are a ton of elite backs on the market. That’s not mentioning pass-catching, hybrid backs like Leonard Fournette — who was reportedly informed of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ intention to release him ahead of the new league year. The general point sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than “just pay the man.”

On one hand, there’s a plethora of elite free-agent running backs. On the other hand, running backs really don’t garner much. Ezekiel Elliot is the highest-paid RB in all of football by total value ($90 million), but that figure only ranks 39th across the entire league. Christian McCaffrey, who makes the most by average annual salary ($16 million), ranks 95th — we’re talking about one of the most lethal weapons in all of football here!

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So, why is the market so low for such talented players? Here are a few theories.

  • Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight argued that rushing success has more to do with the scheme instead of the actual player.
  • Analytics. Only seven teams ran the ball at least 50% of the time — four of which have scrambling QBs (Ravens, Eagles, Giants, Bears).
  • Durability. The average career length of a running back is roughly 2.57 years, the lowest of all positions.
  • Winning? There have only been 7 RBs in history to win Super Bowl MVP. The last was Emmitt Smith in 1993.

You can make your own assessments and these are all very real concerns that owners and GMs have when they’re extending a superstar RB. Just look at the Cowboys’ conundrum. They committed all that money to Elliot, but many believe RB2 Tony Pollard was far and beyond the better back between the two this last season.

Now, let’s take a look at the loaded RB free-agent market.

Pound-for-pound RB1

Fringe RB1

  • D’Onta Foreman
  • Devin Singletary
  • Jeff Wilson
  • Raheem Mostert
  • Rashaad Penny
  • David Montgomery

Hybrid Backs

Agents representing these backs have their work cut out for them. Putting aside the high risk of injury, RBs very rarely carry a team that might warrant the big bucks that quarterbacks and wide receivers are getting. So teams have to ask themselves how much they believe a RB is worth when some of the best in the league haven’t shifted the tides all that much when it comes to winning titles.

Some of it is also circumstantial depending on who else they have in the backfield. But given how the offensive game has gone pass-heavy, most of the names above have shown they can help carry a team on the ground or through the air.

Stay tuned — it should be interesting to see how teams handle this. Or take the easy way out with the franchise tag.

More on NFL Free Agents:

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