Why running backs have experienced a rebirth at start of free agency

Perhaps the NFL values running backs after all — at the right price.

A year after the position appeared devalued, the demand for running backs returned on the opening day of the legal negotiation period for free agency.

Last year, big names like Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard were all franchise-tagged at $10.1 million. But with the running back franchise tag rising to $12 million this year, all three players were allowed to hit free agency to establish their value.

Barkley received the most lucrative deal — a three-year, $37.75 million contract, with $26 million guaranteed at signing — to move from the New York Giants to their NFC East division rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Jacobs agreed to a reported four-year, $48 million deal that includes $12.5 million guaranteed to join the Green Bay Packers, who then released Aaron Jones. It’s essentially a one-year, $14.8 million deal for Jacobs, providing little security beyond this season.

Jones, 29, was due to make $12 million in 2024, and the Packers got younger at running back with the addition of the 26-year-old Jacobs. Free to sign with anyone on the open market, Jones reportedly agreed to a one-year, $7 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday. He was reportedly asked to take a pay cut to stay with the Packers. 

Pollard signed a three-year, $24 million deal to join the Tennessee Titans. Other running backs who agreed to new deals Monday include Austin Ekeler with the Washington Commanders (two years, $8.34 million), D’Andre Swift with the Chicago Bears (three years, $24 million), Devin Singletary with the Giants (three years, $16.5 million), Antonio Gibson with the New England Patriots (three years, $11.25 million) and Gus Edwards with the Los Angeles Chargers (two years, $6.25 million).

Former Indianapolis Colts back Zack Moss agreed to a two-year, $8 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals, who then traded Joe Mixon to the Houston Texans. Mixon is scheduled to make $6 million in 2024.

In all, 10 running backs agreed to new contracts on the opening day of legal tampering. Last year, the top negotiated running back contract during free agency was a four-year, $25 million deal by Miles Sanders to the Carolina Panthers. The deal was worth $6.2.5 million annually with $13 million in guaranteed money.

Saquon Barkley spurns Giants for rival Eagles and $37.75M deal

Four running backs agreed to deals north of Sanders’ AAV on Monday. Back in August, NFL agent Leigh Steinberg told FOX Sports that running backs had to persuade teams that they were irreplaceable relative to other positions. Some of the top runners shared a Zoom call to express their frustration with the market last year.

However, Jonathan Taylor‘s contract extension with the Colts during last season may have been an indication that teams still value young runners at the top of the market. After a contentious negotiation that included Taylor asking for a trade, the 25-year-old signed a three-year, $42 million deal that included $26.5 million in guaranteed money and an annual salary of $14 million.

The fact that not as many talented runners appear available in this year’s draft is also a likely factor in renewed interest in running backs in free agency. FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang does not have a running back among his top 50 players on his draft board.

[ROB RANG: 2024 NFL Draft prospect rankings: Caleb Williams leads our top-100 big board]

Last year, 18 running backs were selected in the NFL Draft, including two in the first round (Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs) and seven in the top three rounds. 

Running backs also flooded the market after the salary cap rose an unexpected $30 million for 2024, giving teams more money to spend than originally projected at the start of free agency. 

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While several running backs landed new deals, those deals still paled in comparison to other positions. The franchise tag for receivers came in at $21.8 million for 2024, compared to $12 million for running backs.

Free-agent receiver Gabe Davis agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Jaguars, with $24 million in guaranteed money. With the Buffalo Bills last season, Davis didn’t even reach 1,000 receiving yards, totaling 45 receptions for 746 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. 

Offensive guards Landon Dickerson and Robert Hunt agreed to new deals with an average annual salary of $20 million a year.

The NFL remains a passing league, and running backs are still fungible and susceptible to injury, which lessens their value. But in free agency, teams are showing that they are willing to spend on younger, top-tier backs at the right price and then go year-to-year on those deals. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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