Meet the most intriguing free agent running backs set to hit the market when it opens on March 13. 

Push comes to shove in the NFL’s free agent running back market this offseason. 

For a decade, teams have trended away from agreeing to big contracts with tailbacks, figuring that only a few are true difference-makers and general managers can find good production for cheap.

But the 2024 NFL free-agent running back class is sparkling, as a handful of big-name players with long, productive track records are on the open market – and most of them are still well under 30. It’s the splashiest group of backs ever to hit free agency at the same time, and it will test the emerging paradigm that NFL teams don’t value the position highly. 

Last year’s biggest guarantee to a running back in free agency was the $13 million the Carolina Panthers gave Miles Sanders. This year’s will surely be bigger. But by how much, and who will get it?

Meet the six most interesting running backs set to hit the market when free agency begins on March 13. 

1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants 

Few running backs reach free agency while still in peak form, and Barkley isn’t an exception. A mix of injuries, age, and the Giants’ poor team-building around him have prevented him from posting numbers anywhere near what he did as a rookie No. 2 overall pick in 2018.

But Barkley is a useful back as his current self. For one thing, he’s among the best receiving backs in the league: Barkley ran 236 routes in 2023 – fifth most among running backs – and posted a 53.3% burn rate that was one of the best marks at the position. The actual receiving numbers weren’t that big (41 catches for 280 yards), but they suggest that Barkley is an excellent third read for a quarterback looking for help as a play develops.

As an actual runner, Barkley is still plenty respectable: His 3.9 rushing yards per carry and 1.8 yards per contact last year were both a hair below average, but in 2022, he was one of the league’s more efficient ball carriers. He’ll be 27 this season and should be a crucial part of the offense for whoever brings him aboard. 

2. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

It feels wrong that Henry, a franchise icon in Nashville, is a free agent at all. But he looks set to leave the Titans and bring his terrifying brand of downhill running somewhere else as a 30-year-old workhorse.

Even after eight years in the league, he still commands respect from defenses. Henry faced a bad box percentage (the rate of carries with eight defenders near the line) of 55.7% in 2023, more than 10 points higher than the league average. He still managed 1.9 yards after contact (a hair better than average) and 4.2 yards per carry overall (same) despite teams realizing that the Titans had very little interest or ability to pass the ball.

At worst, Henry should still be an incredible situational back for short-yardage downs. At best, on a contender with a lot of offensive weapons, could he push the 5-yard averages he posted from 2018 to 2020? 

3. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers 

Ekeler’s numbers are in a multiyear decline, but remember, this is a ranking of players by intrigue, not fantasy value. And Ekeler is still very intriguing as he gets set to play as a 29-year-old back in a new organization.

Like Barkley, he runs a lot of routes as a receiver (243, fourth among running backs in 2023) and shakes off coverage men like a wide receiver (a 53.4% burn rate). But he only had 51 receptions last year after totaling 107 in 2022.

Ekeler is 5-foot-10, but he’s more powerful than he often gets credit for. While his yardage after contact (1.6) was below average in 2023, Ekeler was quite good at putting together unsexy but non-disastrous carries when the Chargers’ offensive line got beaten somewhere. A small running back with numbers going in the wrong direction is, obviously, not a safe bet. But it’s quite easy to imagine a landing spot with a smart coach and good supporting cast.

4. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders 

Since Jacobs entered the league in 2019, the only guy who’s run for more yards than his 5,545 is Henry at a whopping 7,209. In Jacobs’ case, most of that comes down to volume, as his 4.2-yard average is 65th in the same span among running backs with 100 carries.

That’s really the play with Jacobs: that he can take the ball a lot and offer decent production with it. He undoubtedly had a bad year in 2023, missing four games to injury and seeing an across-the-board dip from his career-high numbers in 2022. He also ranked near the bottom of the league in total EVE (total yards gained or lost versus the expected amount), ahead of only Dameon Pierce of the Houston Texans.

worst EVE among RBs in 2023

Jacobs’ 1.9 yards after contact was below the league average, and that’s not an ideal sign for a back who has made power such a part of his identity. 

5. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys 

Pollard’s year as the Cowboys’ primary running back following Ezekiel Elliott’s departure did not go as he wanted. His yardage per carry dropped from 5.2 to 4.0, his yards per target as a receiver dropped from 6.7 to 4.6, and he was far from the focal point of an offense that Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb paced

But there’s still reason to believe in Pollard, who will be 27 this season. He’s a more powerful runner than he gets credit for, averaging a full 2.0 yards after contact last season – a few ticks above average. And he’s demonstrated that he can handle a heavy workload without breaking down: Pollard’s 255 receiving routes run last year were third among running backs.

The bad news is that he wasn’t especially dangerous on those routes, posting a burn rate (41.8%) and overall big play rate (8.2%) well below average for the position. The team that signs Pollard will hope to get more of the 2022 player than the 2023 player, and given the unlikelihood of that, his deal might not be that big. 

6. D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles 

Swift is still so, so young. He’s played just four NFL seasons and will be 25 this year. The trouble is that there’s a reason that a 2020 second-round pick is on the market so quickly and has already played for two teams. The Detroit Lions didn’t want Swift and put two running backs above him, and though he played fine for Philadelphia, the Eagles seem poised to let him walk.

This isn’t a case of a bad player: Swift cleared 1,000 yards on a 4.6-yard average in 2023, and he clearly still has a place in the NFL. But he may not be exciting to any given front office. Last season’s performance came behind the absolutely punishing Eagles offensive line and QB Jalen Hurts, who was a threat in the run game in his own right and created a numerical advantage for Swift.

The 4.6 yards per carry were great, but the 1.7 after contact was below average. Swift is also not much of a route runner out of the backfield, as his 42.9% burn rate demonstrated. What kind of deal Swift gets in 2024 depends on whether teams see a 25-year-old back coming off a 1,000-yard season or, through a different lens, a guy two teams have already passed on who didn’t show a standout skill in an ideal environment in 2023. Either is reasonable. 

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