Analysis | What to look for as NFL free agency approaches

Analysis | What to look for as NFL free agency approaches

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Once again, there is uncertainty in the running back market. The league’s most reputationally depressed position shows few signs of fiscal progress — even with a bumper crop of backs available — although there might be one division willing to at least somewhat buck the trend.

Could the NFC North be, if not salvation for some of the NFL’s best-known running backs, at least a safe haven of sorts? Conversations with numerous executives and agents involved in the process — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations — revealed a consensus that three teams in that division seem willing to invest in the ground game to some degree. The Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears acted at the scouting combine like teams interested in securing a feature back, according to all those I spoke with, and the Green Bay Packers could emerge as well. Green Bay is almost certain to move on from power back AJ Dillon while also mired in what appears to be a thorny renegotiation process with 2020 Pro Bowl back Aaron Jones.

Regardless, once again few teams appear eager to significantly advance running back salaries, and former franchise cornerstones like Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs face a nebulous future at a time when free agent receivers, safeties and even defensive tackles seem likely to have their salary goals met by multiple suitors. Anyone thinking a running back salary recalibration was coming a year after Jacobs, Barkley and Tony Pollard were hit with the franchise tag (about $10 million in 2023) is headed for a cruel spring. Several backs could face an arduous path back to that threshold, with the NFLPA advising contract negotiators to be ready to pounce as soon as the market opens.

“I don’t disagree with you that on a down-to-down basis it’s possible to get more value out of a back than other positions, maybe even receiver depending on the offense and the quality of the quarterback,” said one NFL general manager, whose team is involved in running back discussions and who is not permitted to speak publicly about salary expectations. “But I don’t think the [financial] numbers are really there for any of these guys.

“It’s a pretty strong [free agent] class. There are going to be starters in the second day of the draft, and this is all just supply and demand. There’s more supply available at this position and less demand than for other positions. You tell me, where is Barkley going? Who is giving him $12 million a year?”

As one agent put it: “Everybody is still trying to figure out what this market is … and it might not be great for us. I think it’s going to be tough.”

If Barkley leaves the Giants, who selected him second overall in 2018, then I’d consider Chicago or Minnesota premier landing spots, in which case the Giants would seek a cheaper alternative. Raiders Coach Antonio Pierce and owner Mark Davis are known to love Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher just two years ago, who is still younger and fresher than other high-end backs in this market, and a reunion could be in order. The Cowboys, Broncos and Ravens are trawling the lower tiers of this market, which includes backs like Zack Moss of the Colts and D’Andre Swift of the Eagles.

And the Packers, with an emerging franchise quarterback still making peanuts on a rookie deal, could be the wild card in all of this. Jones has not been durable — Green Bay paid him close to $11 million last season for just 142 carries and two touchdowns. He’s earned more than $30 million from Green Bay, and that franchise is adamant about being balanced offensively as quarterback Jordan Love enters his second full season as a starter. Chances are it can find a new every-down back for far less per year than Jones’s current 2024 cost of $12 million. If Jones is cut, I’d expect an immediate call from Baltimore and Dallas, among others.

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