Running Back Free Agency Frenzy: Grading the Biggest Moves

Running Back Free Agency Frenzy: Grading the Biggest Moves article feature image

(Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) Pictured: Saquon Barkley

The NFL was hit with a tidal wave of running back news on Monday, the first day of the “legal tampering” period. A slew of backs were eligible for franchise tags, though none received one, which set up a fascinating free agency period for the embattled position.

Last year, running backs protested on social media and held Zoom meetings to discuss the depressed market. Now, several of those same backs are due for new contracts. With star players such as Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry available, many have billed this the best running back free agency class in NFL history.

With the opportunity to test their value on the open market, several star running backs have landed with new teams, shaking up the NFL landscape, particularly for fantasy football fanatics. In this article, I’ll analyze each reported signing and provide grades for each team.

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Saquon Barkley – Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles made a huge splash by signing Saquon Barkley to a three-year, $37.75 million contract with $26 million fully guaranteed. Moving from New York to Philadelphia isn’t a drastic change geographically, but the Giants and Eagles couldn’t be more disparate in their ability to help a running back flourish.

The Giants ranked 31st in ESPN’s run-block win rate last year — the Eagles ranked first. Jason Kelce retired, leaving a hole at center, but this should still be one of the best offensive lines in the league. Barkley also goes from a medley of Daniel Jones, Tommy DeVito and Tyrod Taylor to Jalen Hurts, who is one year removed from making a serious run at the MVP award.

The Eagles quietly struggled to run the ball last season, falling from first in rushing EPA per attempt to 11th and from third in explosive run rate to 15th, despite still having the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL.

Barkley is the most talented running back the Eagles have had since LeSean McCoy a decade ago, and it’s hard to imagine a better situation for Barkley to thrive in. We’ve seen how Christian McCaffrey has helped transform the 49ers into a full-fledged contender, and Barkley has the same capability to put the Eagles over the top this season.

Howie Roseman has been a stickler for investing only in premium positions, but Barkley is worth an exception. Plus, there might not be anything more infuriating to Giants fans than Barkley wearing an Eagles jersey. That’s worth an extra $5 million a year on its own.

Grade: A-


— Saquon Barkley (@saquon) March 11, 2024

Josh Jacobs – Green Bay Packers

The Packers were always a candidate for a running back this offseason as AJ Dillon hit free agency, but I expected them to dip into the draft pool and pair a young talent with Aaron Jones. Instead, they signed Josh Jacobs to a four-year, $48 million contract with $12.5 million guaranteed. Jones was then cut, leaving Jacobs as Green Bay's only running back under contract heading into next season.

Jacobs is still just 26, the same age Jones was when he signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Packers in 2021. Jacobs must prove he can produce as he did in his career year in 2022 — when he led the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards. Last season, his efficiency dropped off significantly and he fell from 4.9 to 3.5 yards per carry.

Some of that can be attributed to offensive line play as Las Vegas declined from 11th to 18th in run-block win rate, per ESPN. However, some of it also falls on Jacobs. In 2022, Jacobs ranked 11th out of 61 qualified backs with 3.40 yards after contact per attempt (YCO/A). That dropped to 2.35 YCO/A in 2023, which ranked 53rd out of 59 qualifiers.

Josh Jacobs among 49 RBs in 2023:

PFF rush grade: 70.1 (No. 40)
Explosive run play rate: 3.9% (No. 48)
Yards per carry above expected: -0.37 (No. 41)
Yards per carry: 3.5 (No. 44)
Yards after contact per carry: 2.4 (No. 46)
Missed tackles forced per carry: 0.12 (tied for No. 43)

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 11, 2024

The situation doesn’t improve much for Jacobs in Green Bay as the Packers ranked just 16th in run-block win rate in 2023. Jones saw eight or more defenders in the box at a 23.2% rate last year, slightly higher than Jacobs' 21.4%, per Next Gen Stats.

The Packers will still be paying Jones a $12.3 million dead cap hit this year, so they’re essentially paying $24.8 million this season to upgrade from Jones to Jacobs. If Jacobs can recapture his glorious 2022 form, this contract will be worth it, but it’s an expensive investment to make given the team’s other needs, especially on defense.

Grade: C-

Tony Pollard – Tennessee Titans

With Derrick Henry moving on, the Titans had a clear need at running back, and Pollard is a strong signing. Pollard's efficiency took a hit in 2023, his first season as Dallas' lead back, but there was a clear delineation between the first and second half of his season. Check out the following graphic, courtesy of James Foster.

Any Tony Pollard analysis has to account for the fact that he was recovering from an ankle sprain/fractured leg & was clearly a different player over the 2nd half of the season

— James Foster (@NoFlagsFilm) March 12, 2024

The eye test confirmed these numbers as Pollard looked far better on film over the latter part of the year. In that sense, it’s easy to argue the Titans got a bargain with this signing.

The Titans still have second-year back Tyjae Spears in tow. In his rookie season, Spears ranked 12th with 3.15 yards after contact per attempt. However, the Tulane product was never destined to be a 300-touch player and the Titans now have two dynamic, multi-faceted running backs who can be big-time contributors in the passing game.

The offensive line has to improve after ranking 21st in ESPN’s run-block win rate, but legendary new offensive line coach Bill Callahan should work wonders in that role, and the Titans already added center Lloyd Cushenberry in free agency. Pollard should have plenty of success in Tennessee and $8 million per year is a bargain for a player with just 762 carries to his name and plenty of shelf life remaining at 26 years old.

Grade: B+

D’Andre Swift – Chicago Bears

While D’Andre Swift was among the 15 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL last season, he struggled with efficiency throughout the year. According to PFF, he ranked 52nd out of 59 qualified running backs with 2.44 yards after contact per attempt. It’s fair to argue former offensive coordinator Brian Johnson misused him, but Swift’s career average is 2.53 yards after contact per attempt, which would have ranked 50th last season.

Regardless of how you feel about Swift, it’s fair to wonder whether this was a genuine need for the Bears. Khalil Herbert ranked 15th in the NFL with 3.03 yards after contact per attempt last year and was 12th in breakaway run rate, outpacing Swift. Roschon Johnson also flashed intriguing three-down ability in his rookie season, including stout pass-protection skills you don’t typically see from a first-year player.

Ultimately, this is a low-risk move for a team with a plenty of cap space attempting to surround likely first-overall pick Caleb Williams with as much talent as possible. Swift will be working behind an offensive line ranked second in run-block win rate, so immediate production should be expected, despite his underwhelming advanced metrics.

Grade: B-

Austin Ekeler – Washington Commanders

A two-year, $11.4 million contract likely wasn’t what Austin Ekeler had in mind when he requested a trade last offseason. However, after Ekeler remained in Los Angeles, a high-ankle sprain cost him a month of the season and sapped his efficiency once he returned. He ranked just 36th out of 49 qualified running backs in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expected per attempt and posted a career-low 2.64 yards after contact per attempt.

With over 1,400 touches in his career, he's unlikely to regain peak form and turns 29 in May. However, Ekeler remains a reliable pass-catching back and can provide veteran leadership to what profiles as one of the league’s youngest teams. He’s not a significant needle-mover at this point of his career, but it’s hard to complain about this type of move from the team with the most cap space in the league.

Grade: B

We've all seen the 13 MPH Packers run, but worth remembering Austin Ekeler was fully healthy for less than one full game in 2023.

High-ankle sprains are no joke. Dude hit 19.6 MPH before the

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 11, 2024

Other Quick Hitters

Devin Singletary, Giants: Replacing Barkley’s impact in this offense won’t be easy, but Singletary is a decent answer. He had a surprisingly strong season in 2023, finishing 11 games with positive rushing yards over expected (RYOE), per Next Gen Stats, which tied for first in the league with Christian McCaffrey. Still, it will be tough sledding for Singletary behind last season’s 31st-ranked offensive line by run-block win rate.

Gus Edwards, Chargers: The Chargers have shown their hand with the hirings of new head coach Jim Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Los Angeles will look to establish the run this season and Edwards is a solid addition on a minimum contract with experience in Roman;s system.

Zack Moss, Bengals: The Bengals surprisingly cut Joe Mixon and will likely head into next season with a duo of Moss and Chase Brown in the backfield. Moss ranked fifth among 49 qualified running backs in RYOE per attempt last season, so he’s a great value at $4 million per year. Look for Brown to also make a huge impact as he’s a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield with receiving chops.

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