Will NFL running backs get stiff-armed in free agency again? Ominous signs for big names

INDIANAPOLIS – You'd hope – if you're an NFL running back anyway – that things would be looking up for the position a year after it endured a rough financial market.

The franchise tag for backs this year is valuated at $11.95 million, nearly a $2 million raise from 2023. San Francisco 49ers star Christian McCaffrey won Offensive Player of the Year honors last season and finished third in the MVP voting, the high-water mark for RBs since Todd Gurley was second in 2017. The Atlanta Falcons’ Bijan Robinson and Detroit Lions’ Jahmyr Gibbs were among the top dozen players selected in the 2023 draft and performed at a commensurate level. The 49ers (27), Lions (27), Miami Dolphins (27) and Baltimore Ravens (26) topped the league in terms of rushing touchdowns last season, all four clubs making it to the playoffs with only the Fins failing to reach a conference championship game.

On the surface, seems like a time when the position’s once glorious value could recover.

"I think that, at the end of the day, talented players end up getting paid," Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president and general manager Howie Roseman, who has three running backs hurtling toward free agency, said Tuesday at the league’s annual scouting combine.

But will they?

Aside from each team’s salary cap expanding by an unprecedented $30 million in 2024 – and, despite that, the bump isn’t likely to change top-end money from being apportioned to quarterbacks, pass rushers and wide receivers – there’s not much reason to believe running backs will experience any more love in the coming weeks and months.

In fact, it could be less.

The free agent market is poised to be flooded with seven runners who had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2023: Derrick Henry, Tony Pollard, D’Andre Swift, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Devin Singletary and Austin Ekeler. Another, Baltimore's Gus Edwards, had 990. The Indianapolis Colts’ Zack Moss had 986 in 14 games.

Why use a franchise tag – one that led to such bad feelings when the New York Giants and Las Vegas Raiders applied it to Barkley and Jacobs, respectively, last year – when there’s a buyer’s market … and one that might not require anything close to an eight-figure annual payout?

"I think we've all grown – Saquon, myself, the organization – through the last 12, 13, 14 months," Giants GM Joe Schoen said Tuesday. "Saquon may be in a different place now than he was then in terms of understanding the market and the business side of it. I'm looking forward to having those conversations with him."

Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants walks off the field after a win over the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium on January 07, 2024 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants walks off the field after a win over the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium on January 07, 2024 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

And while Schoen made it clear the Giants, who are also focused on re-signing safety Xavier McKinney, want Barkley back – both for his on-field ability and leadership – he certainly didn’t sound as if he was going to be the guy to markedly move the fiscal needle at a time when so many backs struggle to get paid despite how much they handle the football.

And it’s not like this draft is expected to provide an influx of backfield game breakers who could help elevate the job's monetary worth down the road.

"Probably not as deep as some other positions that we’ll see in this year’s draft class," said Ravens GM Eric DeCosta, who must weigh whether the league’s top-ranked ground game of 2023 – in large part due to the contributions of MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson – needs Edwards and/or J.K. Dobbins, who’s coming back from an Achilles tear, back or should move in a different direction.

None of this year’s draft-eligible running backs, who will undergo on-field combine testing Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, are projected as Round 1 picks. And maybe not even second-rounders.

"I have about six to eight running backs that are very closely graded. I don't have any of them up to where we had Bijan or Gibbs last year with those types of grades," NFL Network chief draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

"Does that push the running backs down? Maybe we could get to the bottom of the second, maybe even the top of the third round. And then, once the first one goes, I think you'll see all these guys come off the board."

The draft will doubtless be affected by how the free agency board falls first. Yet as fast as many of these dynamic ball carriers and their abilities to quickly change a game or even a season are, don’t be surprised if there’s once again no rush to invest in them.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL running backs could once again get stiff-armed in free agency