Running Back Free Agency Rankings 2023: Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, and Saquon Barkley Lead Stacked Class

Who are the top running backs in free agency for the 2023 offseason? Can Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, and Saquon expect to see massive paydays?

No position is more frustrating to discuss in the football world than the running back. To many, the position and ability to run the football matter to a degree, but the player toting the rock matters very little, if at all.

To a major minority, nothing is more important than establishing the run, even if it’s proven that the ability to run has no effect on a team’s ability to pass. Still, talent and situation matter, which is why these 2023 NFL running back free agency rankings exist.

2023 RB Free Agency Rankings

Running back is an incredibly strong position this season. Some of the most talented backs in the league might be considering donning a different uniform next season while being paid an extortionate amount of money to do so. The perceived lack of positional value hurts their standing in the Top 100 Free Agents list, and yet three players still cracked the top 20.

There is viable talent all the way down the list.

1) Tony Pollard

Billionaires are seen as America’s darlings by many. They are supposed to be the best, brightest, and most hard-working among us. While much of that can be true, they’re still humans, and humans are stubborn to the point of stupidity.

The sunk-cost fallacy applies to Tony Pollard. Jerry and Stephen Jones invested $90 million into Ezekiel Elliott in 2019, and they were going to ride him to a Super Bowl just like they did Emmitt Smith. And like most backs, Elliott’s body broke down, he became far less effective, and the Cowboys couldn’t quit him.

MORE: Does the Tony Pollard Injury Cloud Cowboys Offseason Options?

Even when many in the cheap seats were screaming about the former Memphis wide receiver who’d been silently putting up some of the best tackle-breaking and elusiveness metrics in the league. Tony Pollard needed a chance, and when he finally got it in Year 4, when Elliott was sidelined by injury, he didn’t look back.

But Pollard’s lack of career touches is a good thing, at least for whatever team may look to inquire about his services in the future. Playing running back is grueling, and taking hit after hit wears the body down. Although Pollard fractured his lower leg in the playoffs, broken bones heal. But accumulating 1,200+ touches is more damaging than a fractured bone.

2) Josh Jacobs

Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley each has more than 1,200 career touches. Jacobs has remained healthy throughout his four-year career, but he proved to be a decently inefficient runner in his time before Josh McDaniels.

There is no denying that he had a cracking 2022 campaign, though. Things like yards per carry matter little because it completely ignores situation. Obtaining positive results from a points-added model is a far better barometer for a runner’s effectiveness.

It means that the runner is getting five yards on first down, but more importantly, they’re getting two yards on 3rd-and-1. No running back in the league had a higher positive EPA rate than Jacobs.

Jacobs’ lack of explosive plays keeps him from ascending into one of the league’s elites. Pollard and Barkley are two of the best in that area, and nothing is more important to an offense’s ability to score touchdowns than creating explosive plays.

3) Saquon Barkley

No RB prospect over the past generation has gotten folks as giddy as the former Penn State Nittany Lion. The 230-pound back with legs the size of a tree stump had physics-defying athletic ability. Barkley glided through the air like a much larger Barry Sanders, and his 4.39 speed similarly glided away from opponents in the secondary.

But there were always caveats. Barkley’s dancing led to big plays, but a few negative plays between the big ones. His vision and decisiveness as a runner flashed between Cyclops and Daredevil, and he was never as physical as we’d had liked to see as a downhill runner.

Barkley wowed us early in his time with the Giants. His 2,208 all-purpose yards topped the league as a rookie. But injuries and offensive ineptitude quickly shut the door on what looked like it could be a Hall of Fame career early. Yet, even missing three games in 2019 and 2021 and only playing two games in 2020, he’s averaged almost 240 touches per year during his five-year career.

Barkley’s not as injury-prone as many believe, but he’s never been able to live up to the expectations surrounding his second overall pick status. Then again, he was never going to be able to do that.

4) Miles Sanders

There’s irony in Miles Sanders having to follow Barkley in the RB free agency rankings. The Eagles running back has already been in this position when he followed in Barkley’s footsteps as Penn State’s starter after Barkley departed to the NFL.

Jacobs had the highest positive EPA rate among the group of free agent RBs, but Sanders had the third-highst EPA-per-play average in the entire league. Only Tyler Allgeier and Aaron Jones produced higher per-play marks.

MORE: 2023 NFL Free Agents by Position

Sanders is a twitched-up runner. He’s explosive and shifty, allowing him to dart in and out of cuts to make defenders miss, or to slice through a small window of opportunity within the blocking scheme.

Behind a good offensive line, Sanders could be a valuable piece in an offense. Yet, he doesn’t have the pinball-like contact balance of the top three runners that allow them to churn for extra yards or bounce off tacklers. Sanders is more often resigned to making them whiff completely.

5) Jamaal Williams

Until 2022, Jamaal Williams had played a very specific role for the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. He was a guy who could come onto the field on third down, occasionally tote the rock, but spend most of his time pass protecting or catching passes out of the backfield.

The Lions haven’t really used their backs as pass catchers, but a nagging D’Andre Swift injury gave Williams an opportunity as Detroit’s featured back, and he seized the opportunity.

Williams led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns and shattered his previous record of 601 rushing yards by cresting the mountain on his way to 1,066. Williams is one of the most interesting characters in the entire NFL. He loves anime, puts on post-game acting performances, and is one of the best trash talkers in the league amongst his peers.

But what makes him valuable, or what made him valuable before his glow-up, is that he knows his role and can shine in various ways.

Rest of RB Free Agency Rankings

6) David Montgomery
7) Rashaad Penny
8) Jerick McKinnon
9) Devin Singletary
10) Damien Harris

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