The NFL free agency running back logjam finally dislodged Wednesday. The biggest remaining names (Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams, James Robinson) found homes — some new, some familiar.
So who are the winners and losers among running backs and teams needing them through three days of NFL free agency? Let’s explore.
Winners, Losers of NFL Free Agency Running Back Moves
With the top three free agent running backs — Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, and Saquon Barkley — franchised by the Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders, and New York Giants, respectively, before the start of free agency, most knew the remaining class wasn’t super strong.
But few envisioned the bottom of the market completely falling out like it has. Of the dozen-plus running back transactions this week, not one of the new contracts ranks in the top 12 league-wide from an AAV standpoint. And that’s despite the 2023 NFL salary cap ($224.8 million) set at a record high.
So there are very few running backs who are winners in this cycle. But there were a few, plus several teams have had a really good week.
Winner: Miles Sanders
Let’s start off with some good news from a player perspective. Sanders bucked the trend of 2023 free agency, landing a four-year deal with the Carolina Panthers worth a reported $25 million.
That $6.3 million AAV — with $13 million guaranteed — makes him the NFL’s 13th-highest-paid running back. And it’s a big bump from the $5.4 million total he made over the first four seasons of his NFL career.
Sanders will presumably slide into the role Jonathan Taylor filled for Frank Reich in Indianapolis. In 2021, Taylor had 2,171 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns on 372 touches.
Loser: Ezekiel Elliott
It was a foregone conclusion that Ezekiel Elliott was going to have to take a pay cut in 2023. But considering how depressed the market is, how low will his salary go?
Pretty darn low.
Elliott enters a market in which most of the chairs have been claimed. He’ll probably never again be an RB1, but based on history alone, you would have thought there is some role for him, particularly as a short-yardage back.
But right now, he’s not as good as Jamaal Williams, and the market determined Williams is a $4 million-a-year player (the Saints signed him for $12 million over three years). It’s not a great sign for Zeke that the Vikings determined that Alexander Mattison (who hasn’t averaged four yards per carry since 2020) was a better option.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles will certainly miss Sanders’ versatility, but they’ve managed to put together a solid RB room despite spending next to nothing on the position. Philadelphia brought back Boston Scott on a one-year, $2 million deal and may have landed the steal of free agency by convincing Rashaad Penny to join up on a one-year, $1.4 million pact. If Penny can stay healthy (a big if, we know), watch out.
The Eagles are one of just seven teams with less than $5 million invested in their running backs for 2023, which is instructive. They simply don’t value the position. And with just six draft picks and more pressing needs on defense, that total probably won’t grow much.
Loser: Tennessee Titans
With most of the teams with RB needs having filled them (and for cheap), Derrick Henry probably isn’t going anywhere. Which isn’t the worst thing — he still rushed for 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2022 — but Henry is probably on the downslope of his career.
After averaging 5.0 yards per carry in his first five NFL seasons, Henry’s averaged just 4.4 in the last two. That’s still a very respectable figure, but considering his heavy workload as a pro, there’s a real risk that he has a Zeke-like dropoff in effectiveness sooner rather than later.
So you can understand why the Titans were apparently shopping Henry before the season. But considering what the market is for running backs right now, it’s hard to see anyone eager to take on his $10.5 million base salary. Tennessee’s best chance to move him is probably the trade deadline.
Winner: Mike McDaniel
The Miami Dolphins had zero running backs under contract 10 days ago. Now they have four — and they’re all familiar names.
Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Myles Gaskin, and Salvon Ahmed are all back for another go-round with Mike McDaniel, which surely makes the second-year coach happy. He loves players he can trust, and those four — who combined to average 4.8 yards per carry in McDaniel’s multiple offense in 2022 — fit the bill.
Loser: James Robinson
Certainly, his contract — two years, $8 million with the New England Patriots — is nothing to sneeze at in this economy. But James Robinson seemed destined for greater riches based on his first two NFL seasons, when he totaled 1,837 yards on 404 carries (4.5 yards per).
His bank account suffered from the double-whammy of a depressed market and a history of injuries (including a torn Achilles in 2021) that have been a big reason he’s missed 11 games in his first three NFL seasons.
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