NFL News & Analysis

2023 NFL Free Agency: The top running backs set for free agency, including Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) reacts after running the ball against Houston Texans linebacker Christian Kirksey (58) during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Even though there are eight weeks left of the regular season, NFL personnel staffs have already started looking into the players entering free agency in 2023.

Starting this week, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the upcoming free agency class. We’ll start with a deep running back class that boasts the likes of Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard.

Where the RB market currently stands

San Francisco 49ers back Christian McCaffrey signed his current contract back in 2020, but he is still the highest-paid back in the league. His deal averages $16 million per season.

The last lucrative contract awarded to a running back was Nick Chubb’s three-year, $36.6 million deal — which included $20 million in total guarantees — in August of 2021.

Player Average Per Year Total Guarantees Fully Guaranteed Year Signed
Christian McCaffrey $16,015,853 $36,346,412 $30,062,500 2020
Ezekiel Elliott $15,000,000 $50,052,137 $28,052,137 2019
Alvin Kamara $15,000,000 $34,333,333 $17,833,000 2020
Dalvin Cook $12,600,000 $28,131,361 $16,331,361 2020

What to watch for: Several teams gave up draft capital to acquire a running back at the trade deadline, which executives and agents found interesting. The Panthers traded McCaffrey for a barrage of future picks, including picks in the second and third rounds. Jeff Wilson Jr. was traded for a fifth. James Robinson and Nyheim Hines were both traded for a conditional sixth that could become a fifth.

It raised the question of whether some teams are once again starting to value the running back position. Some agents avoided recruiting the position in recent years because of the notion they got from teams that the position is easily replaceable. So, it will be interesting to see how much these running backs can get on the open market.

Franchise and transition tags: According to OverTheCap.com, the franchise tag for running backs is projected to be $12,632,000, while the Transition tag is projected to be $10,197,000.

The 2023 free agent class

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

2022 Snaps: 504
Overall grade:
79.6 (11th)
PFF WAR:
 0.10 (6th)

The Giants are in a fascinating situation with Barkley, who is having a career season after dealing with injuries the last couple of years. Both Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones are in the final year of their rookie deals, and the Giants can only use one tag. They tried to get a long-term deal done with Barkley before the bye, but talks were tabled.

And here’s the thing: Barkley has made decent money so far because he was the No. 2 overall pick in his draft. He’s collected $31,194,750 fully guaranteed over five years.

He’ll be 26 years old in February and is clearly one of the few “special” running backs in the league when healthy. His 931 rushing yards lead the league through Week 10, his 594 yards after contact rank third, and no player at the position has racked up more yards from rushes of 10 or more yards.

Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

2022 Snaps: 420
Overall grade:
91.6 (1st)
PFF WAR:
 0.14 (2nd)

Earlier this year, the Raiders declined Jacobs’ fifth-year option that would’ve paid him $8 million for the 2023 season. The Alabama product seems to have taken that personally and has gone on to be PFF’s highest-graded running back through 10 weeks.

Jacobs is top-five in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards after contact, missed tackles forced and 10-plus-yard runs. He will be 25 years old in February.

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

2022 Snaps: 307
Overall grade:
87.9 (6th)
PFF WAR:
 0.10 (6th)

Pollard might be the most interesting option out of all the running backs because he’s been overshadowed by Ezekiel Elliott and his enormous contract.

Still, over the last two seasons, Pollard has bettered his teammate in explosive runs of 10 or more yards (37 to 32) and yards after contact (1000 to 962). Pollard started in Week 8 against Chicago and ran for 131 yards and three touchdowns.

Through 10 weeks, Pollard's 89.9 rushing grade ranks fifth among qualifying running backs.

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

2022 Snaps: 361
Overall grade:
64.0 (45th)
PFF WAR:
 0.06 (21st)

The Bears running back has rushed for 850 or more yards in each of his first three seasons and proved to be a reliable receiving option out of the backfield, having totaled 136 career catches for 1,074 yards.

Chicago has Khalil Herbert waiting in the wings, which should allow Montgomery to explore his options this offseason.

Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

2022 Snaps: 371
Overall grade:
70.6 (29th)
PFF WAR:
 0.08 (14th)

Sanders recorded just 754 yards and didn’t score a touchdown in 2021, but he did average 5.5 yards per carry to tie for the second-best mark in the NFL. He’s on pace to have career-highs in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2022 and is once again averaging over 5.0 yards per carry.

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

2022 Snaps: 292
Overall grade:
63.0 (47th)
PFF WAR:
 0.06 (21st)

Hunt requested a trade before the season due to his contract situation but ultimately stayed put. His 3.19 yards after contact per rush attempt since 2017 ranks 13th among backs with 300-plus carries over that span. His 83.7 receiving grade since 2017 ranks eighth among all backs with at least 100 targets.

He’ll be 28 years old at the start of next season.

Damien Harris, New England Patriots

2022 Snaps: 147
Overall grade:
71.6 (24th)
PFF WAR:
 0.04 (37th)

Harris has totaled nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in the last two and a half years. His 86.6 PFF grade in 2021 ranked second among all running backs. His 90.3 mark in 2020 also finished second, though he played just 175 snaps.

Rhamondre Stevenson’s emergence this season has put Harris in the back seat a little. The former Alabama product will be 26 years old at the start of next season.

Jeff Wilson Jr., Miami Dolphins

2022 Snaps: 335
Overall grade:
71.6 (24th)
PFF WAR:
 0.07 (17th)

Wilson took advantage of injuries in San Francisco earlier this season only to get dealt to Miami and reunite with Mike McDaniel, who was the architect of San Francisco’s run game along with Kyle Shanahan.

He’s only elevated his game since and appears to be the top back in Miami for the stretch run of the season. Since Week 9, Wilson has racked up 170 rushing yards and 73 yards after contact on 26 rush attempts — 6.6 yards per carry — and has added 45 yards on five receptions.

Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions

2022 Snaps: 248
Overall grade:
71.6 (24th)
PFF WAR:
 0.05 (36th)

Williams has not only been praised for his play but also for being a great locker-room presence. The Lions have had to rely on him due to injuries, and he’s stepped up with 600-plus rushing yards in back-to-back years. His nine rushing touchdowns so far this season are tied for second-most in the league, and his 393 yards after contact is top-15 among all running backs.

D'Onta Foreman, Carolina Panthers

2022 Snaps: 178
Overall grade:
73.8 (18th)
PFF WAR:
 0.04 (38th)

Foreman looked like he might be done with football after Houston cut him in 2018. He bounced around from team to team and eventually found his way to Tennessee last season, where he filled in for the injured Derrick Henry to put up 566 rushing yards and a 68.3 PFF grade.

The former Texas Longhorn joined Carolina this past offseason and the doors once again opened for him after the team traded Christian McCaffrey. He’s run for over 100 yards in three of his four games since taking over the starting job, earning an 80.2 PFF grade in the process.

 


More running backs set to be free agents:
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins
Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
D'Ernest Johnson, Cleveland Browns
Kenyan Drake, Baltimore Ravens

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