NFL’s free agency run on running backs comes with a catch

In 2023, the NFL saw only one running back sign a significant long-term deal, and he had to hold out to get that money. Already in 2024, we have seen several multi-year deals with averages over $10 million per season and guaranteed money in the tens of millions. Does that mean it’s the return of the back? Are running back contracts rebounding?

Not exactly.

In 2023, the move was to franchise tag running backs around the NFL. Iit was the most-tagged position in the league, with half of the six tags used there. At one-year, $10.091 million, it was a half-measure between long-term deals and nothing for the Dallas Cowboys (Tony Pollard), New York Giants (Saquon Barkley), and Las Vegas Raiders (Josh Jacobs).

Only one veteran running back received a big-money extension, and Jonathan Taylor wasn’t a free agent, had to ask for a trade, and even held out into the regular season in order to force the hand of the Indianapolis Colts. He returned to the team on October 5th and the three-year, $42 million extension was announced on October 8th. In the final year of his rookie deal, it’s really more of a four-year, $46.3 million deal when comparing it to free agent contracts.

He was on a lot of short lists in 2023:

  • The only RB to sign a multi-year deal worth more than $6.5 million per season
  • The only veteran RB to sign a deal with more than $11 million total fully guaranteed
  • One of three veteran RBs to sign deals with two years of guaranteed money (Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams)

Some of the other contracts signed in 2023 show why big deals for running backs aren’t the norm. Raheem Mostert ($2.2 million guaranteed) topped 1000 yards rushing and was a Pro Bowler after scoring 18 rushing touchdowns in his first year with Miami. His Dolphins teammate, Devon Achance ($955K guaranteed), had 800 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground in his first season with Miami.

With all those one-year franchise tags in 2023 now a year older and the regular free agent market in 2024, the running back position was loaded with big names heading into the new league year. Their contracts ended up being kind of a mixed bag (listed in order of guaranteed money):

  • Saquon Barkley: Three years, $37.75 million with $25.5 million guaranteed
  • D’Andre Swift: Three years, $24 million with $14 million fully guaranteed
  • Josh Jacobs: Four years, $48 million but only $12.5 million guaranteed (signing bonus)
  • Tony Pollard: Three years, $24 million with $7.5 million in year one part of $10.5 million guaranteed
  • Devin Singletary: Three years, $16.5 million with $9.5 million fully guaranteed
  • Derrick Henry: Two years, $16 million with $9 million fully guaranteed
  • Aaron Jones: One year, $7 million (guaranteed money unavailable)
  • Austin Ekeler: Two years, $8.43 million with $4.21 million fully guaranteed

In 2024, the running back franchise tag number was $11.951 million, and for any of the three players tagged last year, it would be $12.1 million.

Six of the contracts topped that $6.5 million per year threshold, but only three of the deals guaranteed more money than the franchise tag (Barkley, Swift, Jacobs), only three guaranteed all or most of both of the first two years (Barkley, Swift, Singletary). Only one contract hit all three benchmarks (Barkley), just like in 2023 with Jonathan Taylor.

Barkley’s deal is better than Taylor’s by every metric when you look from 2023 to 2025 when the guaranteed money runs out or 2023 to 2026 when both deals are set to expire. I don’t think any of the other deals are what I would consider player-friendly; either the guarantees aren’t there and they can be cut after one season (Jacobs) or the yearly average is less than or equal to $8 million (Swift, Singletary), or both (Pollard, Henry, Jones, Ekeler).

Even some well-established running backs have been on the move because of the recent signings. Joe Mixon was traded from the Bengals after Cincinnati signed Zack Moss to a two-year, $8 million deal with just $3 million guaranteed. Aaron Jones was released by the Packers after they signed Jacobs, but now he has a one-year, $7 million deal in Minnesota.

It’s not all gloom and doom. While he doesn’t have any guaranteed money left on his 2020 extension, Christian McCaffrey is set to make $12 million in cash in 2024. Alvin Kamara is a likely cap casualty for the 2025 Saints, but in 2024 he’s on the hook for $11.8 million in cash. Nick Chubb is set to make $12.2 million in cash, but his knee injury recovery complicates that.

That’s only six players making more than $10 million per season at the running back position and only two of them have guaranteed money beyond 2024. (Note: Taylor’s 2025 money actually doesn’t fully guarantee until March 17th, 2024.) Compare that to other positions, and the running backs are still lagging behind every position in the NFL that isn’t a special teams job.

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