Breaking down the biggest running back deals of NFL free agency

A year after NFL running backs made headlines for a Zoom call during which they commiserated about their position being undervalued, they’re making news for how many changed teams and landed new contracts.There are seven former Pro Bowl running backs headed to new teams this year, which is the most in any offseason in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Some of the players who were on that call, including Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs and Austin Ekeler, signed multi-year deals with new teams. But as ESPN NFL reporter Jeff Darlington points out, new contracts don’t always reflect successful negotiations.

Is there a new outlook on the value of running backs? Which one landed the best deal? Which was the biggest surprise? And what are the draft ramifications?

ESPN’s panel of Darlington, Matt Bowen, Dan Graziano, Kimberley A. Martin, Jordan Reid and Seth Walder answers the most pressing questions about the running back position a week into free agency.

Has the first week of free agency signaled a new outlook on the value of running backs?

Darlington: Last August, two NFL general managers (both squarely in the middle of last offseason’s running back drama) made clear they expected no significant uptick in the valuation of the position in 2024. They pointed toward a saturated market of available backs — and a league that would still rather have younger options on rookie deals.

Whether you realize it or not, even as players like Barkley and Jacobs get their coveted long-term deals, those general managers were exactly right. The value of the running back remains as it was last offseason: Diminished.

Nobody is coming close to Christian McCaffrey’s $16m average per year — even as the salary cap skyrocketed to $255.4 million. While everyone else is getting paid more, the running backs’ raises remain disproportionately less.

The harsh reality is clear: Top-tier running backs still have a place in this league. But general managers would rather run a rookie into the ground and find another one when it’s time to pay him. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

Which deal surprised you the most?

Martin: The Philadelphia Eagles signing Barkley. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in New York Giants owner John Mara’s office. Not only did the Eagles upgrade their rushing attack in a major way, but they weakened their division rival in the process.

It doesn’t surprise me that Eagles general manager Howie Roseman would be aggressive in free agency. It’s just jarring to think of Barkley — the face of the Giants franchise for so many years — rocking green on NFL Sundays, especially considering Barkley’s desire to be a Giant for life. Mara had hoped for the same outcome, but money talks.

Giants general manager Joe Schoen made it clear he wasn’t going to pay premium money to Barkley. Roseman, however, was. And now, the all-in Eagles are primed to have one of the toughest offenses to contain, featuring a home-run threat in both the run and pass game.

Running back Saquon Barkley reached an agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles on a three-year, $37.75 million contract that could be worth up to $46.75 million and includes $26 million fully guaranteed at signing, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. 
Which RB got the best deal relative to his value?

Graziano: Barkley, and it’s not even close.

Any time a non-quarterback gets guaranteed money in the third year of a deal, it’s a massive win, and $1.5 million of Barkley’s $12 million 2026 salary is guaranteed at signing. Even if the Eagles cut him after two years (which is possible with any of these deals), he’ll have made $26 million. If he plays out the third year, he’ll have made $37 million.

It was a home run deal for Saquon. By contrast, Jacobs’ Packers deal comes with only $12.5 million guaranteed at signing, and the Packers could release Jacobs after one year having paid him $14.8 million.

The Eagles really stretched to land Barkley, who becomes the major beneficiary of Philly’s win-now desperation.

Which team upgraded its RB position most?

Bowen: Adding Barkley elevates the Eagles’ running back room, and the entire Philadelphia offense, under new coordinator Kellen Moore.

With Barkley’s explosive, dual-threat traits, he will be deployed as a three-down back, handling run-game volume behind a premier offensive front while creating defined matchups as a receiver for quarterback Jalen Hurts.

In six pro seasons, Barkley has averaged 98.8 scrimmage yards per game, while logging a total of 288 receptions and 47 touchdowns. He’s a difference-maker who can change the offensive profile of the Eagles this season.

McAfee: Tony Pollard good for culture of Titans

Pat McAfee and his crew discuss Tony Pollard joining the Tennessee Titans from the Dallas Cowboys.

Which team most needs to make another RB move?

Walder: The Dallas Cowboys. Right now they’re rolling with the largely unproven group of Rico Dowdle, Deuce Vaughn, Malik Davis and Snoop Conner. But as a running back skeptic, when I say a “move,” I mean: Draft one in the sixth round and bank on either him or someone from the incumbent group emerging — and then look like a genius when they pop for 1,000 yards.

Dallas has been right to not spend money retaining or replacing Tony Pollard, who signed a three-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. If they want to add a very cheap veteran instead, that would be fine, too.

What about the draft — when will the first RB get picked this April?

Reid: This year’s running back draft class reminds me of 2014, when Bishop Sankey was the first one selected all the way down at No. 54 overall but seven ended up getting picked inside the top 100. The 2023 group lacks a top-tier prospect, but we could see a run at the position in the middle-to-late parts of Day 2.

I think the Cowboys — who have not signed a back after Pollard left in free agency — at No. 56 could be a starting point for such a run. Florida State’s Trey Benson shows great vision, breakaway speed, tackle-breaking ability and pass-catching traits, while Texas’ Jonathon Brooks (coming off a torn ACL) is a smooth runner with great contact balance. They are my top two RBs and could be late-Round 2 picks — and RB1s as rookies.