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Analysis | What to look for as NFL free agency approaches

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There again is uncertainty in the running back market. The league’s most reputationally depressed position shows few signs of fiscal progress — even with a bumper crop of backs available — although there might be one division willing to somewhat buck the trend.

Could the NFC North be, if not salvation for some of the NFL’s best-known running backs, at least a safe haven of sorts? Conversations with numerous executives and agents involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations, revealed a consensus that three teams in that division seem willing to invest in the ground game to some degree. The Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears acted at the scouting combine like teams interested in securing a feature back, according to all of those I spoke with, and the Green Bay Packers could emerge as well. Green Bay is almost certain to move on from power back AJ Dillon while also mired in what appears to be a thorny renegotiation with 2020 Pro Bowl back Aaron Jones.

Regardless, few teams appear eager to significantly advance running back salaries, and former franchise cornerstones such as Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs face a nebulous future at a time when free agent wide receivers, safeties and even defensive tackles seem likely to have their salary goals met by multiple suitors. Anyone thinking a running back salary recalibration was coming a year after Jacobs, Barkley and Tony Pollard were hit with the franchise tag (about $10 million in 2023) is headed for a cruel spring. Several backs could face an arduous path back to that threshold, with the NFL Players Association advising contract negotiators to be ready to pounce as soon as the market opens.

“I don’t disagree with you that on a down-to-down basis it’s possible to get more value out of a back than other positions, maybe even receiver depending on the offense and the quality of the quarterback,” said one NFL general manager whose team is involved in running back discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to talk publicly about salary expectations. “But I don’t think the [financial] numbers are really there for any of these guys.

“It’s a pretty strong [free agent] class, there are going to be starters in the second day of the draft, and this is all just supply and demand. There’s more supply available at this position and less demand than for other positions. You tell me: Where is Barkley going? Who is giving him $12 million a year?”

As one agent put it: “Everybody is still trying to figure out what this market is … and it might not be great for us. I think it’s going to be tough.”

If Barkley leaves the Giants, who selected him second overall in 2018, then I would consider Chicago and Minnesota premier landing spots, in which case New York would seek a cheaper alternative. Las Vegas Raiders Coach Antonio Pierce and owner Mark Davis are known to love Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher just two years ago and still younger and fresher than other high-end backs in this market, and a reunion could be in order. The Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens are trawling the lower tiers of this market, which include backs such as Zack Moss of the Indianapolis Colts and D’Andre Swift of the Philadelphia Eagles.

And the Packers, with an emerging franchise quarterback still making peanuts on a rookie deal, could be the wild card in all of this. Jones has not been durable — Green Bay paid him close to $11 million last season for just 142 carries and two touchdowns. He has earned more than $30 million from Green Bay, and that franchise is adamant about being balanced offensively as quarterback Jordan Love enters his second full season as a starter. Chances are it can find a new every-down back for far less per year than Jones’s 2024 cost of $12 million. If Jones is cut, I would expect him to get immediate calls from Baltimore and Dallas, among others.

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