Just like it has in other fields of work, the stars are aligning for a Great Reshuffle in the NFL at the running back position in 2023:
- 14 starting-caliber backs set to hit free agency, more cuts possible
- Another 8 who could be Day 2 or even Day 1 draft picks
- Plus the perfect storm of aging stars and the ground game resurging in importance
The Big Picture: 2023 RB Turnover
There are a lot of aspects about this coming offseason in 2023 that are setting it up to be fascinating, even by NFL standards. We’ve dug into some of those topics already and we’ll get into even more in this space over the next several weeks. But the most unique thing about this coming offseason is how much change is brewing at the running back position.
Due to the convergence of several different factors, we are headed toward massive turnover at the position in 2023. It’s a perfect storm of players with expiring contracts, veteran stars getting older and an exceptional draft class loaded with fresh talent. Half the league could have a new No. 1 back, and when you factor in other roles that are up for grabs, the change could be dizzying.
The first element creating this upcoming ecosystem is the existing talent at the position. There’s an impressive list of backs who are set to be free agents this coming offseason:
- Giants RB Saquon Barkley
- Raiders RB Josh Jacobs
- Browns RB Kareem Hunt
- Bears RB David Montgomery
- Eagles RB Miles Sanders
- Cowboys RB Tony Pollard
- Patriots RB Damien Harris
- Vikings RB Alexander Mattison
- Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny
- Bills RB Devin Singletary
- Lions RB Jamaal Williams
- Dolphins RB Raheem Mostert
- Dolphins RB Jeff Wilson
- Panthers RB D’Onta Foreman
Free agency isn’t usually kind to running backs but that should be different with a crew this talented. Barkley’s the obvious headliner here as the prodigiously talented former No. 2 overall pick. He’s healthy this season and has been a huge part of the Giants’ unexpected success in 2022. If he makes it to free agency — and the Giants will have a dilemma with just one franchise tag and two compelling candidates in Barkley and QB Daniel Jones — Barkley is the kind of multi-dimensional, all-purpose back who would garner a lot of interest.
There are plenty of consolation prizes for teams who miss out, though. Jacobs is in the middle of a career year after the Raiders declined his fifth-year option. He leads the NFL in rushing and has literally carried Las Vegas to wins at times. He’s been so good that it’s becoming harder and harder to see the Raiders letting him go, even though paying big bucks to a running back might not be the biggest priority for a team that looks like it’s on the verge of a rebuild. There’s a gap between him and Barkley but it’s probably smaller than people think.
The list goes on. Hunt is a top-tier talent who has had to play second fiddle for a while but is more than capable of leading his own backfield. Sanders and Montgomery are capable starters coming off of rookie contracts, and guys like Pollard and Mattison have flashed starter ability in part-time duty behind other established backs. Harris, Singletary and Williams are less hyped and more workmanlike but also capable of starting. And Penny is a talented player who remains a wildcard due to a lengthy injury history. In 15 games over the past two seasons, he’s put up more than 1,000 rushing yards.
Now some of these players will stay with their original teams, but a fair amount of them won’t due to the nature of the position. A lot of teams like to cycle through young backs, as it’s cheaper and many running backs have their peak production while still on their rookie contracts. For those teams, as well as others who miss out on free agency or who otherwise want to bolster their backfield, the 2023 draft class is shaping up to be just what they’re looking for.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of running backs who have gotten serious Day 1 or Day 2 buzz for the 2023 NFL Draft:
- Texas RB Bijan Robinson
- Alabama RB Jahmyr Gibbs
- Ole Miss RB Zach Evans
- Syracuse RB Sean Tucker
- Michigan RB Blake Corum
- Texas A&M RB Devon Achane
- UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet
- Auburn RB Tank Bigsby
We’re obviously a long way out from the draft and a lot can change. Some of these players might even decide to stay in school. Still, it’s shaping up to be an excellent year. Robinson is the headliner and he’s a blue-chip talent who will probably land in the top 20 picks. Considering how the NFL has devalued the position, that says a lot. He’s a stallion of a player who has everything the league could want — terrific athleticism, tackle-breaking ability and skill in the passing game.
After Robinson, Gibbs could also push for a first-round selection. He’s smaller and not as imposing athletically but he has the type of dual-threat ability teams covet in running backs these days. Gibbs led the Tide with 37 receptions this season and has 101 so far in his college career, drawing some comparisons to Saints RB Alvin Kamara. At a minimum, he should go early in the second round which has become a sweet spot for backs in recent years.
A number of these other backs will also make strong cases to go in the second or third rounds. Evans and Bigsby were highly-touted recruits who produced almost immediately out of high school. While their careers have plateaued somewhat, they remain promising prospects. Bigsby is a hammer of a runner, while Evans has more of a gliding style. Corum burst onto the scene this year with nearly 1,500 yards rushing and was a potential Heisman finalist before a knee injury. Tucker is another short but explosive runner who’s been highly productive. And Charbonnet has been a bellcow for a UCLA program that runs a pro-style offense for two seasons now.
One who stands apart, however, is Achane. Not so much because he’s a better prospect per se, but he has a trump card that none of the other backs in this class have — pure, unadulterated speed. He’s a legitimate threat to run under 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. And he’s not just a track star they slapped pads and a helmet on. He handled nearly 200 carries in the SEC this year and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Plenty of guys are fast, but Achane is a legitimately good football player. The speed will generate comparisons to former Titans RB Chris Johnson, and Achane has a chance to live up to them.
These are just the names that have the most buzz right now, and some might fall by the wayside as we get closer to the end of April. But there will also be guys who pick up steam during the process, or who break out as sleepers once the games actually start in 2023. Guys like Texas’ Roschon Johnson, UAB’s DeWayne McBride or Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn could make some noise next year.
The Danger Zone
A stacked free agent pool and loaded draft class alone would make this a pretty active offseason for the running back position. But the third factor accelerating the potential craziness is the critical mass of veteran running backs who are getting to the age where their teams will start to think about replacing them.
All of these backs will be at least 28 years old next year, which is notable given running back play historically starts to drop off severely at about 29 or 30. Several of these players also have potential outs in their contract that will tempt teams to move on:
- Titans RB Derrick Henry
- Chargers RB Austin Ekeler
- Vikings RB Dalvin Cook
- Saints RB Alvin Kamara
- Packers RB Aaron Jones
- Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
- Cardinals RB James Conner
- Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette
- Falcons RB Cordarrelle Patterson
Ticking through the list, Tennessee could use both a backup who can carry the load if Henry goes down and future long-term successor to someone who’s had more carries than anyone else over the past five years. The Chargers have been trying to find someone to take some of the poundings off Ekeler for a couple of seasons now. Cook has an out in his contract and Minnesota is tight to the cap.
The Saints can’t get out of Kamara’s contract easily in 2023 but they could really use someone to come in and take some of the heavy-duty work to allow him to focus on what he does best. Kamara has had an inconsistent season. All three of his touchdowns came in one game against the Raiders and he has struggled the past few weeks.
Elliott and Jones both have outs in their contract which will test just how committed their teams are to them. Elliott will count $16.72 million against the cap, with $4.86 million in savings and $11.86 million in dead money. Jones will count just over $20 million, with $10.5 million in savings and $9.5 million in dead money. He feels like a slightly more likely cut than Elliott considering he’s also 29 and the Packers have limited financial flexibility, but time will tell.
Conner’s base salary for 2023 is already guaranteed but Arizona could look to supplement the committee behind him. Fournette is a cap casualty candidate with a youngster already behind him nipping on his heels. And Patterson is the oldest of this bunch with a knee injury he’s had to manage most of the season. It seems like the Falcons are trying to be deliberate to preserve him as much as possible.
Maybe only a couple of these players actually end up on new teams but all of their teams should at least be kicking the tires on adding new players to the backfield, if not aggressively pursuing reinforcements.
Putting It All Together
Here’s another way of looking at the running back landscape. We’ve gone team-by-team, backfield by backfield. Pending free agents are in bold, and players older than 28 or with outs in their contract are italicized.
|ARI||James Conner||Darrel Williams|
|ATL||Cordarrelle Patterson||Tyler Allgeier|
|BAL||J.K. Dobbins||Gus Edwards|
|BUF||Devin Singletary||James Cook||Nyheim Hines|
|CAR||D’Onta Foreman||Chuba Hubbard|
|CHI||David Montgomery||Khalil Herbert|
|CIN||Joe Mixon||Samaje Perine|
|CLE||Nick Chubb||Kareem Hunt|
|DAL||Ezekiel Elliott||Tony Pollard|
|DEN||Javonte Williams||Latavius Murray||Chase Edmonds|
|DET||D’Andre Swift||Jamaal Williams|
|GB||Aaron Jones||AJ Dillon|
|HOU||Dameon Pierce||Rex Burkhead|
|IND||Jonathan Taylor||Zack Moss|
|JAX||Travis Etienne||Darrell Henderson|
|KC||Isiah Pacheco||Jerick McKinnon||Clyde Edwards-Helaire|
|LAC||Austin Ekeler||Joshua Kelley|
|LAR||Cam Akers||Kyren Williams|
|LV||Josh Jacobs||Zamir White|
|MIA||Raheem Mostert||Jeff Wilson|
|MIN||Dalvin Cook||Alexander Mattison|
|NE||Rhamondre Stevenson||Damien Harris|
|NO||Alvin Kamara||Mark Ingram|
|NYJ||Breece Hall||Michael Carter||James Robinson*|
|PHI||Miles Sanders||Kenneth Gainwell|
|PIT||Najee Harris||Jaylen Warren|
|SF||Christian McCaffrey||Elijah Mitchell||Tyrion Davis-Price|
|SEA||Kenneth Walker||Rashaad Penny|
|TB||Leonard Fournette||Rachaad White|
|TEN||Derrick Henry||Dontrell Hilliard|
|WAS||Brian Robinson||Antonio Gibson||J.D. McKissic|
*restricted free agent
Based on this table:
- Half the league — 16 teams — have starting running backs who are either pending free agents or in the danger zone. This does not include teams who have incumbent starters they may want to upgrade, which is a matter of opinion but could add two or three more.
- Some of those teams have viable No. 2 backs who could move into a starting role, which would then leave them in need of a secondary option since the vast majority of teams operate on a running back-by-committee basis.
- In addition to those teams, there are numerous more who might have starters but need upgrades to the No. 2 position.
- In my estimation, there are only four teams who can say they don’t need “any” help at running back; the Commanders, 49ers, Steelers and Jets. Given the injury rate at the position, teams are always looking, but this bunch will have far bigger priorities this offseason.
This table is crucial because it shows that even though the supply of running backs will be high, the demand should be there to meet it. Another factor is how we’ve seen the NFL change this year. The major defensive trend is to sit with two safeties deep to take away the deep ball and force offenses to settle for underneath passes, banking that they’ll either lose patience or make a mistake. The best way to beat this kind of defense, besides being hyper-efficient, is to run the ball. Offenses that can run the ball effectively force defenses to bring an extra safety into the box, creating space for the passing game. This season is the closest running efficiency and passing efficiency have been in about a decade.
If the run game is having a resurgence, that is good news for the running back position which has been constantly degraded for years — does the phrase “running backs don’t matter” ring a bell? This offseason, though, they actually might. At least more than they have.
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