NFL Free Agency: Making sense of the running back market

Veteran running backs have been signing left and right despite recent history showing the draft offers better value. What is going on?

(Photo credit: Keith Allison)

The free agent market has been remarkably active for running backs. When Le’Veon Bell received the franchise tag it was assumed that teams would wait on running back and throw money elsewhere. After all, the biggest free agent signing in recent history, DeMarco Murray, was traded one year into his five-year, $42 million deal from the Eagles, and then cut just a week ago after two years with Tennessee.

If that wasn’t a red flag to paying the position I don’t know what would be.

And yet we have seen a reshaping of the position this week as teams went hunting for running backs once again.

Big money McKinnon

2017 was meant to be the year of Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in Minnesota, but an early ACL tear for Cook left snaps on the table for Jerick McKinnon, who had been a third-round pick in 2014 by the Vikings but only a part-time ball carrier in his career.

McKinnon did little to stand out last year. He registered 570 yards on 150 carries, just 3.8 yards per carry, but did show up in the passing game with 51 receptions for 421 yards. It is that receiving production that turned some heads in free agency, which is understandable, but for the San Francisco 49ers to hand him the third-biggest contract for a back in the NFL is crazy.

The four-year, $30 million deal contains $15.7 million in practical guarantees and positions McKinnon to be the feature back for the 49ers, in theory anyway. It seems like a big gamble given that he has never seen more than 159 carries in a season.

Kyle Shanahan has made good use of backs that can do a bit of everything, but often they were under-drafted and cheap talents. It seems strange to take that lesson and turn it into a massive investment on relatively untested talent. The 49ers have a lot of cap room this season and have front-loaded the deal, but it still limits their flexibility and represents a massive overpay for both the player and the previous production.

But what about Barkley?

The Cleveland Browns were reportedly enamored with Saquon Barkley following his ridiculous Combine performance. Spending a top five pick on a back is becoming a more popular idea following the success of Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, and with two such picks in their back pocket it seemed a lock that the Browns would take Barkley with one of them.

Then they signed Carlos Hyde to a three-year, $15 million deal. Like the 49ers, Cleveland have more cap space than they can spend, but they do only have 53 roster spots come September, and with Hyde and Duke Johnson already on the books putting Barkley in their running back room seems like a very odd use of resources now.

Of course, signing a veteran doesn’t preclude them from taking Barkley at the top of the draft or a back on day two, but with so many needs elsewhere around the roster it would look like Saquon Barkley’s availability for the like of Tampa Bay and the Jets just improved.

One out, one in for Tennessee

After getting out of the DeMarco Murray contract, the Titans decided not to spread their cap hits out but to reinvest in the running back position by adding Dion Lewis on a four-year, $19.8 million deal. While Lewis’ signing continues the Patriotization of Tennessee and brings a nice diversity of skills for Matt LaFleur to use, it also makes it harder to flesh out the rest of the roster, especially when you combine it with shopping at the top of the cornerback market.

2017 proved that Derrick Henry was ready to shoulder the load as a feature back in the NFL. He was half a yard better per carry than Murray, and while Lewis’ receiving talents make up for Henry’s lack of production in the passing game, if they don’t give Lewis a reasonable amount of carries then the back will just be an easy run/pass read for defenses.

It seems a strange decision to leave 2017 with a “we should give Derrick Henry the ball more” lesson and then make free agent moves to block that path.

So what about the rookies?

Barkley won’t last long on draft day despite Cleveland’s moves. He is too talented to make it past Tampa Bay at #7. But for the likes of Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, and Ronald Jones, they may be waiting longer than expected.

The success of Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt as day two picks, as well as the likes of Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Devonta Freeman seems to be forgotten come free agency once again. Running backs are cheaper and more consistent draft day prospects than basically any other position. There are some teams that realize this.

Seattle always need a back, but are always happy to take a roll of the dice with rookies. New England didn’t put up a fight to keep Lewis, instead they re-signed Rex Burkhead on a three-year, $9.75 million deal and will look to the draft for their feature back. The same goes for the Green Bay Packers.

They will be the ones to profit from the busier running back market that we have seen in the last week. While the price tag for middling veterans increased, the price of talented rookies just dropped even further.

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Toby Durant


Deputy Editor at RealSport. A life-long gamer, I have been with RealSport since 2016 and spent time covering the world of Formula 1, NFL, and football for the site before expanding into esports.


I lead the site's coverage of motorsport titles with a particular focus on Formula 1. I also lead RealSport's Madden content while occasionally dipping my toe into Football Manager and esports coverage of Gfinity Series events.