Running Backs can find value in 2024

Green Bay Packers v Las Vegas Raiders
Green Bay Packers v Las Vegas Raiders / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

2023 seemed like rock bottom for the running back position and the value the elite backs brought to teams. Free agency came around with a nice group of running backs available, but when the dust settled, none walked out with any big deals.

Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs were franchise-tagged by their teams, both coming off career seasons. Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliot had to wait until almost the start of the season to get a job. Miles Sanders, who also had a career season, signed a deal for $6 million a year with the Panthers. 

Jonathan Taylor, the Colts' running back and best player, had to hold out into the season to get a deal he felt matched his talents. Negotiations were rough; at one point, he even asked the Colts to trade him. Taylor was the only Running Back in 2023 to get a multiyear deal worth more than $6 million when he signed a three-year extension for $42 million with $26 million guaranteed. 

2024 free agency showed up, and we found out that there’s life in the running back market after all. Saquon Barkley signed a three-year $37.75 million deal, while Josh Jacobs signed in Green Bay for four years at $48 million. D’Andre Swift made good money after signing with the Bears for three years at $24 million.

Running backs have been devalued in recent years since they’ve become more expendable. Once upon a time, you needed a workhorse back to lead your offense into contention like Walter Payton, Emmit Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, or Adrian Peterson. 

With the rise of the passing attack, teams felt they could plug any cheap option at the position, and it would work as long as they could have some form of success on the ground. They wouldn’t need a big-name running back on the offense.

It also doesn’t help the shelf life of a Running Back is concise, and when guys like Todd Gurley, Le’veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliot all signed big contracts but immediately went from explosive thousand-yard seasons to, in Gurley’s case, being out of the league at 27 or Bell who in his first five seasons in the NFL put up 5,336 yards and 35 touchdowns by 25 would spend his next three seasons switching teams from the Jets to the Chiefs to Baltimore and finishing in Tampa Bay. 

Once Bell left the Steelers at 25, he would only muster 1,218 yards and seven touchdowns over his final three seasons. Ezekiel Elliot had Dallas in the palm of his hand at 24, but once he signed his massive extension, a decline soon after happened to him as well. 

Elliot led the league in rushing two times in his first four seasons (2016, 2018), but once he turned 25, he has only been able to put together one 1,000-yard season since. These guys made the NFL hesitant to hand out big contracts to the running back position when their best years occur during their rookie deal.

There are outliers like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, who make $16 and $15 million a year, respectively, but they struck at the right time. running backs can’t expect to get the same money those guys got, as the NFL only has six players at the position who make over $10 million a season.

  1. Christian McCaffrey $16 million
  2. Alvin Kamara $15 million
  3. Jonathon Taylor $14 million
  4. Saquon Barkley $12.6 million
  5. Nick Chubb $12.2 million
  6. Josh Jacobs $12 million

However, one of the best running backs of this generation may have set himself apart from the rest. Derrick Henry signed a two-year $16 million deal with the Ravens and is 30 years old. The difference is that Henry is built like a tank at 6’3, 250 lbs, is just showing signs of a falloff, and still had over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Running back contracts are no longer the groundbreaking deals of 1996 when Emmit Smith was the highest-paid player in the NFL at $11.5 million, but with offenses like the 49ers, Rams, Packers, and Dolphins taking over the league by relying on versatile running backs, the rest of the NFL may follow suit behind these innovative offenses. 

2024 is an important year for the running back position, and if moves like Saquon to the Eagles can elevate teams, I think we’ll start to see the value return slowly but surely.