The 2023 NFL free agent market is ripe with running back talent, including the NFL’s leading rusher from this past season.
Teams are now leaning toward running backs in their mid-20s. Anything 28 years old and above has teams thinking about short-term deals, not long-term ones. With the way the running back market has been and what we’ve seen with backs like Ezekiel Elliot and Christian McCaffrey, teams are not going to sign guys for more than two years. Maybe some backs will get three-year deals, but NFL teams aren’t stupid. They’ll put some guarantees in there, but I would be stunned to see any of the running back deals this offseason go past three years.
For the most part, the value of running backs in the market is dropping more than other positions because you can plug in different guys. As long as you’re getting good quarterback play and good line play, most of the running backs do similar things. But this year, there are a few special backs, like Saquon Barkley, and some high-quality ones who are hitting the market.
Here are my top-10 running backs potentially heading to free agency this offseason (all stats are from the 2022 regular season):
Top 10 Free Agent Running Backs
10. Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City Chiefs
Att: 72 | Yds: 291 | TD: 1 | Rec: 56 | Yds: 512 | TD: 9
I like Jerick McKinnon‘s versatility. I think he’s he’s still got some great burst. But for me, the guys that can catch the ball and line up out of the backfield and split out wide are highly valuable. A player like McKinnon is dangerous because of that pass-catching skillset.
9. D’Onta Foreman, Carolina Panthers
Att: 203 | Yds: 914 | TD: 5 | Rec: 5 | Yds: 26 | TD: 0
D’Onta Foreman is an absolute tank, but he’s got deceptive lateral movement. That combination is a nightmare for defensive backs because they come up and try and tackle a guy like that, and he can flat-out run them over or sidestep them or jump over them.
8. Jeff Wilson, Miami Dolphins
Att: 176 | Yds: 860 | TD: 5 | Rec: 22 | Yds: 185 | TD: 1
Jeff Wilson was splitting time with Raheem Mostert when he was playing for the San Francisco 49ers. The same thing happened again with the Miami Dolphins after the trade at the deadline. Wilson’s versatility and burst are what land him on my list, and that’s going to be a common theme with these rankings.
This goes all the way back to 1993, my rookie season in Minnesota. Three games in, Jack Burns, our offensive coordinator, got fired and Brian Billick took over. Billick was an analytics guy. “There are two things that determine the outcomes of games: turnovers and explosive plays,” he would say.
We’ve heard other coaches talk about this, too. It’s just hard to get 12-, 15-play drives consistently. You’ve got to have those guys that can take it to the house from anywhere, and Wilson is one of those guys.
7. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Att: 106 | Yds: 462 | TD: 3 | Rec: 17 | Yds: 97 | TD: 0
Damien Harris had to split time with other backs for the New England Patriots. People look at running backs who split time and think it’s because they aren’t good enough to handle a full load. But it also means fewer hits on their body. All the way from his time at Alabama, Harris has been a player who can run and catch the ball and is very physical. Coming from Bill Belichick’s system, you know he’s hard-nosed and is one of those “lunch-pail” guys.
6. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
Att: 201 | Yds: 801 | TD: 5 | Rec: 34 | Yds: 316 | TD: 1
I remember how fun it was to watch David Montgomery run at Iowa State. I love his lateral movement. But the one knock on him is he’s not really the home-run threat. But he’s consistent enough and catches the ball well.
He got injured during the season, which kind of hurt some of his numbers. But he played through a lot of things, too. He’s tough and will show up and has the versatility as a true three-down player. You can trust him with pass protection, catching the ball out of the backfield, and running the ball.
To me, it’s just it’s so wide open in regards to whether Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles should bring him back. Poles traded away quality players like Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn for draft capital. They’ve got so many pieces they need to fill on the defensive side, and they’ve only got so much money. They need help on the outside more than anything. They need some receivers for Justin Fields.
5. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Att: 259 | Yds: 1,269 | TD: 11 | Rec: 20 | Yds: 78 | TD: 0
I love Miles Sanders‘ burst. I had a chance to call one of his games when he was at Penn State, and I could see it then. He’s one of those guys that can take it to the house at any moment. His receiving numbers have dropped off a bit, which is a bit of a surprise. But I know he’s capable of doing it.
4. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
Att: 123 | Yds: 468 | TD: 3 | Rec: 35 | Yds: 210 | TD: 1
I know Kareem Hunt was upset this season and asked for a trade from the Cleveland Browns. He’s been splitting time a lot over the past couple of years with Nick Chubb, so he’s taken fewer hits on the body. As a running back, you know you’ve only got a certain number of hits that your body can take. That’s been beneficial for Hunt since coming over from the Kansas City Chiefs.
We’ve seen stints where Chubb has been hurt, and Hunt has been the primary back for Cleveland. He recommitted to the team after the initial trade request, which is a good sign. He’s versatile and a beast. He can run you over or make you look stupid by cutting around you. I loved watching him play.
3. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Att: 193 | Yds: 1,007 | TD: 9 | Rec: 39 | Yds: 371 | TD: 3
So many Dallas Cowboys fans were clamoring to see more Tony Pollard the past couple of years. I think we got an idea of why people wanted to see Pollard this year. When you look at the comparison of yards per carry between him and Elliot, Elliot averages less than 4 and Pollard averages more than 5.
Pollard creates more explosive plays, catches the ball out of the backfield and can do it all. He can score from anywhere on the field. Obviously, he’s got the broken leg injury from the 49ers game, so we’ll see how the recovery goes. I don’t think it’s going to keep him out too long; he’s going to be back and ready to go. But he can just leave guys in the dust. Defenders think they have the right angle on him, but he’s just gone. With the injury, it’s hard to say if that will change.
I don’t really think there’s a system he can’t fit into. Quite honestly, if you want to fully utilize his skillset, then you need to split him out and get him the ball. It creates mismatches by lining him up initially in the backfield and then motioning him out. But I don’t think there’s a system he wouldn’t work in or that an offensive coordinator wouldn’t tailor an attack to utilize his skillset.
Some had concerns about Pollard and whether he was big enough. Is he going to handle the pass protection? He’s certainly proven he can handle pass protection. But it’s the explosiveness, for me, that makes the difference because it’s so hard to march down the field with long drives.
Pollard can score from anywhere, can motion out of the backfield, create mismatches, and do it all. Pollard leaving in free agency would be a big deal for the Cowboys. I know there has been talk about potentially restructuring Elliot’s deal. There’s no way Elliot’s numbers are going to be what they are right now.
If they cut him they would save about $4 million on the cap, and assuming Pollard’s contract ends up in the $10 million to $11 million range, that seems like a no-brainer to do. I wouldn’t want to take the chance of Pollard hitting the open market. He can be a difference-maker in a way that most running backs can’t, because most running backs aren’t going to take it to the house from everywhere consistently.
Elliott is aging and overpriced. I think it’s a no-brainer to bring back Pollard.
2. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Att: 340 | Yds: 1,653 | TD: 12 | Rec: 53 | Yds: 400 | TD: 0
It was a bit of a concern not seeing the Las Vegas Raiders pick up Josh Jacobs’ fifth-year option coming into the season. For all the people on the outside guessing, you see the numbers, you see game-day stuff that looks pretty good, but you just wonder what that reason was.
What else can you say after this season though? He lead the league in rushing and had almost five yards per carry. He is one of those guys that can run people over or take it to the house like the 82-yard run he had against the Seattle Seahawks in overtime. That’s a sweet feeling, by the way. There’s nothing like scoring a touchdown in overtime to end the game. I only had the chance to do it once.
He hasn’t done much receiving out of the backfield, but he can do it. He’s going to be highly valued and can fit into any system.
1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Att: 295 | Yds: 1,312 | TD: 10 | Rec: 57 | Yds: 338 | TD: 0
I was in Columbus, Ohio, when Penn State should have beaten Ohio State in 2017, and I saw Barkley return a kickoff for a touchdown. But Ohio State came back and won that one. Still, seeing him in person at that young age, he’s just different man. He’s just different.
Obviously, he had injury issues after his rookie season. But what we saw this year was what we expected to see once he got healthy. He caught 91 passes when he was a rookie. The numbers have come down there, but he’s still very capable. The thing that impresses me the most about Saquon, is more than any of these other backs, he can take it to the house from anywhere but also his vision and ability to make the second, third and fourth cuts while still staying vertical is unmatched.
He’s gotten much better at not always trying to break the big one. When when I played, I had a mindset on every carry of “five yards, first down, or touchdown.” He’s kind of getting into that now. You got to get downhill. You got to get into a vertical seam or create one as quickly as you can. Don’t always try and hit the home run. The home runs are going to happen.
You see him one on one with safeties in the hole, and he can either make that a lateral move or make it a spin move. He just does everything with his vision, balance and top-end speed. He’s just got it all. Again, the receiving numbers have come down, but we know that he can do it.
Robert Smith is a former NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a two-time Pro Bowler. His career with the Vikings earned him a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings list. Follow him on Twitter at @Robert26Smith.