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2024 NFL Free Agency: Running Back Roundup

Unlike last off-season, 2024 NFL free agency is much kinder to the running back position. There are still some players left to sign and I’ll be keeping track of it all below. More importantly, I’m diving into my initial thoughts on the impact these free agent running back deals will have on fantasy football. There is, of course, the 2024 NFL Draft and an entire summer of training camp until they start racking up points. However, we can begin to generate an initial idea of who is worth targeting and fading based on where they’ll suit up for the 2024 NFL season.

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Running Back Movement and Impact in 2024 NFL Free Agency

Saquon Barkley, Philadelphia Eagles

Three years/$37.75 million

The best free-agent running back lands in the best available landing spot for fantasy football. In 2022 and 2023 respectively, Miles Sanders and D’Andre Swift each rushed for the fifth-most yards league-wide as the lead back in Philadelphia. Yes, that’s despite quarterback Jalen Hurts averaging 161 rush attempts of his own, too. Saquon Barkley is quite simply better than both Sanders and Swift. In four of six seasons, Barkley has eclipsed 1,200 scrimmage yards. Barkley also has 10 or more total touches in three of six seasons. Mind you, he tore his ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season and spent most of 2021 battling injuries, as well.

Though there are plenty of weapons in Philadelphia, Barkley will see plenty of touches, and more efficient ones at that, than he did last season with the New York Giants. Barkley endured hits in the Giants’ backfield on 46.6% of his 2023 carries while D’Andre Swift was hit in his own backfield just 27.9% of the time. Eagles’ future Hall of Fame center Jason Kelce is off to retirement, but the Eagles have been cultivating offensive line depth and replacement pieces for years in anticipation of Kelce’s exit.

Above all else, this is the largest contract the Philadelphia Eagles have ever given a free-agent running back. Barkley isn’t going to disappear from the game plan when needed most. Over a full season, he will eclipse 300 touches both on the ground and through the air. The expected volume, his own talent, and his mere presence on a high-scoring offense puts Barkley in the overall RB1 conversation for the 2024 fantasy football season. Given the talent at the top of the position, drafting Barkley any later than RB3 will occur in some leagues and feel like a major discount.

Josh Jacobs, Green Bay Packers

Four years/$48 million

At a glance, this is the same structure of a deal Aaron Jones received in NFL free agency from Green Bay a few years back. However, when you dive a little deeper, Jacobs is only guaranteed his $12.5 million signing bonus. He then of course has his base salary, workout incentives, and other details that add up year-to-year, but the Packers are really only financially invested in Jacobs for 2024 as of now.

The good news for fantasy football is that Jacobs will have a massive role this upcoming season. With the release of Aaron Jones, that’s approximately 14 to 15 touches per game available. Even with A.J. Dillon set to return, Jacobs will be the lead back, likely increasing his touches per game beyond what Jones was providing. Jacobs has averaged 20.5 touches per game throughout his career.

It’s also worth noting that the Green Bay Packers ranked eighth in scoring last year, as well. More importantly, Jones  leaves behind 34 red zone rush attempts from last season despite playing just 11 games. A.J. Dillon logged 34 of his own, but again, Jacobs should get first dibs at these valuable touches based on investment into him during NFL free agency.

The Packers aren’t done adding to this backfield. Even with Dillon returning, neither he nor Jacobs are guaranteed to remain on this roster any more than one to two seasons. I do expect them to add a rookie running back next month via the draft. Regardless, Josh Jacobs already sits firmly inside my top-10 running backs for the 2024 fantasy football season.

D’Andre Swift, Chicago Bears

Three years/$24 million

Two years in a row now the leading rusher amongst Philadelphia Eagles running backs got paid big bucks in NFL free agency to play elsewhere the following season. Miles Sanders, of course, secured a four-year deal with the Carolina Panthers last off-season. Let’s all hope Swift fairs better in Chicago in 2024.

Assuming that the Bears select Caleb Williams with the first overall pick, and he is their Week 1 starting quarterback, I love this NFL free-agency signing. When healthy, Swift is a proven lead back. He ranks fifth in rush yards across the league for the 2023 season. The Chicago Bears ranked second in both rush attempts and rushing yards last season, as well. That’s even with Justin Fields missing four games and accounting for roughly 27% of the team’s rushing yard total. To compare, Jalen Hurts accounts for approximately the same amount as the Eagles while Lamar Jackson accounts for approximately 30% of the league-leading Baltimore Ravens’ rushing yards from last season.

It’s been reported that the Bears attempted to sign Saquon Barkley before landing Swift in NFL free agency. Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear Chicago is focused on having a strong option out of the backfield for the 2024 season. I’m not entirely sure how this offense will look to start the Caleb Williams Era. I’m also not sure who else besides second-year back, Roschon Johnson, that Swift will have to share touches with. I know he certainly won’t lose as much goal-line scoring opportunities to Caleb Williams as he did to Jalen Hurts in 2023. Hurts scored 13 rushing touchdowns inside the five-yard line to Swift’s two last season. Swift should log 250 touches and provide a comfortable RB2 floor as a safe mid-round target in drafts.

Tony Pollard, Tennessee Titans

Three years/$24 million

The dreams of Tyjae Spears being a top-12 fantasy running back next season are dead. Tony Pollard is too significant of an addition in NFL free agency to believe otherwise. The contract reflects that. You might as well throw out Pollard’s stats from last season if you’re going to question his ability. Well, at least throw out the first 10 weeks. It’s amazing Pollard even played right away, and the entirety of the season, after breaking his ankle/leg in January of 2023.

From Week 11 onward, Pollard logged more yards per attempt, a higher first down success rate, and a higher broken tackle rate than he did in Weeks 1 through 10. Pollard has just 992 career touches, as well, so there’s plenty of tread still left on the tires. Tyjae Spears is still a player worth targeting for the 2024 fantasy football season. However, with a new coaching staff, the loyalty may lie with Pollard as the free agent addition. Neither back will succeed to the levels we want them to until the Titans improve the blocking up front. Landing the top center, Lloyd Cushenberry, in NFL free agency is a fantastic start to do so. If you are a fantasy manager who likes to emphasize a stud-filled wide receivers trio early on, I like Tony Pollard as a cost-efficient running back to start each week on your roster.

Derrick Henry, Baltimore Ravens

Two years/$16 million

Despite running behind the worst offensive line in football last season, Derrick Henry still rushed for 1,167 yards. That’s the second-highest total I the league behind Christian McCaffrey. The elephant in the room is Henry’s whopping 2,354 career touches, including playoffs. However, Derrick Henry is simply built different.

Per Next Gen Stats, Henry reached a top speed of 21.68 mph in the Titan’s 2023 regular season finale. That’s his second fastest recorded speed over the last five seasons.

Henry now joins a run-heavy Ravens team who haven’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since Lamar Jackson in 2020. There is at least 44% of last year’s carries available due off-season departures. That includes Gus Edwards’ team-leading 198 rush attempts. Henry’s deal has a max value of $20 million over two seasons, but just $9 million guaranteed at signing. It’s conceivable he plays a one-and-done season in Baltimore before calling it a career. He should see a ton of volume in 2024.

Devin Singletary, New York Giants

Three years/$16.5 million

After a career-best season with the Houston Texans, Devin Singletary is the Saquon Barkley replacement in New York. Despite his career-best season, Singletary still ranks as RB41 on a points-per-game basis for 2023. He had just six double-digit fantasy scores. Singletary reunites with head coach, Brian Daboll, who was Singletary’s offensive coordinator from 2019-2021 with the Buffalo Bills. During that time, Singletary was often used “between the 20s” churning out yards for the Bills before entering the red zone. He eclipsed 1,000 total yards just once under Daboll and scored just 14 total touchdowns in 45 games across those three seasons.

As of now, I don’t want any part of the New York Giants offense. Even if they do work their way into the red zone, I’m not sure Singletary will see the work. He had just seven carries inside the five-yard line last season in Houston and 14 total of such carries across three seasons with the Bills under Daboll.

Joe Mixon, Houston Texans

Traded then Signed a new Three-Year/$27 million Deal

I know this is technically not an NFL free agency addition, but it’s worth mentioning and I’m the one writing this piece so here we are. Mixon was set to be a free agent running back, but the Houston Texans swooped in and offered a trade prior to his release. Furthermore, the Texans did away with Mixon’s remaining contract and signed him to a new three-year/$27 million deal with $13 million in guarantees.

Mixon does have 1,986 career touches over seven seasons with the Bengals. That would impact his value if he were a free agent running back, but the Texans are adding Mixon likely for the 2024 and 2025 seasons. Mixon has yielded 1,200 or more scrimmage yards in five of six non-rookie seasons and 1,400 or more in four of them, including last season.

As far as landing spot goes, the Houston Texans are a great fit. Their offense should continue ascending with quarterback C.J. Stroud. Perhaps more importantly, they retained offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik who was a very popular head coach candidate. The Texans’ offensive line can’t be any more banged up than it was last season. At full strength, they are arguably a top-10 unit. Mixon, who was fourth in total touches (309) last season, replaces Devin Singletary (246), who was 21st. I expect Mixon to push for 300 touches and an RB1 campaign in Houston for the 2024 fantasy football season.

Austin Ekeler, Washington Commanders

Two years/Up to $11.43 million

Despite the levels of fantasy success Ekeler has over his first seven years with the Los Angeles Chargers, he’s never logged a 1,000 rushing yard season. As he joins Brian Robinson in the Commanders’ backfield for 2024, I have zero expectations of him doing so there, either. Ekeler got his start under Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn who is now the Commanders’ run game coordinator. However, Ekeler’s career didn’t really take off until Lynn was fired and he had the backfield to himself sans Melvin Gordon.

From 2020 to 2023, Ekeler averaged 17.3 touches per game. He now shares the Washington backfield with Brian Robinson who’s used to 15.85 touches per game of his own through his first two seasons.  Both  Ekeler and Robinson take a hit sharing this backfield. Whoever is getting the valuable red zone touches will be the player you want from this backfield. I can’t even begin to guess as I feel a headache coming on.

Aaron Jones, Minnesota Vikings

One year/$7 million

Aaron Jones remains in the NFC North with an opportunity at revenge twice in 2024. The Green Bay Packers released Aaron Jones, though after many of the aforementioned free agent running backs agreed to deals, including Josh Jacobs, limiting Jones’ opportunities at a new landing spot. Jones will be 30 by season’s end so the one-year deal makes sense. He did end the 2023 season with five-straight 100+ rushing yard performances averaging 20.4 carries per game in that span. So, there’s clearly gas left in the tank. The Vikings offense figures to remain pass-heavy and Jones should see the majority of touches, especially early on, capping Ty Chandler’s fantasy ceiling. Alexander Mattison leaves behind 180 carries from last season which is about what I expect from Jones in a mostly healthy season.

Antonio Gibson, New England Patriots

Three years/$11.25 million

I think some of us need to finally come to terms that Antonio Gibson is never going to produce RB1 numbers for fantasy football. We’ll be lucky if he produces RB2 numbers sharing the Patriots backfield with Rhamondre Stevenson. The good news is that in New England’s new regime, Alex Van Pelt is the offensive coordinator. He joins this staff after four seasons as the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator. There, the Browns often, and successfully, deployed two backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Perhaps Rhamondre Stevenson does most of the heavy lifting between the tackles while Gibson handles a good chunk of the passing game work. Still, that’s not enough volume, on a rebuilding offense, to feel great about for fantasy football purposes.

Zack Moss, Cincinnati Bengals

Two years/$8 million

Joe Mixon is a cap cut casualty who was due a $3 million roster bonus next Monday. However, instead of releasing Mixon, he’s been traded to the Houston Texans. This also saves the Bengals $5.75 million in 2024 cap space. Zack Moss is less than two years younger than Mixon but with 1,427 fewer career touches. He’s also guaranteed just over $4 million in the first year of this NFL free-agency deal. Moss has never logged more than 183 carries or 210 touches in a single season. I don’t expect him to command all of Mixon’s vacant touches. That leaves second-year back Chase Brown and perhaps a rookie addition to share the work. Depending on who that is, we should have a better idea of who to target from this backfield when fantasy football drafts get closer. This roster has quite a few question marks on offense with Tee Higgins requesting a trade and Tyler Boyd testing free agency.

Gus Edwards, Los Angeles Chargers

Two years/$6.5 million

The Los Angeles Chargers are cap-strapped and need bodies in the backfield. Austin Ekeler is heading to the Washington Commanders while Joshua Kelley hits the open market himself. Though it’s an entirely new regime in L.A., those two account for 87.4% of last year’s rush attempts amongst Chargers running backs. Though his 13 rushing touchdowns rank fifth amongst all players last season, Gus Edwards isn’t much of a workhorse back evidenced by his 11.3 carries per game last season and career average of just 10.13 per game. Edwards remains nothing more than a touchdown-dependent running back for the 2024 fantasy football season. I expect more additions to this backfield soon, specifically through the NFL Draft.

Running Backs Worth Mentioning

Alexander Mattison finds a new home with the Las Vegas Raiders. If you’re like me and believe in Zamir White, keep believing. He handled 84 carries in the Raiders’ final four games without Josh Jacobs. Mattison isn’t the caliber of back I see coming in and taking the majority of work away from White. He will probably spend most of his fantasy season on benches unless given a larger opportunity.

D’Onta Foreman signing with the Cleveland Browns tells us a few things. First, Kareem Hunt isn’t coming back. He’s 29. Second, Nick Chubb is probably not going to be ready for training camp and could get released once, and if, medically cleared. Lastly, the Browns want depth alongside Jerome Brown and Pierre Strong. Even after Chubb’s injury last season, Cleveland brought in Hunt who went on the log a significant 156 touches. This is a backfield I’m likely to avoid for 2024.

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