Free Agency Frenzy: Running Backs


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Free Agency Frenzy: Running Backs

The salary cap explosion, paired with the best free agent running back crop of all time, led to an absolute frenzy of spending at the position. We saw an absolute flood of moves, and this is a breakdown of the domino effect.

Let’s get straight to reviewing this free agency frenzy from a fantasy football perspective!

Josh Jacobs signs with Packers

By total contract value, Josh Jacobs agreed to the top deal on the market — sort of. Jacobs inked a four-year, $48M contract ($12.5M guaranteed) with some pretty important stipulations. According to PFT, Jacobs is due $14.5M in 2024. That’s a lock. After that, his deal is basically a series of three one-year team options until 2027. The Green Bay Packers owe Jacobs a roster bonus next March.

After a holdout with the Raiders that ultimately led to Jacobs playing last year on the franchise tag in Las Vegas – he got a bag for this season.

Jacobs has produced as a consistent, high-end fantasy RB2, and he’s handled at least 260 touches for five straight years.

Josh Jacobs – Career production
YearFF FinishFPG (Half-PPR)
2019RB1314.1 (in 13 games)
2020RB1114.6 (in 15G)
2021RB1713.5 (in 15G)
2022RB417.9 (in 17G)
2023RB1812.7 (in 13G)

After taking 393 touches and shredding defenses in 2022, Jacobs fell off as one of the biggest disappointments last season. Recent history has not been kind to running backs coming off of massive workloads (320 or more carries per year), according to Jared Smola’s research. Jacobs was yet another victim.

Last year, Jacobs scored -4.4 fewer Half-PPR points than he should have based on expected fantasy points. Among the 49 running backs with at least 100 carries, only Austin Ekeler (-4.9 FPG below expected) and Tony Pollard (-4.6 FPG) were more unlucky/inefficient than Jacobs.

He just was not the same runner last season. Jacobs fell to just 2.29 yards after contact per carry after he crushed two years ago to the tune of 3.23 YAC per carry (8th-best) two years ago.

According to FP Data, Jacobs was arguably the best running back in the game in 2022. He was absolutely stellar in the Raiders' zone-blocking system, averaging 4.83 YPC and a 66% success rate on those carries (the best). Last year, those figures cratered to a lowly 3.36 YPC (and a 49% success rate).

Hopefully, moving east to Green Bay will help boost Jacobs. The Packers' offensive line is a nice upgrade. Las Vegas opened up just 1.37 adjusted yards before contact per carry (23rd) in 2023 and 1.39 adjusted YBC per carry (22nd) two years ago.

Behind a better offensive line and with an emerging star QB in Jordan Love, Jacobs certainly has a fantasy RB1 season in his range of outcomes if the Packers hit their ceiling in 2024.

At the very least, this Packers group is overdue for a positive scoring correction. Flukishly, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon scored just four rushing TDs on 29 carries inside-the-10 last season. That’s good for a 13.7% scoring rate on those carries. Not great! Jacobs has been a decent goal-line RB over the last three seasons, turning his 66 carries from inside-the-10 into 21 TDs (31.8%).

The only question that remains is what type of role he’ll play on passing downs, and that will determine whether or not he’s a true bell cow. The Packers currently don't have anyone behind Jacobs on the depth chart, and they will have to add a veteran or a rookie in the NFL Draft.

Aaron Jones cut by Packers, signs with Vikings

An early Week 1 hamstring injury combined with a mid-season knee injury cut Aaron Jones' season to just 13 games (including playoffs). However, once he finally got healthy late in the season, he was lights out. Jordan Love’s big second half improvement is what drove the Packers to the playoffs, but Jones brought their dormant run game to life. Plodder A.J. Dillon just wasn’t cutting it.

Over Green Bay’s final six games last season, Jones went off for 637 yards on 115 carries (5.54 YPC). It was too little, too late for fantasy purposes. Despite working through two major injuries – it’s clear that he was far from washed. That’s the upshot.

In Minnesota, the Vikings signed Jones to a one-year deal worth up to $7M. He turned 29 years old this year.

Jones is always best suited as a 1A complimentary runner, and that’s exactly what he will be alongside Ty Chandler.

We know that running backs rarely peak late in their careers, thanks to Ryan Heath’s epic research into fantasy football Age Curves. It’d be foolish to expect Jones to have a career-best year, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t have one more season as a RB2 with some upside.

Jones has performed like the Tyler Lockett of RBs – always undervalued.

Aaron Jones – Career production
YearFF FinishFPG (Half-PPR)
2017RB507.6 (in 10 games)
2018RB1613.4 (12G)
2019RB418.4 (16G)
2020RB616.8 (14G)
2021RB1413.7 (15G)
2022RB1213.1 (17G)
2023RB2511.1 (11G)

So, that’s a five-year straight drop in production every single season since Jones peaked as the RB4 in 2019 with 18.4 half-PPR points per game.

The positive side is that Jones' actual play on the field didn’t diminish too much last year despite his two separate injuries. Here are his figures in yards after contact and missed tackles forced per carry over the last three seasons according to FP Data:

2021 – 3.03 YAC (12th-of-41 RBs) / 0.24 MTF (6th-best)

2022 – 3.26 YAC (7th-best of 37 RBs) / 0.26 MTF (5th-best)

2023 – 2.66 YAC (16th-of-41 RBs) / 0.20 MTF (20th)

With so many backfields transitioning to committees, we’re going to have to get used to identifying the RB2’s that give us the most usable games as possible. The entire Vikings offensive outlook is up in the air until they either draft a QB or add another veteran beyond Sam Darnold.

I wrote a little bit more about the Vikings' life post-Cousins here.

Over the final eight games of last season, HC Kevin O’Connell ran a 52% to 43% backfield committee by snap share in favor of Ty Chandler over Alexander Mattison. In his final year with the Packers, Jones was on the field for 53% of the snaps.

Jones’ age and recent injury issues are the obvious, known risks in his fantasy football profile, and my early lean is to rank him slightly lower than ADP.

Saquon Barkley signs with Eagles

After years of starting a stable of running backs, the Philadelphia Eagles are going in a new direction. Saquon Barkley is their bell cow. Barkley got the most fully guaranteed money ($26M) of the free agent RB crop followed by D’Andre Swift ($15.3M).

Now that he’s entering his age-27 season, his two rough years in 2020-21 dealing with a major knee injury and a sprained ankle feel like a distant memory. Barkley finished as the RB8 in fantasy points per game (14.6) last season after his RB5 (15.8 FPG) campaign in 2022.

It’s hard not to see shades of the 49ers acquiring Christian McCaffrey in the Eagles' move to sign Barkley. Philadelphia views Barkley as the piece they need to elevate their offense. Will they see a similar payoff to San Francisco?

Here are Barkley’s figures in yards after contact and missed tackles forced per carry over the last three seasons according to FP Data:

2021 – 2.62 YAC per carry (26th-of-42 RBs) / 0.15 MTF per carry (31st)

2022 – 2.75 YAC (24th-of-37 RBs) / 0.20 MTF (16th)

2023 – 2.66 YAC (16th-of-41 RBs) / 0.19 MTF (22nd)

From an efficiency standpoint, Barkley has basically been the same runner throughout the last three seasons. The biggest and most important difference is that the Giants' run blocking has largely been varying degrees of mediocre.

The Eagles are losing future Hall-of-Famer C Jason Kelce, but four of their five starters from last season are returning. There is no comparison between Philadelphia’s mauling offensive line and how well they set up their running backs for success with the Giants’ absolute mess. This is the best landing spot possible for Barkley from an overall infrastructure standpoint. Jalen Hurts and Barkley running the read option will be a nightmare to defend.

Over the last three seasons, Philadelphia has finished 2nd (2.17), 1st (2.46), and 1st (2.26) in adjusted yards before contact per carry. Importantly, this metric takes out non-designed QB runs – like scrambles and kneel downs.

On the other hand, the Giants provided Barkley with inconsistent blocking. By adjusted yards before contact per carry, New York finished 16th (1.50) last season, 4th (2.12) in 2022, and they were 20th (1.42) in 2021.

Barkley might set a career-high in yards per carry this coming season because he can still rip off big gains with the best of them. Last year, he tied with Breece Hall in explosive runs (4.9%) of 15 or more yards (tied 11th-best of 41 RBs).

This is right after the 2022 season when Barkley ranked top-10 in explosive runs (6.2%). Creating a ton of big plays behind their great line is the ceiling here.

Last season, D’Andre Swift ranked one spot behind Barkley with a 4.8% explosive run rate (13th).

The downside is that Barkley’s TD ceiling is capped. The Eagles are just too good at pushing Hurts’ butt.

Over the last two seasons, Jalen Hurts has scored 25 TDs on 33 carries inside-the-5 (red-zone). That’s an insane 75.6% scoring rate. The Eagles running backs have scored just 17 TDs (on 42 carries) – that’s 40.4%.

Last season, Swift got unlucky in short-yardage situations near the goal line (4 TDs on 14 carries).

Barkley will get a slight bump in goal-line opportunities overall simply because the Giants were so bad on offense last season. He scored 5 TDs on just eight carries inside the 5 across 14 games.

Barkley was going off of the board around 18-22 overall in early best-ball drafts, and I expect that price to explode higher. Saquon can score 8-10 TDs just by being the featured back, and he still clearly has his home run ability. Barkley will likely end up being selected around RB4-6 after Jahmyr Gibbs in PPR leagues.

D’Andre Swift signs with Bears

The Chicago Bears' big splash in the RB market was the most surprising news of the spending spree. Swift bet on himself in Philadelphia, and it paid off big time. By total guaranteed money, Swift is now the 8th-highest paid RB in the league.

In Chicago, Swift will usurp both Khalil Herbert and Roschon Johnson. The amount of money that Swift received was a bit surprising, but it’s clear that the Bears are not going to pay him that much to be an early-down grinder. Swift was a great receiving threat coming out of college and even though he was inconsistent many times in Detroit, he still provided plenty of big play potential.

That all dried up last season.

With the Eagles, Swift set career lows in receptions (2.4) and receiving yards per game (13.4) after averaging 3.9 R/G and 30 YPG in three seasons with the Lions. He did play a career-high 16 games and rushed for 229/1049/5 as a result. That’s still not enough to make it out of low-end RB2 territory between Jalen Hurts taking most of the short scores and his diminished passing-down role.

Swift’s lowly 8.9% target share ranked tied for RB29, and that marked a -69% decrease year-over-year. In his final season in Detroit, Swift ranked RB7 by target share (15%) and targets per game (5.0). He was efficient on his volume, too. Swift averaged 1.68 yards per route run (RB11) two years ago and just 1.03 YPRR (RB42) in Philadelphia.

Swift likely won’t be as efficient as he once was in Detroit’s incredible scheme, but he's likely on track for an increased role as a receiver. The Eagles used him as a downhill grinder, and the Bears already have that with Khalil Herbert.

Which begs the question – what type of rushing split could we see in Chicago?

Khalil Herbert has shown small-sample efficiency over his 364 career carries (1,775 yards, 4.9 YPC), but he’s never handled more than 132 attempts in a season. A gnarly high ankle injury cut his 2023 short.

Swift saw great blocking last season but underwhelmed as a runner – as Joe Dolan notes:

Especially if the Bears do increase Swift’s load as a receiver, it’d make sense to spell him with Herbert and Roschon Johnson on early-downs. The Bears clearly view the latter two RBs as one-dimensional. Swift’s value gets boosted in PPR formats and I’m pushing him up a tier in the RB2 pile.

Derrick Henry signs with Ravens

Our resident Baltimore Raven and dynasty fantasy lead Tom Tipple called the potential Derrick Henry signing an upgraded, 2024 edition of their Mark Ingram deal in Baltimore a few years back. Nailed it.

Even at age 30, Henry’s two-year pact with the Ravens is the best value of the free agency period. He’s not washed. The Titans' offensive line just stunk.

Last season, Henry ran behind the second-worst offensive line by adjusted yards before contact per attempt (1.03). Despite this, Henry just posted top-10 marks by yards after contact. Again.

This marked Henry’s third straight season inside the top-10 in YAC per carry, and he actually increased his explosive runs (of 15 or more yards) year over year.

Derrick Henry’s yards after contact and missed tackles forced
YearYAC/Carry (rank)MTF/Carry (rank)Explosive Run%
20233.06 (6th-of-41 RBs)0.23 (14th)5.7% (6th)
20223.24 (8th-of-37 RBs)0.18 (19th)4.3% (20th)
20213.17 (9th-of-41 RBs)0.20 (12th)4.1% (16th)

I hope that King Henry reigns forever.

This offensive line upgrade can’t be understated. It’s a worst-to-first scenario for Henry. While he was running into brick walls in Tennessee, the Ravens RBs enjoyed a league-best 2.24 yards before contact per carry.

Has Henry lost a step? Yeah, probably. Does that matter when his efficiency stats haven’t dropped off (yet) and now that he’s behind one of the best offensive lines? Some measured optimism is correct, given his age. Just don’t believe anyone that says Henry is toast.

In this system, Henry is dripping with TD upside. Gus Edwards just cashed in 30 carries inside-the-10 (sixth-most among RBs) for 13 TDs last season. Only Jalen Hurts scored more rushing TDs inside-10 with 14.

Most will view Henry and Keaton Mitchell as the perfect 1-2 punch, but I personally view Lamar Jackson as the lightning to Henry’s thunder. You could not ask for a more lethal combination in the backfield. Defenses are always going to get punished by Lamar in open space, but now the Ravens have added a sledgehammer to carve out the middle.

Henry’s touchdown ceiling in this offense is awfully tempting and he gets a boost on the ground behind the Ravens line. Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins are both gone and Keaton Mitchell is returning from a torn-ACL, which leaves Justice Hill in the same change of pace and passing down role. The age-related risks will likely keep his ADP in check all summer.

Tony Pollard signs with Titans

The Tennessee Titans put a big dent in the Tyjae Spears dream by signing Tony Pollard to a three year deal worth up to $21.7M. According to OTC, Pollard’s $10.5M in guaranteed money came in just behind Josh Jacobs ($12.5M).

It didn’t matter that Pollard underwhelmed last season coming back from his leg injury. He’s getting starter money.

After ranking #1 in yards after contact per carry in back-to-back seasons, Pollard’s efficiency cratered in his increased role. His 2.61 YAC per attempt was a mediocre 23rd-of-41 RBs. The Titans are hoping that he can regain some of his 2021-22 form in a reduced role with Tyjae Spears as a complementary piece.

My biggest takeaway here is that Tennessee is clearly going all-in to see what they have in Will Levis for 2024. With this spending spree and an offensive-minded coach in Brian Callahan replacing defense-first Mike Vrabel, I’m bumping Levis way up in my best ball ranks. The Titans are spending over $50M this season on Pollard, DeAndre Hopkins, and new addition Calvin Ridley.

Pollard will wind up as a low-end RB2/FLEX option for seasonal start/sit leagues, while Spears is shaping up as one of the best contingency plays as long as his ADP slides deep into the RB3-4 territory.

Joe Mixon traded to Texans

Joe Mixon could not have had a better runout for fantasy football. Right after he was replaced in Cincinnati by Zack Moss, the Houston Texans swept in and sent the Bengals a seventh round pick to take on the remaining cash on Mixon’s deal for 2024. It’s a very sharp move by Houston – the team owes Mixon $5.75M in 2024 – and that’s RB11 by cash spending in 2024. He will hit free agency in 2025.

Now that Devin Singletary has moved up north to New York, the Texans have Mixon and Dameon Pierce as their 1-2 in the backfield. They certainly could look to draft a RB after souring on Pierce last season.

Joe Mixon – Career production
YearFF FinishFPG (Half-PPR)
2017RB309.3 (in 14 games)
2018RB915.9 (14G)
2019RB1913.9 (16G)
2020RB11*15.2 (6G)
2021RB416.8 (16G)
2022RB815.0 (14G)
2023RB1314.1 (17G)

That’s six straight seasons inside of the top-20 scoring RBs by fantasy points per game for Mixon, with one asterisk for his injury-shortened 2020 season. His three-year drop since his peak (in 2021) is a smaller pause for concern that’s magnified by Mixon’s declining rushing metrics.

According to FP Data, Mixon’s performance in yards after contact has fallen since his career-best season in 2021:

2021 – 2.94 YAC per carry (13th-of-41 RBs) / 0.18 MTF per carry (20th)

2022 – 2.61 YAC (31st-of-37 RBs) / 0.09 MTF (37th – last)

2023 – 2.43 YAC (31st-of-41 RBs) / 0.19 MTF (22nd)

One silver lining: Mixon was slightly better than Devin Singletary last season (2.33 YAC per carry – 35th-of-41 RBs).

All of these concerns can be somewhat negated if Mixon gets his usual role with 65-70% of the snaps. Last season, Singletary closed out his final 12 games as the RB10 by snap rate (70%), RB7 by route share (50%), and that amounted to 14.1 expected FP per game (RB20).

C.J. Stroud is an ascending star, and it’s getting awfully expensive to draft this Texans offense. Mixon opened up best ball season as an awesome value, but I suspect the steam he’s going to get might take him to being overvalued. Texans RBs scored a position-low 13.8 Half-PPR points per game last season. There is only one way to go but up.

Zack Moss signs with Bengals

Zack Moss had a mini-breakout in the absence of Jonathan Taylor last season, and he parlayed his performance into a chance to become the Cincinnati Bengals starting RB. Cincinnati inked Moss to a 2 year, $8M deal ($3M guaranteed). It’s really a one-year contract. Per OTC, the Bengals can save nearly $2M in 2025 cap space by releasing Moss pre-June 1.

Chase Brown gave the Bengals some big plays late last season, and he’s inarguably earned a longer look as a part of a 1A / 1B committee. Over the final six games of last season, Brown rushed for 42/173/0 and added 11/149/1 receiving (on 12 targets). During this stretch, Mixon handled 64% of the snaps while Brown was still very part-time (22% snap rate).

Moss profiles as the early-down and goal-line back. That much is for sure. Beyond that, this will be a top Training Camp battle to watch. Brown could carve out a large role in the passing game, but he’ll have to improve in pass protection.

As our Scott Barrett notes in his tweet below, Moss was excellent when running out of shotgun last season. That really matters for the Bengals, because Joe Burrow rarely goes under center.

To boot, Moss was better after contact (2.78 YAC per carry – 13th) and more shifty with 0.23 missed tackles forced per carry (14th) compared to Joe Mixon (2.43 YAC / 0.19 MTF). If he can continue his form, Moss is an improvement.

If both backs play well, this backfield could quickly become a compartmentalized split. If one of their two RBs gets injured and misses time, they both have strong contingent upside.

Moss put up 15.6 Half-PPR points per game in his six starts in place of Taylor last season, which would have placed him as the RB5 by FPG. He handled at least 75% of the snaps in each of those starts. At the very least, we’ve seen him produce well when given a bell cow role.

Devin Singletary signs with Giants

The biggest head scratcher was the New York Giants handing out $16.5M over three years to Devin Singletary. New York is paying Singletary $9.5M guaranteed over the next two seasons, making him the 13th-highest paid player at the position.

Singletary is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. With Saquon Barkley gone, Singletary projects as a stopgap starter for the Giants eventual long-term solution. They absolutely should be in the rookie RB market on Day 3.

By midseason, Singletary had outplayed Dameon Pierce to the point where it became obvious that the Texans needed to make a change. The Texans run a zone-heavy blocking scheme, in which Pierce struggled mightily to a lowly 2.19 YPC (31.5% success rate). The veteran Singletary just gave Houston some much-needed consistency, as he averaged 4.39 YPC (47.6% success rate) on his zone carries.

The Giants ran zone-blocking 58% of the time last season.

Looking forward, Singletary has never averaged more than 12.7 carries or 2.4 receptions per game at any point in his career. He’s going to be an early-down runner with limited PPR appeal. His average draft position will jump, but likely no higher than 85-90 overall.

Austin Ekeler signs with Commanders

With Brian Robinson and Ekeler, the Washington Commanders want a 1-2 tandem for their QB of the future. Robinson will be the early-down hammer, while Ekeler will take over the passing-down role left behind by now-Patriot Antonio Gibson and WR Curtis Samuel.

There will be some L.A. familiarity in Washington as Ekeler re-joins old coach Anthony Lynn (RBs Coach) under Commanders OC Kliff Kingsbury.

Ekeler’s effectiveness fell off the cliff last season as he battled through a high ankle injury. After putting up a consistent 54.8 rushing yards and 41.2 receiving yards per game from 2020-22, Ekeler averaged just 44.9 yards on the ground and 31.1 YPG through the air last season.

Here are Ekeler’s efficiency metrics over the last three seasons measured by our FP Data charting team:

Can Ekeler bounce back?

YearYAC/Carry (rank)MTF/Carry (rank)YPRR
20232.41 (32nd-of-41 RBs)0.12 (40th-of-41)1.40 (16th-of-48 RBs)
20222.92 (17th-of-37 RBs)0.18 (19th)1.81 (5th-of-47 RBs)
20212.86 (16th-of-41 RBs)0.15 (32nd)1.72 (8th-of-54 RBs)

If he can somewhat bounce back from a high ankle injury that zapped last season, then the Commanders might have one of the best bargains on the market. Washington owes Austin Ekeler just $4.2M in fully guaranteed money, all of which is due in 2024 per OTC. It’s basically a one-year deal, and Ekeler will count against 1.2% of their cap space.

Ekeler can still hold some back-end RB2 if he gets some goal-line work.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.