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Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley among veterans eager to see how the NFL values running backs

AP Pro Football Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Derrick Henry is back in the gym, eager to prove turning 30 is just a number that shouldn’t affect the four-time Pro Bowl running back’s value on the NFL’s open market.

The man who organized a group chat among the league’s top running backs last summer is about to find out exactly what teams are willing to pay for proven experience.

And Henry has company with stars such as Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard — the three running backs hit with franchise tags in 2023 — also hitting free agency. Barkley didn’t sign his tag and wound up playing last season for $10.1 million.

So will these running backs find big contracts when the NFL free agent market opens next week? Or will they have to be patient, choosy or simply have to settle for less?

“We’re all going to find out,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. “Free agency is just — it’s what does the market tell you? And then any player, what are you willing to pay that player commensurate with their role?”

The cost of free agents changes every March with the start of each new NFL year. Positions get slotted, and running backs have been hit the hardest with less expensive replacements available. Only kickers and punters are paid less on average by position than backs whose bodies take crunching hits every handoff and block.

No NFL team in the offseason gave itself more negotiating time with either a franchise or transition tag on a running back that would’ve cost a mere $9.7 million for 2024. Again, only kickers and punters had a lower value.

Of the nine total tags since the start of the offseason, seven went to defensive players.

So a group of experienced and talented players is poised to hit the free agent market.

“There’s some good names there,” Giants GM Joe Schoen said at the NFL combine last week. “I mean, it’s a little bit of a saturated market. There are some guys at different ages that have had success, there’s some older guys that have had some success. So, it’s a diverse group.”

Age isn’t a factor for Jacobs at just 26. But he is coming off his worst season, having rushed for only 805 yards last season, and the Raiders also have Zamir White as they look for a possible replacement for Jacobs.

“The talent pool at that position in free agency is relatively high,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said.

Even with the jump in the NFL salary cap for 2024, running backs may be forced to be patient and choosy.

One thing in their favor? The pool for running backs in April’s draft is a bit shallow with only 12 projected as fifth-round picks or better out of 35 graded before the combine.

Incoming running backs have noticed the low value the NFL has placed on their position. Blake Corum of Michigan said it’s up to running backs to fix that narrative by being game-changers.

“Running backs obviously want to get paid more, but at the end of the day it is what it is, you can only control the controllables and that’s the way I look at it so I’m not so worried about it,” Corum said.

Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said that just because the market price hasn’t risen along with others doesn’t negate the impact of good running backs.

“All it does is take one team, one deal to reset a market and change things,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I’m not going to say that it’s not going to be this year, but there’s a lot of exciting options on the market. We’ll take a look at them like we take a look at every position.”

Henry made clear after the Titans’ season ended that he was looking forward to becoming a free agent, essentially for the first time since high school. He agreed to a four-year extension after being tagged in 2020.

Yes, he turned 30 in January, but the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner started only four games combined over his first two seasons in the NFL behind DeMarco Murray. Henry led the NFL in carries with 280 and was second in rushing behind the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey in 2023.

One of only eight men to run for at least 2,000 yards in a season, Henry also is tied for 13th in NFL history with 90 rushing TDs, tied with Eric Dickerson and Curtis Martin. He’s also 508 yards from passing Eddie George as the franchise’s career leading rusher.

Whether Henry gets that chance has been the most popular question in Tennessee for general manager Ran Carthon. He goes into his second season with a new coach in Brian Callahan and Tyjae Spears, a big dual threat out of the backfield as a rookie in 2023.

“I have a responsibility to build this team long term,” he said. “And like I said, we’ll cross that bridge with Derrick and his team when we get there.”

That time is here. The only question is at what price.


AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.



Article Topic Follows: AP-National

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