With free agency around the corner and the 2023 NFL Draft coming up in April, Kevin Patra assesses the running back situations of all 32 teams in the NFL. Teams are sorted into categories signifying the level of stability at the position, then listed in alphabetical order along with the top wideouts under contract for 2023 as well as key players who are not under contract for next season. Those RBs are denoted as unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA) or exclusive rights free agents (ERFA); (void) indicates remaining years on a contract will be voided, enabling the player to become a free agent.
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How healthy will Williams be after sustaining ACL and LCL injuries to his right knee in Week 4? We saw how much time Baltimore's J.K. Dobbins needed before looking healthy last year. Might Williams see a similarly wobbly start to the season? When healthy, Williams is a menacing ball-carrier who can run over defenders and make them miss in a phone booth. He's the complete package. However, his lingering knee issue makes the position a question mark for new head coach Sean Payton. Edmonds showed little last year, both before and after the trade from Miami. Somehow, a 32-year-old Murray, pulled off the Saints' practice squad, was the Broncos' best back. It's a position of need, particularly if Williams' injury lingers.
Top RBs under contract for 2023: N/A
Zero. The Dolphins currently have zero halfbacks under contract for 2023. If you needed further proof that NFL clubs view players at this position as mostly interchangeable, there you have it. Despite the lack of current options, there has been little consternation about the Fins filling out their backfield. Mostert and Wilson -- as former 49ers -- fit perfectly in Mike McDaniel's system and helped jumpstart a dormant running game down the stretch. I'd expect to see at least one -- and perhaps both -- return to South Beach on a short-term deal. If not, the market is teeming with options in free agency or deeper into the draft.
Kamara was underused in Dennis Allen's first season, with the Saints struggling to get the ball to the dynamic back in space. When appropriately utilized, Kamara remains one of the slipperiest weapons with the football. Will the offense figure out ways to involve him more effectively in 2023? Kamara also has a looming legal situation hovering this offseason. Beyond the starter, there isn't much else on the roster. With the annual salary-cap crunch coming and a host of other roster questions, RB might not be a front-burner issue in New Orleans, but the Saints need to inject reliable youth behind Kamara.
Key free agent questions
Key free agents: D'Onta Foreman (UFA)
Foreman spearheaded the Panthers' rushing attack following the Christian McCaffery trade, leading the club in 2022 with 914 yards and five TDs. The lengths to which Carolina goes to retain the bruising runner will speak to how new coach Frank Reich views Foreman as a fit in his offense. Upon his signing, Reich reiterated he wants to run the ball, so re-teaming Foreman and Hubbard makes some sense. However, the Panthers could also add a free-agent veteran or a more dynamic rookie in the draft to fill out the backfield if Reich doesn't think Foreman is an ideal match.
Montgomery led all Bears running backs with 801 yards and five TDs in a ground-centric offense. A well-rounded back, Montgomery can churn out short-yardage wins, make plays in space, catch the ball and function as a solid blocker. Chicago owns enough cap space to bring back the free agent, but would the Bears break the bank to retain him? He could come back on a team-friendly deal. General manager Ryan Poles could chase after a more elusive runner like Saquon Barkley or Tony Pollard -- if they hit the market -- to pair with Herbert in the backfield.
Williams is a priority free agent for the Lions. His ability to smash the ball into the end zone was unparalleled in 2022, when he scored a league-high 17 rushing TDs. The veteran plays tough, hits the hole hard and was critical to a good Lions ground attack. The big question is how much GM Brad Holmes will shell out to keep him in Honolulu Blue. If Detroit can keep Williams, the backfield is well-positioned. Swift is a dynamic talent but has proven he's best with a solid running mate to share the load.
Pacheco was a revelation down the stretch, helping power the Chiefs to a Super Bowl. His hard-hitting style meshes well alongside Patrick Mahomes and provides a different element to the K.C. offense. Where that leaves CEH heading into the season is unclear. With one year left on his rookie deal (and a decision for the team to make on his fifth-year option), he's a cost-effective back with shifty upside, when everything is right. The biggest question mark is whether the Chiefs can bring back McKinnon. He was massive for the offense as a pass-catcher, blocker and mentor to Pacheco. The issue for Kansas City is there are a ton of teams with a need for a pass-catching back like McKinnon. It's easy to see his market getting too rich for the Chiefs to match.
Will the Raiders use the franchise tag to ensure Jacobs is around for at least one more season? At $10 million for an RB, it's not an exorbitant short-term cost to secure the league's leading rusher, and Jacobs fit well in Josh McDaniels' offense. Jacobs' exit would sap an offense that already has major questions. But the current Raiders brass also spent a fourth-round pick on White last year and might want to see how he responds to a larger role after getting just 17 touches in 2022.
Top RBs under contract for 2023: Gary Brightwell
Barkley's situation is fascinating. After years of dealing with injuries, he finally rebounded in 2022, looking as explosive as he did in his rookie season. Dual-threat backs like Barkley offer immense value. However, with quarterback Daniel Jones also looming as a potential franchise tag candidate if a deal can't be struck before the March 7 deadline, Barkley could reach free agency. Big Blue would like to bring the dynamic RB back, but Joe Schoen doesn't seem like a GM who will overpay for the position. If Barkley makes it to free agency and gets a big offer, it could leave the Giants with a gaping hole at RB heading into Brian Daboll's second season.
With a host of free agents for Howie Roseman to deal with, it seems unlikely the Eagles will shell out to keep Sanders. The RB gobbled up 1,269 yards and 11 TDs while averaging nearly 5 yards per carry this season. His ability to be a lead back will likely generate value in the market that Philly won't or can't match. Gainwell provides slash-style running and figures to take on a more prominent role if, in fact, Sanders exits. With a deep pool of backs in free agency and the draft, Roseman can find depth for relatively little cost.
What happens with Mixon's contract? Does Cincy take the $12.79 million cap hit in 2023? Seek a pay cut or extension to lower that figure? Could the Bengals simply move on from their best running back? A pass-first offense around Joe Burrow was at its best when they could plow for solid yardage to stay in positive down-and-distance situations (SEE: Divisional Round win over Buffalo). Perine projects as a player who could return on a less costly deal to keep a sturdy runner in the backfield. Evans has pass-catching skills but has yet to earn the coaching staff's trust in two seasons. But the entire backfield revolves around how the Bengals approach Mixon's contract in the coming weeks.
One of the most intriguing storylines of the next few weeks is how the Cowboys handle the RB room. On any other team, Elliott would be a shoo-in cut as a diminishing player carrying a big cap figure ($16.72 million). But Jerry Jones doesn't preside over just any club. Perhaps Zeke agrees to a pay cut that keeps him in Dallas. Can the Cowboys afford to franchise-tag Pollard? Worse yet, can they afford not to? If Pollard makes it to the open market, another team with more cap space can swoop in on him, even with his postseason injury. Pollard's versatility and explosiveness are game-changing. If the Cowboys' offense lost Pollard, it would be disastrous.
Key free agents: Alexander Mattison (UFA)
Cook provided a stable force from the Vikings' backfield and proved his tackle-breaking prowess in 2022, dashing for 1,173 yards and eight TDs in 17 games. But the 27-year-old saw his attempts curtailed to 15.5 per game under Kevin O'Connell -- his lowest in a season since 2018. With a salary-cap crunch in Minnesota, he could be a cut candidate. The Vikings would save nearly $6 million by cutting him outright. The current front office didn't give the back the big extension he is currently on and could value the position differently than the previous administration. Minnesota could also attempt to get Cook to take a pay cut to remain, as the Packers did with Aaron Jones. If Cook exits, there will be significant questions about how the Vikes fill the void in O'Connell's offense.
Key free agents: Giovani Bernard (UFA)
White currently profiles as the lead back heading into Year 2 after seeing an uptick in production down the stretch. The bigger question is, who will share the backfield in Dave Canales' offense? Fournette is a cut candidate, given the Bucs' salary-cap woes and his waning effectiveness. For a team in flux, Playoff Lenny appears on the outs. Tampa can find younger, less costly options to place alongside White to fill the void.
Conner returned another solid if unspectacular season as the Cardinals' lead back. His 782 rush yards in 13 games paced Arizona, while no other RB left on the roster hit the 70-yard mark on the season. Conner is a pounder who also provides stellar pass-catching ability and is a good blocker. In an offseason of change, Conner brings some stability, but the Cards would do well to add a dynamic No. 2 with home-run ability to the backfield, someone who could share carries and take the pressure off. With Kyler Murray potentially missing the start of the season, the running game should take a more significant role in Jonathan Gannon's first season in the desert.
Key free agents: N/A
Running back sits as one of the few positions where Atlanta appears set, but there could be room for minor improvements. Allgeier came on strong down the stretch, rushing for 1,035 yards in his rookie campaign, showing good balance and power and enough speed in space. Patterson still has juice left in his legs and can provide pass-catching prowess. But with a running style that leads to punishment, is the soon-to-be 32-year-old closer to a role as a spot-player and returner? Huntley suffered a late-season Achilles injury. In Arthur Smith's offense, the run game will remain key regardless of who is under center. It wouldn't be a surprise if Atlanta uses a late-round pick to add another back or finds a less costly veteran to ensure the backfield is well-stocked.
It took an in-season knee cleanup for Dobbins to regain some of his explosion in 2022. Another year removed from his nasty 2021 injury, can he get closer to what we anticipated coming off a sensational rookie campaign in 2020? If healthy, Dobbins and Edwards form a solid one-two punch. With the Ravens moving on from Greg Roman, the assumption is we'll get an offense that doesn't lean so heavily on the run game. As such, adding a pass-catching third option makes sense in Baltimore.
Cook is poised to take on a bigger role in his second season after coming on strong down the stretch. It feels like the Bills have been ready to move on from Singletary for years, and with the veteran set to hit the market, that will likely come to fruition. Buffalo could use another playmaker alongside Cook and Hines out of the backfield, but with other priorities on tap -- key defensive players are set to become free agents, while the Bills also need to retool the offensive line and add another wideout -- using big-time assets on the backfield is less imperative.
The Browns appear poised to break up the Chubb-Hunt combo after the latter was subject to midseason trade rumors. With Chubb coming off a career-high 1,525 rush yards and 12 rush TDs, he's a workhorse that should allow the Browns to concentrate their free-agent efforts on fixing the defense. For the offense, adding pass-catching options for Deshaun Watson is a bigger priority for Cleveland. Johnson is an attractive free agent back, showing ability in limited reps. Another team could see him as a value add this offseason with little wear-and-tear, or Cleveland could attempt to bring him back cheaply as Chubb's early-down backup.
Houston unearthed a gem in Pierce. The fourth-round pick runs angrily and plows through arm tackles with ease. Pierce generated 939 yards on 220 carries with four TDs despite missing the season's final four weeks. He's the Texans' clear workhorse back heading into the 2023 campaign. As with most of Houston's roster, upgrades around Pierce would be helpful. Adding a pass-catching back is necessary, particularly if Houston finally quits Rex Burkhead.
Key free agents: JaMycal Hasty (RFA)
Etienne fits perfectly into Doug Pederson's system. The 2021 first-round pick owns the explosive traits to get to the edge and was better between the tackles last season than expected. His ability to play all three downs is huge for the Jags' offense. The midseason decision to trade away veteran back James Robinson says all you need to know about how Jacksonville feels about Etienne moving forward. Given his injury history, however, the Jags should look to add a veteran presence, of which there should be plenty of affordable options on the open market.
Key free agents: N/A
Ekeler remains an explosive playmaker who can hit singles and home runs. The Mighty Mouse back has pass-catching skills and enough between-the-tackles ability that he doesn't have to leave the field. Ekeler finished with 1,637 scrimmage yards and a league-high 18 TDs in 2022. Finding a reliable No. 2 back has been a struggle for L.A. Kelley is fine but doesn't offer much outside the box. Spiller, a fourth-round pick last year, played in just six games. The hope is Spiller can provide more in Year 2, as the Chargers have bigger concerns outside of the RB room to deal with this offseason.
Key free agents: Malcolm Brown (UFA)
Akers appeared to be on his way out of town midway through the season. But then, the trade deadline passed with Akers still on the roster, and Darrell Henderson was the surprise cut. That's when the 23-year-old Akers got back into gear, producing three 100-plus-yard games to close out 2022. If that's the type of production L.A. can get from Akers, it's a solid start when it comes to building this room. Williams is a wild card; the Rams talked him up last year, but he missed time with an ankle injury and logged just 35 carries in a lost campaign. L.A.'s offseason moves in the backfield will tell us if Sean McVay thinks the fifth-round pick can be more useful in 2023, or if he needs to add another Day 3 option in the draft.
Harris struggled with consistency for the bulk of the 2022 season behind a line that created few openings. The second-year back found more success later in the season when he stopped dancing and hit the hole. Warren showed some promise as an undrafted free agent and could carve out a bigger role in Year 2. The young duo forms a solid 1-2 punch. Adding a receiving threat out of the backfield would help Kenny Pickett on third downs and in two-minute situations.
Walker was a sensation in his first year and nearly won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The 22-year-old brings a blend of power and speed few can match. He can be the engine of Pete Carroll's offense when healthy. When he wasn't on the field, the Seahawks were a much different offense to defend in 2022. Sadly, Penny suffered a season-ending injury in October. The back owns dynamic talent but simply can't stay healthy; he's appeared in 42 of a possible 82 games in his career. After playing out his rookie contract, Penny signed a one-year deal last year, but now his days in Seattle appear over. Walker is the clear top dog. Filling out the depth chart with complementary pieces is the next step.
King Henry remains the workhorse's workhorse. The Titans RB led the NFL with 349 carries, marking the third time in four seasons he's been over the 300-attempt plateau. Despite changes on the Titans' offense this offseason, the bruiser should remain the engine. Haskins, a fourth-round pick last year, provides a similar -- albeit less hefty -- between-the-tackles running ability as Henry's backup. Finding a reliable pass-catching weapon is the main box left to be checked.
Bigger fish to fry
Key free agents: N/A
Green Bay re-doing Jones' contract cleared up one looming question ahead of free agency. The pairing of Jones and Dillon remains one of the best in the NFL. Jones is a do-it-all back who can gash defenses and is a weapon in the passing game. Dillon's power wears down defenses, particularly late in games. Keeping the pairing together for one more season ensures whoever is under center (Aaron Rodgers or Jordan Love) has a reliable rushing attack in 2023. The front office could take a flier on another young RB in the draft in preparation for potentially parting ways with Jones down the road.
Key free agents: N/A
When healthy, Taylor remains one of the best backs in the NFL, capable of grinding out yards and hitting a home run anytime he gets the rock. Moss and Jackson give Indy solid options when Taylor needs a breather, but barring another injury, Taylor should remain the workhorse in Shane Steichen's offense. The Colts will presumably spend the offseason focusing on the QB situation and sorting out the O-line, not worrying about the backfield.
Key free agents: Damien Harris (UFA)
Stevenson represented the most consistent player in the Patriots' offense last season. He owns the ability to blast off between the tackles and showed improved prowess as a pass-catcher in his second season. His presence alone allows the Pats to let Damien Harris walk in free agency. Strong (2022 fourth-round pick) and Kevin Harris (2022 sixth-rounder) provide depth at the position and showed some talent in very limited reps as rookies. The question is whether Bill Belichick will attempt to add a veteran pass-catching back this offseason.
Hall's Week 7 knee injury led directly to the Jets' crash-and-burn end of the season. Sans the speedy rookie, Gang Green lost its explosive playmaking and home-run ability out of the backfield. Hall could be back by training camp, but whether he has full explosion off the bat will be a question -- it took Saquon Barkley a couple of years to return to full form. Hall's availability is critical to a bounce-back campaign from New York, as he still led the Jets in 2022 with 463 rush yards despite missing the final 10 games. Carter is a solid complementary back but hasn't proven to own difference-making prowess. Likewise, Knight displayed some shifty ability to stay in the mix, especially if Hall isn't fully back for the start of the season.
Key free agents: N/A
The McCaffrey trade worked out splendidly for the Niners. The premier dual-threat back fits into Kyle Shanahan's scheme seamlessly and allows San Francisco to play positionless football. When healthy, Mitchell is an excellent complement to McCaffrey, owning the ability to win between the tackles and break long runs. Mason and Davis-Price flashed some playmaking ability in limited reps, allowing the 49ers to spend their offseason filling other depth positions.
Key free agents: Jonathan Williams (UFA)
Robinson was one of the best stories of the 2022 season, overcoming multiple gunshot wounds not only to return but lead the Commanders in rushing. Ron Rivera clearly loves the RB's bruising style and ability to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations. Gibson had a roller-coaster season, bouncing from doghouse to starter to backup, then ending the season on IR. If he can cut down the fumbles, Gibson pairs well as a change-of-pace back alongside Robinson. McKissic missed most of the season due to injury but provides pass-catching prowess. If all three are healthy, new OC Eric Bieniemy has pieces to work with out of the backfield.
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Jonathan Williams signed a one-year contract extension with the Commanders, the team announced Friday.