Three of the six players who received the franchise tag from their respective teams this offseason were running backs -- the Giants' Saquon Barkley, the Raiders' Josh Jacobs and the Cowboys' Tony Pollard. While the three non-RBs all worked out long-term deals with their squads prior to the July 17 deadline for tagged players to sign a multi-year contract, the three RBs did not.
That means Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard can only play on the one-year tag tender in 2023. Despite the trio's individual and collective impact on the game, the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys elected to not make long-term commitments to their star runners.
The situation has sparked a lively conversation in recent days, with the debate centering on whether to pay top-of-the-market prices for a position that has become a lower priority in the team building process than it used to be in most corners of the league.
Part of the change in the narrative surrounding the position can be traced to the success Mike and Kyle Shanahan have enjoyed utilizing a "draft, plug and play" approach with later-round draft picks -- or in some cases undrafted free agents -- at running back. However, astute evaluators can spot the differences between a good back and a great back when studying the tape. Moreover, players know the difference between a pedestrian runner and a star player.
Terrell Davis -- a sixth-round pick of Mike Shanahan's Broncos back in 1995 -- shared his perspective on the differences between a Hall of Fame-caliber runner and a "system" player in the backfield on the Move The Sticks Podcast back in 2019.
"The system we had in Denver was phenomenal because it emphasized a very simple motto. And the motto was 'north and south.' And it was a four-yard run," Davis said. "We just practiced four-yard runs. ... They just said 'give me four yards, but after the four yards, it's on you.' And that's where the difference comes when you talk about elite backs. ... What can you do that is more than just a three- or four-yard run? I believe that's what the elite backs give you."
As a former NFL defender who squared off against Davis multiple times during his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, I can attest to his greatness as a runner after watching him put up a 2,000-yard season in 1998. Davis put the Broncos on his back to complement John Elway, who was nearing the end of his career, and helped fuel the team's run to back-to-back titles.
During my time with the Carolina Panthers as a scout in the early 2000s, we saw the value in drafting running backs in the first round and taking advantage of the rookie contract and franchise tags to keep a premier runner in the fold for seven-plus years at a team-friendly value (five-year original contract with back-to-back franchise tags).
Interestingly, Giants GM Joe Schoen was a part of that scouting staff and so far has utilized a similar approach to keep Barkley in the fold during his prime years. The Giants allowed Barkley to play out his rookie contract and then used the franchise tag to keep him from hitting the open market this offseason. The Giants could tag Barkley again in 2024. Consecutive tags would amount to the Giants paying him $22.2 million over two seasons.
At the end of the second tag, Barkley would have played seven years at team-friendly rates while enduring significant wear and tear as a workhorse runner. He would hit the open market in 2025 offseason, but will a team be willing to pay a premium price for a veteran runner with Barkley's mileage and injury history?
We can debate whether it is dirty business to lock up a player through his prime years without offering the security of a blockbuster deal; as a former player, I'm all about guys fighting to get paid what they think they're worth.
But as things stand now, the volatility of the position and the advantageous terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement make it a wise move for general managers to play a game of tag with premier runners.
The discussion this week got me thinking about the backs who have made themselves essential to their teams' success. To that end, here are the running backs I view as the engines for their respective offenses entering the 2023 NFL season:
Despite the Giants' reluctance to pay megabucks to the superstar running back, Barkley is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink in Brian Daboll's offense. The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year has topped the 1,000-yard mark three times while flashing touchdown machine potential (37 total scores) as a runner-receiver with soft hands and explosive running skills. Although injuries have plagued him for much of his career, Barkley's production sets the table for an offense that leans heavily on him.
Obviously, there are other great players filling key roles in the San Francisco offense, including LT Trent Williams, WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle. However, McCaffrey is the ultimate offensive weapon. He has transformed the 49ers' attack since his midseason arrival last year. As a member of the "1,000/1,000" (1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards) and "1,000/100" (1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches) clubs, McCaffrey is the versatile playmaker who regularly puts defensive coordinators in a bind. With Kyle Shanahan utilizing the speedster like the queen on the chessboard, the elusive jitterbug makes the game easier for the quarterback and complementary playmakers with his unique skills.
The two-time NFL rushing champion is a rare find as a feature runner in a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" offense. Measuring 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, Henry overwhelms defenders with his size, strength and power. With head coach Mike Vrabel committed to a throwback approach that tests the courage of linebackers and defensive backs, Henry's running style has allowed the Titans to win games without having superior talent around their No. 1 playmaker.
Off-field issues aside, the seventh-year pro is perfectly suited for the RB1/WR2 role that offensive coaches covet in today's pass-happy league. Kamara has posted six straight seasons with at least 1,300 scrimmage yards, adding 71 total scores (49 rushing, 22 receiving) as the Saints' No. 1 offensive option. Although former All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas previously shared the marquee with Kamara as a five-star headliner, the current version of the Saints is sparked by a one-man show with an electric game.
As a former NFL rushing champion for a team without another big-name star on offense, Taylor certainly deserves a spot on this list. The 5-foot-10, 226-pounder has carried the offense since his arrival as an old-school runner with some new-school elements to his game. Taylor's quickness, balance, body control and vision make him a big-play threat with the capacity to score from anywhere on the field. Behind a talented but inconsistent offensive line that features few all-stars at the point of attack (SEE: Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly), the speedster, who's fully healed from offseason ankle surgery, can put six points on the board for the Colts in a hurry.
Deshaun Watson might re-emerge as a top five quarterback this season, but the Browns' offense is built around the talents of its five-star running back. Chubb has topped the 1,000-yard mark in four of his five seasons, with a pair of runner-up trophies as the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2019 and 2021. As a hard-nosed runner with A+ vision, balance, body control and burst, Chubb is a premier one-cut runner playing in a system that maximizes his talents as a workhorse runner. While observers are monitoring Watson's progress in Kevin Stefanski's system, the Browns' hopes as a playoff contender hinge on Chubb's performance and production as the centerpiece of a run-heavy offense.
The departure of Aaron Rodgers puts the onus on the Packers' running backs to alleviate the pressure on Jordan Love as he steps into a prominent role. Jones has flashed elite skills as a multi-purpose back in a pass-first scheme, but the Packers will count on him (and AJ Dillon) to steady an offense transitioning to a new quarterback. Dotting the résumé with three 1,000-yard seasons to complement four 60-plus catch campaigns, Jones could quickly remind the football world of his talent and potential as a feature back.
The reigning NFL rushing champion deserves top billing on an offense featuring a top-five receiver on the perimeter. Although Davante Adams' status as arguably the NFL's WR1 makes him a logical choice as the Raiders' top dawg, Jacobs has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark three times in four seasons while also displaying soft hands and polished playmaking skills on the perimeter (160 catches in four seasons). Given his nose for the end zone (40 career rushing scores) and overall production, Jacobs enables the Raiders' offense to thrive with or without elite quarterback play.
Kenny Pickett's emergence as a solid QB1 in his rookie season should help the Steelers build a dynamic offense around Harris. The third-year pro has been a one-man show since his arrival due to his dynamic skills as an extra large runner-receiver. The 6-2, 232-pound back has finished with at least 1,200 scrimmage yards in each of his two seasons while displaying impressive tools as a versatile workhorse. From his rugged running style between the tackles to running routes on the perimeter as a big-bodied pass catcher, Harris is a three-down playmaker with the potential to put the Steelers' offense on his back.
The master of the angry run surprisingly emerged as the Texans’ top offensive weapon as a first-year starter. Pierce’s rugged running style and tenacious approach sets the tone for an offense that can pummel opponents with physicality. Although it's worth monitoring to see if Houston's new coaching staff will alter the second-year pro's role, Pierce's talent and toughness make him an ideal RB1 in a unit that will likely utilize the run to set up the pass for its young quarterback.