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Running backs had plenty of options this week, even if the position still faces challenges

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — A year after his position was in crisis, Derrick Henry still feels a bond with his fellow running backs.

And this was a week he could enjoy.

“I was definitely happy to see those guys go off the market pretty fast. I think that speaks volumes that the running back position is still needed, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Henry, one of several free agent backs who found new teams in the past few days, said Thursday. “You still have to be able to run the ball. You still have to have a guy who can change the game in any matter of the game. I feel like the guys who signed those contracts are guys that can do that, and I think it was recognized.”

Being a running back still isn't all that lucrative compared to other positions, but this year some of the game's best rushers enjoyed something you can't put a price on — the freedom to move. Henry left a last-place Tennessee team to join one of the NFL's top rushing attacks in Baltimore. Saquon Barkley went from the New York Giants to Philadelphia's potentially dynamic offense. Tony Pollard joined the Titans to replace Henry, and Josh Jacobs moved from Las Vegas to a playoff team in Green Bay.

Barkley, Pollard and Jacobs all received the franchise tag last season, postponing their shot to test the free market by a year.

The inability of those three players to secure long-term contracts last year underscored how the league has handled running backs of late. They're not viewed as great investments beyond a rookie contract, and the franchise tag at running back carries the lowest value of any position besides kicker and punter.

Henry organized a group chat among top players at the position last summer. Indianapolis star Jonathan Taylor requested a trade, but eventually he and the Colts agreed on a three-year extension with $26.5 million guaranteed.

Barkley's new deal is similar — three years and $26 million guaranteed. He said guaranteed money was a priority for obvious reasons.

“I don't think it's just important for just the running back position. I think for any player in the NFL, it's important to get the most guaranteed money that you can," Barkley said. “We play in the NFL. Not just the running backs, but everybody. It's a gruesome sport. You never know what can happen in this game.”

Henry, who at age 30 is three years older than Barkley, received $9 million guaranteed in his two-year deal with the Ravens. What those two backs have in common is that both joined contenders they can presumably flourish with. Jacobs made a similar move, going to the up-and-coming Packers.

Pollard went from the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys to the Titans, but he's from Tennessee and played in college at Memphis.

“It was just perfect timing. Everything just worked out the way it should," Pollard said. "I’m very familiar with the area, got a lot of family out here, so it made sense for me.”

Pollard sounded like he was happy his brief time as a free agent was over.

“It was a little stressful, but I'm glad I'm not on the market anymore,” Pollard said. “I'm glad I found a home.”

Regardless of how much money is available for running backs, free agency lets players find a good fit for themselves, which can be a priority in its own right. Austin Ekeler went from the Los Angeles Chargers to Washington, and Aaron Jones from Green Bay to Minnesota.

“We get the conversation about running backs and age and different things like that, but I think seeing this year and the market, maybe that dynamic has gone a little too far to the other side and teams are realizing that there are still really good players and their value,” Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said.

So far, this offseason for running backs is starting with a lot less angst than 2023.

“Definitely want to be able to have a market where it’s fair, and we are valued,” Henry said. “For the future, as well, for the guys that are coming up after us.”

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