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Schultz: How will the veteran running back market play out?

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The NFL's running back market has never experienced such an immense dead zone financially. Ironically, running the football hasn't been this in vogue in more than a decade, with rushing attempts across the NFL hitting an 11-year high in 2022.

Many accomplished running backs are either mired in protracted contract negotiations, agreeing to relatively stagnant contracts compared to other positions like quarterback or tackle, or wandering in the free-agency wilderness while teams fill out their rosters with cheap, late-round draft picks.

The fact that the shelf life for running backs - even top tier ones - is so short isn't helping. Only five of the top 50 backs in PFF's grades last season turned pro before 2017.

Talented rookie runners are making it more and more difficult to justify paying veterans with significant miles on the odometer. Heck, even re-upping Josh Jacobs, only four years into his career with the Raiders and coming off a league-leading 2,053 scrimmage yards, is no sure thing. As of this writing, Jacobs hasn't signed his $10.1-million franchise tag, and the two sides have until July 17 to work out a long-term deal.

From the 2022 draft class alone, Breece Hall, Kenneth Walker, James Cook, Rachaad White, Brian Robinson Jr., and Dameon Pierce all played substantial roles for their offenses last season.

The Falcons drafted BYU's Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round and he went over 1,000 yards rushing. The Chiefs, meanwhile, picked Isiah Pacheco in the seventh round and he went off, too: 830 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season, and 76 yards and a TD in the Super Bowl. Here's the rub: Both Allgeier and Pacheco made under $1 million, representing tremendous value for both clubs.

It's simply not a great time to be an NFL running back relative to other positions, as evidenced by the top of the contract leaderboard.

And we're seeing not only a lack of volume with contracts, but dollars, too. Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Joe Mixon are all elite backs who signed their extensions in 2020. Second-team All-Pro Nick Chubb has been the highest paid since, at three years and $36.6 million, when he was extended last year by Cleveland. And that's it. No other running backs have been paid in the same ballpark. The Giants don't appear willing to pay superstar Saquon Barkley what he desires, while the Vikings simply released Cook despite his prowess in Minnesota.

Top-tier quarterbacks, on the flip side, have consistently reset the contract market over the past decade - look at Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. Soon, we'll see it again from Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. And it's not just quarterbacks, either. Edge rushers, corners, and tackles are all cashing in relative to their predecessors. But not running backs.

With that in mind, here’s a look at a handful of notable free-agent backs who seemingly should be able to contribute in meaningful ways this season but remain unsigned amid this challenging landscape.

Leonard Fournette

"Playoff Lenny" has bided his time as the market stagnates. However, there's interest from several teams for the physically imposing runner, whose playoff exploits drew rave reviews from both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. They loved Fournette's clutch factor when he helped them to a Super Bowl win.

"Lenny is an absolute tank who's versatile to be a three-down back and make a big play when you need it the most," Gronk told me. "His unique skill set in the pass game at the size he is makes him a mismatch at all times."

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Gronk specifically mentioned that Fournette provides a certain comfort and reliability in the game's biggest moments. Not only is that hard to find, but it has a domino effect on the entire offense, regardless of who's under center.

Considering his elite pass-protection ability and soft hands out of the backfield, Fournette - only 28 - still brings a lot to the table at this stage in his career. The Bucs saved $3.5 million by releasing the former No. 4 pick of the Jags from LSU in 2017, yet he's coming off another productive season in which he recorded nearly 1,200 all-purpose yards (including a career-high 523 receiving yards) and six total TDs.

Best Fits: Bills, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots

Kareem Hunt

Hunt's quietly been one of the more productive backs in football since entering the league. One scout told me his value is significantly increased because of his ability in pass protection, as well as his capacity to catch the football. The highly versatile Hunt, the former Toledo standout, has gone over 1,000 total yards in four of his six NFL seasons, while hauling in 35 catches for 210 yards last year. He's also very stout on the goal line, where his toughness and balance make him a brutally tough tackle in short yardage.

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Hunt, 27, led the league with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie. In 2018, he followed up with a robust 14 TDs in 11 games. As one scout told me: "Very good player who can kinda do everything. I thought his pass protection developed as a real asset in Cleveland. He worked at it, that was clear to me. He can impact your offense. All-around back who you feel good about lining up behind your quarterback."

Best Fits: Broncos, Giants, Rams, Vikings

Dalvin Cook

I wrote about Cook - who'll be 28 next season - before his release last week. He's the only back in football to eclipse 1,100 yards rushing each of the previous four seasons, and his release in Minnesota had nothing to do with performance and everything to do with money. General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was simply never going to pay a running back top dollar, let alone $10.4 million, which would have slotted Cook third in football behind only Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara.

"I want somebody who values Dalvin Cook," Cook said. "I want somebody that wants me to be there and give me the ball. I just want to go into the right situation so I can go help somebody win. ... The money is going to come. If you play good, they're going to pay you. I just want to go somewhere where it feels like it's home to me and help somebody win and just go be me. Just go turn it loose and look for a home. That's it."

He has several suitors, but the former Florida State superstar could very well return home and play for the Phins.

Best Fits: Bills, Broncos, Dolphins, Saints

Ezekiel Elliott

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It's hard to believe Zeke will turn only 28 in July. As one executive explained to me regarding the former Buckeye great:

He's still a good player. He's still gonna help you win football games. I think he's been one of the best pass-pro running backs during his career. That's a "want-to" thing, and he's always had that desire. You're not signing him to be the player he was at 23, 24 years old. And that's okay. He can still shoulder the load when you need him to. I don't really have doubts about that. I always thought that Jerry and Stephen (Jones) would consider bringing him back. I still wouldn't rule that out.

Elliott's a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All Pro, and a consistent workhorse whose durability inside the tackles was a staple with the Cowboys. He could conceivably wait until training camp to find a new home - or perhaps return to the Star.

Best Fits: Bengals, Buccaneers, Cowboys

Jordan Schultz is theScore's NFL insider. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok

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