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Late for Work: Free-Agent Running Back Market Is Loaded, But Who Is the Best Value?

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs for yardage during their NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs for yardage during their NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Former NFL Executive Says Gus Edwards Offers Better Value Than Derrick Henry in Free Agency

Teams looking to sign a running back in free agency will find the shelves well stocked this offseason.

Yesterday, news broke that Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard won't receive franchise tags. They'll join a market that was already set to include Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, and others.

But who is the best bargain for a team such as the Ravens, who may have interest but not a ton of money to spend?

Speculation continues to swirl about the Ravens' interest in Henry, but one pundit believes Gus Edwards offers better value than the four-time Pro Bowler. Former NFL executive Randy Mueller of The Athletic ranked the top 10 free agents at every position. At running back, he has Edwards at No. 3, one spot ahead of Henry.

"Derrick Henry's style could make him a culture-changer for teams with offenses built around the run," Mueller wrote. "The question is: Given supply and demand and the rapidly expiring shelf life for running backs, will Henry's market be limited because of his age (30) and workload (2,030 career carries)?

"An interesting contrast to Henry is Gus Edwards, who is only one year younger but has about a third of the career carries (699). Known for his downhill power, Edwards also has surprisingly good agility and receiving ability. He might provide great value as a bargain somewhere."

Edwards, who has been with the Ravens since 2018, was not signed to an extension before last Tuesday's deadline, thus making him a free agent. Edwards' contract accounts for $1.8 million in dead money on the 2024 salary cap. If the Ravens re-sign him, they will absorb both the dead money from the void years and the cost of the new contract.

Mueller's point about Henry's age and the wear and tear on his body is well taken. However, Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson believes the Tennessee Titans star is an anomaly.

"Derrick Henry is already breaking all of the rules that you normally apply to running backs," Monson said. "He's got way, way, way more workload in his career, not just NFL, but college, high school, there's way more of a workload than you usually get from running backs. He's past the age where you want to give the money.

"He's already broken rules in terms of the last contract that he signed. Everything about him if he was just a normal running back you would say buyer beware, don't even think about giving that guy a big contract. But he's King Henry, and he's still King Henry. Even last year he averaged more than four yards a carry, more than three yards per carry after contact behind the worst offensive line in the NFL. He's still able to absolutely dominate."

Monson's colleague, Steve Palazzolo, said he loves the idea of the Ravens signing Henry, who reportedly was nearly traded to Baltimore before the deadline last October.

"If you put him into a Baltimore Ravens system where there is space because Lamar Jackson is a run threat and because they have a good offensive line and a good scheme, Derrick Henry might be averaging five yards a pop downhill and fitting the style that the Ravens like to run," Palazzolo said. "Boy, would I love to see him in Baltimore with Lamar and all of the versatility that that run game brings to the table."

As with any free agent fit for the Ravens, it's right player, right price. Former agent Joel Corry of CBS Sports wrote that a deal for Henry may be around two years, $20 million with about $11 million guaranteed (so essentially a one-year, $11 million deal if desired).

But with so many big names on the free agent market, it remains to be seen.

Pundit Says Ravens Shouldn't Spend Significant Money on a Running Back

As noted in yesterday’s Late for Work, the Ravens are expected to pursue a "bell-cow" running back in free agency, whether that's Henry, Barkley, Jacobs, Ekeler or another back.

Press Box’s Glenn Clark said he isn't necessarily against the idea, but he believes the Ravens' money would be better spent on other positions.

"It's not so much that I'm opposed to the idea of Henry or Barkley. (I also happen to love Josh Jacobs AND just so happen to know that he'd truly love to be a Baltimore Raven.)," Clark wrote. "It's just that my gut tells me that the Ravens are better suited spending the money in … any other way.

"They need edge rushers. Badly. They struck gold with Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy this past season but are right back in the same bind this year. They need to keep Justin Madubuike, and that might require a $22 million franchise tag. They need at least a right guard on their offensive line and perhaps more than that. They probably still need one more wide receiver. And we still don't know who else they might part ways with, although last week's salary cap boost might limit the damage. Other issues require necessary fixes. Running back remains a luxury."

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler appeared on Glenn Clark Radio last week and said that while the Ravens are doing their legwork on the top available running backs, price point will be a factor.

"If the running back market gets to $10 million or more (per year) they probably won't be involved," Fowler said.

Free-Agent Wide Receiver Darnell Mooney Named Good Fit for Ravens

Wide receiver is another position the Ravens could look to boost in free agency. Darnell Mooney of the Chicago Bears would be a good fit for Baltimore, said CBS Sports’ Garrett Podell, who ranked Mooney as the sixth-best wide receiver available.

"The Ravens could use more juice at the position in Baltimore with Odell Beckham Jr.'s likely departure," Podell wrote.

Mueller thinks even more highly of Mooney, as he put him at No. 2 in his free-agent wide receiver rankings, ahead of players such as Michael Pittman Jr., Tee Higgins (who is off the market after receiving the franchise tag from the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday), and Mike Evans.

Mooney, 26, had a breakout season in 2021, recording 81 catches for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns, but his numbers fell significantly the past two seasons in the Bears' run-heavy offense. Last season, Mooney had career-lows in catches (31), yards (414), and touchdowns (one).

The Ravens' top wide receivers under contract are Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman, Nelson Agholor, and Tylan Wallace.

Combine Should Help Ravens Answer Key Offseason Questions

With the NFL Scouting Combine upon us, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec identified some key offseason questions the Ravens should have a better answer for after they meet with agents, prospects, and executives from other teams in Indianapolis over the next week. Here's a look at two:

What moves have to be made to create the necessary cap room?

"Over The Cap has them with $16.6 million of space, which isn't nearly enough for General Manager Eric DeCosta to do what he needs to this offseason. More cap space is essential, and the Ravens will have to consider roster cuts, pay cuts, restructures and even extensions in some cases. The cut options include fullback Patrick Ricard ($4 million in savings), right tackle Morgan Moses ($5.5 million) and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser ($5.5 million). An extension for the valuable Ricard that lowers his 2024 cap number may make more sense. Baltimore has a call to make on left tackle Ronnie Stanley, but that could be a decision for down the road. The soon-to-be 30-year-old left tackle carries the team's second-highest 2024 cap hit at $26.2 million, behind only Jackson's $32.4 million."

Who might be available at No. 30 and beyond?

"Baltimore's list of needs could change through free agency, depending on who it's able to keep or add and who it loses. It's no secret, though, that team officials view solidifying the offensive line as one of the top priorities this offseason. In Indianapolis, the Ravens will get the most extensive look to date at an offensive line draft class that's touted to be one of the best and deepest in many years. The Ravens probably don't have the salary-cap space to dive into the deep end of the free-agent edge-rush market, so that's another position that will be monitored closely in Indianapolis. It seems likely that they'll draft a pass rusher at some point. DeCosta also always preaches the importance of adding cornerback depth. If one of the draft's better corners is available at No. 30, Baltimore could pounce."

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