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Running backs took a big financial hit in 2023. The number of running backs with contracts averaging $12 million per year or more was cut in half to four thanks to releases and pay cuts until the Indianapolis Colts made Jonathan Taylor the league's fifth in October with a three-year, $42 million contract extension, averaging $14 million per year. Taylor was the first running back to get a big payday since Nick Chubb in 2021 when the Browns gave him a three-year, $36.6 million extension, averaging $12.2 million per year, as he was going into the final year of his rookie contract. 

NFL teams exercised fiscal restraint with running backs in free agency. The top deal on the open market went to Miles Sanders. He got a four-year, $25.64 million contract, averaging $6.35 million per year, from the Carolina Panthers with $13 million fully guaranteed after a 2022 season with the Philadelphia Eagles in which he had career highs of 1,269 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, which were fifth and eighth in the NFL, respectively.

Three running backs (Saquon Barkley-New York Giants, Josh Jacobs-Las Vegas Raiders and Tony Pollard-Dallas Cowboys) were kept out of free agency with franchise tags. None of the three signed long-term deals. 

Derrick Henry, the most accomplished running back in recent years, is heading to free agency in an environment that isn't friendly to ball-carriers with two big potential strikes against him. He turned 30 in January and crossed the 2,000-career carry mark during the 2023 season. Henry's 2,030 rushing attempts rank 42nd in NFL history.

The Tennessee Titans certainly got their money's worth from the four-year, $50 million contract (with an additional $1 million in incentives) Henry signed in 2020 as a franchise player. Henry's 5,669 rushing yards easily are the NFL's most since signing the $12.5 million-per-year deal. The league's next best mark by Taylor is 1,087 yards behind. Henry also led the NFL in carries (1,226), rushing yards per game (99.5) and rushing touchdowns (53) during this four-year span.

Henry's age and mileage shouldn't necessarily dissuade teams from pursuing him. He still has some gas left in the tank. Henry was second in the NFL with 1,167 rushing yards on a league-leading 280 carries last season. However, his 4.2 yards per carry was the worst mark of his eight-year NFL year. 

The career low in yards per attempt is mitigated by some advanced running back metrics. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, 35.36% of Henry's carries were with eight or more defenders in the box last season. The 35.36% was the league's second-highest percentage, which Henry also had in 2022 at 36.53%. It was 27.78% in 2020 when Henry won NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors after becoming the league's eighth player to ever rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season with 2,027 on 378 carries, which tied for 19th most for a season.

Henry consistently tops Pro Football Focus' yards after contact metric, which is expected given his heavy workload. His 930 yards were 2023's best. More importantly, Henry's 3.32 yards after contact per rushing attempt (minimum of 100 carries) ranked eighth in the league last year. It's been fairly constant over the last three seasons with 3.6 in 2022 (fourth in the NFL) and 3.32 in 2021 (ninth in the NFL).

The team that signs Henry will be paying him for his expected contribution, not his career accomplishments. Running backs have rushed for at least 1,000 yards after turning 30 on 53 occasions. Thirteen of the 53 times have been in the 21st century after a running back had already crossed the 2,000-career carry threshold coming into that season. 

Hall of Famer Curtis Martin had the most productive of these types of seasons when he was with the New York Jets. In 2004 at 31, he led the NFL with 1,697 rushing yards on a league-high 371 carries. Martin had 2,927 career rushing attempts prior to the 2004 season. He also accomplished the feat when he was 30 with 1,308 yards on the ground.

Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson are the oldest. Both players did it as 33-year-olds. Gore had 1,025 rushing yards in 2016 with the Colts. Peterson was the last player to reach the mark in 2018 with 1,042 yards. Gore and Peterson had 2,702 and 2,574 carries coming into their respective seasons.

Each player had previously reached the mark. Gore was 31 in 2014 when he had 1,106 yards in his final season with the San Francisco 49ers. He had 2,167 carries before the 2014 season started.

Peterson won his third rushing title with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 as a 30-year-old when had 1,485 yards on a league-leading 327 rushing attempts. He had carried the ball 2,054 times coming into the 2015 season. 

No running back has ever hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark more than two times after turning 30 when he already has at least 2,000 career carries during the 21st century. Emmitt Smith did it twice in 2000 and 2001 during his last two seasons with the Cowboys at 31 and 32 when he had 1,203 and 1,021 yards. He had 3,537 career carries heading into the 2001 season. Smith also topped the 1,000-yard mark in 1999 when he was 30 with 1,397 yards. 

The optimal situation for Henry is probably a team that views him as an offensive missing piece to a championship puzzle. Henry recognized last month his days in Tennessee are likely over as the Titans are in rebuilding mode. He indicated that going to a Super Bowl contender would be a priority.  

Two teams that could fall in this category are the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens, who had the NFL's best record in 2023 at 13-4, were rumored to have interest in acquiring Henry before last season's late-October trade deadline. Henry would be an upgrade over impending free agent running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins.

The Cowboys had a disappointing end to the 2023 season by becoming the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 7 seed since the playoffs expanded to 14 teams in 2020. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry would bring more balance to the offense and add a dimension that was missing last season with Pollard, who is headed to the open market. His rare size for a running back would make it easier for the Cowboys to close out games on the ground and he would be a major weapon in red zone situations around the goal line.

The average yearly salary of 2023's 15 highest-paid running backs on veteran contracts was a little more than $9.975 million per year with the average contract length being 2.73 new years. Signing Henry to a two-year, $20 million contract, averaging $10 million per year with $14 million in guarantees, of which $11 million is fully guaranteed at signing, wouldn't be outlandish for either of these teams in light of this figure and given some of their decisions in allocating resources to offensive skill position players over the last couple of years. Both teams are comfortable using dummy/voiding contract years, which would make Henry's 2024 salary cap number more manageable.

The Ravens surprisingly gave wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. a one-year, $15 million contract worth up to $18 million through incentives despite his injury history last April. Beckham missed the entire 2022 season recovering from tearing the ACL in his left knee for a second time during Super Bowl LVI.

Ezekiel Elliott made $22 million over his last two seasons with the Cowboys (2021-22) when it was clear he was a declining player. Pollard rushed for 1,005 yards on 252 rushing yards with six touchdowns in 2023 while playing under a $10.091 million franchise tag. 

The prospect of diminishing returns shouldn't be ignored because of Henry's age and heavy usage. It would be a shock for Father Time to quickly catch up to Henry in 2024 because of his production last season. With a rapid decline, it would essentially be a one-year deal for $11 million because he would be cut before the other $3 million became fully guaranteed during the first few days of the 2025 league year next March. Making any kind of meaningful commitment to Henry beyond two years would be relying on him to defy the odds as one of the biggest running back anomalies in NFL history since he should have over 2,500 career carries after the 2025 season.