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NFL RB Index, Week 12: Ten teams that must invest in the backfield this offseason

We're heading into the final stretch of the 2023 regular season, and that means the offseason is just (ish) around the corner. In today's edition of the RB Index, I'm assessing the state of all 32 backfields and identifying 10 teams -- presented in alphabetical order -- that must invest in the running back position this offseason.

The Ravens boast one of the most imposing rushing threats in the NFL in Lamar Jackson, but in his first season under coordinator Todd Monken, Jackson's per-game rushing numbers (9.2 carries, 48.6 yards) are as low as they've been since his rookie year. Gus Edwards (who currently leads the team in rushing yards) and J.K. Dobbins (on injured reserve with a torn Achilles) are set to become free agents, and while Justice Hill and Keaton Mitchell (an explosive touchdown machine who has jumped onto the scene in 2023) will be under contract, Baltimore must add to its strength this offseason. As a team that features a downhill run game, it feels like a no-brainer for Baltimore to target 2024 free agent Derrick Henry on a short-term deal. The soon-to-be 30-year-old might not be what he once was, but thinking about Jackson and Henry in the Ravens’ backfield makes me giddy. They could also consider bringing back Dobbins, who has had multiple injuries over the last few seasons, on a prove-it deal. 

The Panthers invested in Miles Sanders last offseason, signing him to a four-year, $25.4 million deal in an effort to take pressure off No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young early in his career. Well, that hasn’t quite panned out, as Sanders has started only half of the team’s games and has been outpaced by Chuba Hubbard. The run game and passing attack alike are struggling, in part because of terrible O-line play. The Panthers rank 28th in carries, 29th in rush yards and 31st in rush TDs through 11 weeks, so something must change if they intend to see better results. Investing up front and in running backs via free agency or the draft to give them a more potent backfield feels necessary. 

Bears fans have surely gone through a whirlwind of emotions watching the offense this season. While the passing attack has shown up in spurts, the bread and butter of this unit is its fourth-ranked run game. The backfield -- featuring a mix of Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman, Roschon Johnson and Darrynton Evans -- won’t wow many, with dual-threat QB Justin Fields being the star of this show. However, Foreman, who was nearly a 1,000-yard rusher with the Panthers last season, is set to become a free agent in 2024. He's been a key part of the Bears’ success on the ground, averaging over 4.0 yards per carry and leading the team in carries (92), rush yards (381) and rush TDs (four). Chicago signed him to a one-year deal worth $2 million last offseason. The Bears would be wise to bring him back to lead the charge once again -- regardless of what happens with Fields.

Tony Pollard is playing on the franchise tag this season, earning a fully guaranteed $10.091 million. After watching him play his part in Dallas’ top-five offense, it feels like an obvious move to re-sign him this offseason. He hasn’t necessarily scored touchdowns, but he’s done everything else in his first year as the team’s RB1. Don’t overcomplicate this.  

I would be surprised if Austin Ekeler is in a Chargers uniform in 2024. Set to become a free agent this offseason, Ekeler hasn’t been the threat this fall -- in Kellen Moore’s first season as offensive coordinator -- that he’s been in in past seasons. This comes after returning to Los Angeles on a restructured contract after he was unable to find a trade partner last offseason. Joshua Kelley is also set to hit free agency. Los Angeles’ sights should be set on a younger, more explosive version of Ekeler -- think D’Andre Swift, if he’s available in free agency. The Chargers should also draft a guy to pair with a free-agent pickup (or two), to give this unit depth. 

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Kyren Williams was playing well as the Rams’ starter prior to going on IR in mid-October. The second-year pro averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored seven total touchdowns (six rushing) while playing 82.8 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in Weeks 1-6, the highest rate in the NFL among running backs, according to Next Gen Stats. He’ll certainly be in the plans for 2024, but Los Angeles, which just released Darrell Henderson, loses two running backs to free agency in Royce Freeman and Ronnie Rivers (also on IR). I believe the Rams should invest in a low-end running back this offseason -- much like they did a year ago when they gave Freeman a one year-deal. I’m thinking 2024 free agents Trayveon Williams or Matt Breida would do well in Sean McVay’s system. It also shouldn’t be out of the question to draft a guy to give the backfield some extra juice.

The Vikings’ 28th-ranked rushing attack has been anything but reliable this season; Minnesota has rushed for 125 yards or more in just five games. And while the numbers were similar to last year’s, I believe Kevin O’Connell’s offense is missing the explosivity Dalvin Cook brought to the backfield in 2022. The dual-threat playmaker kept defenses somewhat honest and was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Even with everything Alexander Mattison brings to the table as a physical, downhill rusher, he’s not what Cook used to be. Ty Chandler has given this unit some juice after it lost Cam Akers, a free agent in 2024, to a season-ending injury, but it’s apparent Minnesota needs more than Mattison and Chandler in 2024. Adding another shifty back similar to Cook this offseason in the draft or free agency should be a priority for the offense -- after paying Justin Jefferson and figuring out the QB position, of course. 

The Eagles are one of the best rushing teams league-wide, with a dominant offensive line and mobile quarterback Jalen Hurts running the show. As good as Miles Sanders was for this unit in 2022, D’Andre Swift fits this offense like a glove, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and often moving the sticks, gaining 34 first downs on runs this season, per Next Gen Stats. Swift is set to become a free agent in 2024. So are Boston Scott and Rashaad Penny. Kenneth Gainwell, who last made a start in Week 1, is the only RB coming back. With a majority of the other offensive cornerstones returning, it’s feasible for the Eagles to focus on the running back position this offseason. I see them re-signing Swift or trading for another high-end back, plus drafting a guy for more depth.

Tampa has the worst rushing attack in the league and have since the beginning of 2022. No Bucs running back is averaging more than Rachaad White’s 3.3 yards per carry this season. It’s pretty dire. White has shown spurts of quality play, so he’ll likely still be in the backfield equation in 2024. Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Chase Edmonds are set to become free agents. This roster needs improvement, and upgrading the run game should be a priority with how poor it's been lately. The Bucs should use both free agency and the draft to add talent.

Derrick Henry is set to become a free agent in 2024, and it’s fair to wonder what the Titans offense looks like without the King, who has been the engine for the last half-decade-plus. Will Tennessee re-sign him? It should. Maybe not on a four-year deal like before, but rather a short-term deal that still pays him what he's truly worth. He and Tyjae Spears combine for a solid one-two punch. Unfortunately, that duo’s potential has been limited by a leaky offensive line this season. Tennessee must invest there, too.  

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