2021 Will Be the Year of the Running Back

Liam McKeone
Derrick Henry with a man's stiff-arm
Derrick Henry with a man's stiff-arm / Bobby Ellis/Getty Images
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The 2019 AFC playoff picture seemed fairly straightforward going in. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs would likely be battling for a Super Bowl spot in the AFC Championship Game, but one can never count out the New England Patriots in January. Then the Tennessee Titans came along and upended the status quo. Specifically, they used Derrick Henry as their wrecking ball/battering ram to do so. Henry ran rampant all over New England and Baltimore before he and his team became the latest victims of a Patrick Mahomes onslaught and Kansas City ended up Super Bowl champs.

Even if they didn't ultimately reach the finish line, no one could overlook Henry's impact in those playoffs. He was the engine that drove the Titans' upset machine. All the pieces lined up for Henry to receive a rather hefty payday when he hit the open market in March. That... sort of happened.

Henry received the franchise tag and, with the deadline to sign a long-term deal coming on Wednesday, is not expected to reach a contract extension agreement with Tennessee. He''s expected to make slightly north of $10 million on the tag next year, but doesn't have any long-term security, a goal growing more elusive with each passing year for running backs. Given what 2021 will bring at the position, Henry's breakout 2019 may be for naught financially.

Unlike this offseason, where Henry was the best running back to hit free agency by a wide margin, the 2021 RB free-agent market will be stacked. Should Henry play out the 2020 season on his franchise tag, he'll be joined by Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and James Conner, among others, as a free agent.

Now, not all of these guys will be open for negotiating business in eight months. Cook has already entered into negotiations with the Vikings for an extension. It's hard to imagine Sean Payton letting the versatile Kamara leave the building, regardless of how long Drew Brees plans to play. Jones and Conner have both proven themselves to be foundational pieces of their team's offenses going forward. But a good chunk of the names listed will be free agents next March, severely saturating the market for running back talent.

And that's all before you get into the draft class. The 2021 draft has several notable names at tailback. One does not need to be a draft guru to understand that, top-to-bottom, this is one of the better classes for the position in recent memory.

Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Chuba Hubbard all have the making of three-down backs in the NFL. Then there's the usual caveat with the draft that a good handful of players who are completely unknown in July will be quite popular by April of the following year. Add that to the few who will still be completely unknown in April but become regular contributors for their new teams by Week 8 of the 2021 season, and the NFL should have quite a bit of established talent at the running back position by this time next year.

This is good news for the fans, because more talent means the football is more fun. It's also good news for teams who are looking to get high-end RB talent on the cheap. For that reason, it is bad news for guys like Henry.

Henry's negotiating position was never going to be stronger than it was this year. Next offseason, the Titans can point to the nearly-as-talented and cheaper options that the draft and free agency will present should they enter into talks with Henry on a long-term deal again. This will be true for everyone in his position, too. There will be teams getting a very talented running back on the open market for much less than what they would have had to pay any other year because there isn't enough high-end running back money to go around. Some of the free agents on the 2021 scene will have to settle salary-wise.

It's tough to be a running back in the NFL nowadays. They take the most physical punishment but most come along with a replaceable skillset. A back has to be truly special to get big money nowadays, and it's only going to get harder to secure long-term commitments from franchises with the talent that will become available in the next 12 months.

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