Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley Hoping For Paydays As Free Agency Approaches

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Three of the NFL's top running backs are approaching free agency and hoping to buck the trend of teams not being willing to spend big money at the position.

Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler and Josh Jacobs will become free agents next month and will seek to maximize their value in a pass-first league.

“It’s really coming down to what is the sense of people wanting Austin on the team and how do they want me on their team,” Ekeler told The Associated Press on Radio Row at the Super Bowl, appearing on behalf of Dairy Queen. “Do they want me as a starter? Do they want me splitting carries, like the tandem back (trend) that’s going around the league?”

Ekeler had a contract standoff with the Los Angeles Chargers before the season. The seventh-year player requested a trade but eventually returned with incentives added to his deal after he topped 1,500 yards from scrimmage each of the prior two years, with 38 combined touchdowns.

Ekeler's production declined in 2023, however. He rushed for 628 yards, his fewest since 2000, and had six touchdowns.

Ekeler isn’t ruling out a return to Los Angeles and would love to play for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but he wants to be sure he’s wanted at his eventual destination.

“What’s the upside, the pay, where is it at, and what is the culture of the team?” Ekeler said. “All these quality factors that play into my decision and who’s really interested like that.

“It’s going to be a competitive market this offseason, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Barkley, who played in 2023 on a one-year deal after the New York Giants placed the franchise tag on him, believes free-agent running backs may fare better this offseason.

“It’s about standing on what we believe,” said Barkley, who appeared on Radio Row on behalf of Silk. “Obviously, last year I had to go through something (challenging).”

Barkley, the Giants' best offensive player, missed three games and finished with 962 yards rushing, 1,242 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns. That ought to give him some leverage as he seeks a new deal, but New York also needs a No. 1 wide receiver.

Barkley said he hasn't thought much about what would make him attractive to another team.

“The way I do think: be a playmaker, make plays,” he added. “I just want to be able to play where I’m wanted.”

Jacobs also had a contentious offseason after leading the NFL in rushing in 2022. He refused to sign his franchise tag last spring and skipped the Las Vegas Raiders' offseason program, training camp and the preseason.

Jacobs rushed for 805 yards in 2023 — the lowest total of his five NFL seasons. Still, there is a chance he'll be back with Las Vegas next season and playing again for coach Antonio Pierce, who took over on an interim basis in 2023 and was hired in the offseason.

Pierce has made no secret of how much he appreciates Jacobs, who is also a favorite of Raiders owner Mark Davis.

“He’s the heartbeat of this team, the heart and soul of this team,” Pierce said on Jan. 8. “I mean our personality and the way we play and our style of play matches with Josh Jacobs. So, obviously, those conversations are going to come up as we go forward, but it was a pleasure to work with Josh. I hope things work out. That’s going to be something we have to discuss further.”