NFL free agency is just about upon us! History typically hasn’t been kind to running backs switching teams, but that doesn’t mean some of the league’s available talents at the position won’t be playing elsewhere in 2021.
There aren’t exactly a plethora of high-end options guaranteed to settle into featured roles remaining on the open market, but that shouldn’t stop us from getting a grip on each prospective free agent RB’s 1) general career success to this point, 2) best-case landing spot, 3) worst-case destination, and 4) most realistic new team.
Note that each RB’s dream, nightmare and best-guess spots are determined through a mix of fantasy football and real-life purposes. Volume is king in fantasyland, so we need to identify realistic landing spots when it comes to projected workload and not just focus on which units are expected to score the most overall points.
RUNNING BACK: AARON JONES
Breakdown: The rising fifth-year back has a history of being underutilized with the Packers, but that’s more due to the fact that Jones has functioned as one of the league’s most efficient backs than a true lack of touches. Overall, his 692 touches since becoming a full-time contributor in the offense in 2018 are the 10th-most among all backs.
The reason for the frustration is because there’s an argument to be had that A-aron deserves to be in consideration as one of the league’s single best RBs:
- PFF rushing grade: 90.8 (tied for No. 3 among 52 RBs with 300-plus carries since 2017)
- Missed tackles forced per attempt: 0.19 (No. 14)
- Yards per carry: 5.2 (tied for No. 1)
- Yards after contact per attempt: 3.2 (tied for No. 9)
- Percentage of carries to go for a first down or TD: 25.9% (No. 5)
- PFF receiving grade: 81.1 (No. 13 among 43 RBs with100-plus targets since 2017)
- Yards per reception: 8.1 (No. 17)
- Yards per route run: 1.21 (tied for No. 27)
Jones’ receiving ability might not look all that spectacular at first glance, although his ability to at times dominate when treated as a true receiver has been particularly fun to watch over the years.
Running backs averaging more yards per route run when lined up in the slot or out wide than Aaron Jones since 2017 (PFF):
<end of list> pic.twitter.com/HEyvoBMUWa
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 21, 2021
The 26-year-old back averaged a career-high 3.5 yards after contact per attempt in 2020 and doesn’t seem to be on the verge of falling off a cliff athletically. Be careful before putting too much faith in any second-contract back, but we should also be optimistic about what Jones could do with 300-plus touches for the first time in the career.
Dream spot: Steelers. You could argue that Jones might have a larger rushing workload with the Seahawks, Dolphins or Falcons, but none of those franchises have the same sort of fantasy-friendly history when it comes to having a 1) head coach willing to utilize a single featured back, and 2) QB with a history of feeding their starting RB plenty of targets.
Nightmare spot: Lions. The impact here would be twofold, as the insertion of a truly talented back would seemingly relegate D’Andre Swift to more of a scatback role. Overall touches would again be a concern, but arguably the even larger issue would be moving from the league’s reigning No. 1 scoring offense to what might just be the favorite for the No. 32 finish in 2021.
Best-guess spot: Dolphins. Reports indicate there’s “mutual interest” between the Dolphins and Jones. The cap situation is cozy enough in Miami for them to feasibly outbid the majority of the league. Co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey were promoted from within, meaning Myles Gaskin’s cozy three-down role could be fully inherited by Jones.
RUNNING BACK: CHRIS CARSON
Breakdown: Carson played just 12 games in 2020 and has battled injuries throughout his career. This is mostly due to the reality that the 26-year-old talent treats every play like his last, running, jumping and generally steamrolling would-be tacklers with shocking regularity. Overall, only Nick Chubb (4) and Derrick Henry (4) have averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Carson (3.4) since he entered the league in 2017.
We’ve also seen Carson function as a productive pass-down back, posting a career 101-775-7 receiving line. His seven career drops aren’t egregious, and he’s totaled just four career fumbles outside of his infamous butterfinger-induced 2019 campaign that featured the ball hitting the turf on seven separate occasions.
Carson has dealt with ankle, foot, knee and hip injuries over the years. The man has largely done nothing except ball the hell out when healthy over the years; just realize history tells us that this archetype typically ages poorly, particularly in a potentially less fantasy-friendly environment that isn’t so committed to establishing the damn run.
Dream spot: Seahawks. This seemingly has very little chance of happening, but it’s tough to find another landing spot that would consist of 1) an above-average offense, and 2) 300-plus touches with good health.
Nightmare spot: Bills. Josh Allen simply doesn’t enable fantasy-friendly RBs. The man ranks ninth in rushing scores since entering the league in 2018 and usually trades the check-down for a downfield shot. This “knock” isn’t specific to Allen; it’s generally a good idea to keep expectations in check for RBs tied to dual-threat QBs.
Best-guess spot: Jets. Only the Jaguars have more cap space than the Jets, who also have a fairly glaring need at RB. Would I write Carson a huge check if I was in charge of the Jets? Absolutely not, but I’m just a millennial sports analyst and aspiring candle salesman, so what do I know. This wouldn’t be awful from a fantasy perspective due to the high projected volume, although high-end efficiency would undoubtedly be tough to come by behind 2020’s 30th-ranked offensive line in rushing yards before contact per attempt.
RUNNING BACK: KENYAN DRAKE
Breakdown: Drake was one of the league’s most efficient backs with the Dolphins from 2016-2018 before he was traded to the Cardinals halfway through the 2019 season. He balled the hell out during the first eight games in his new home, although 2020 was met with more downs than ups. Some slack should be given to Drake for playing through a painful ankle injury with moderate success during the second half of the year, but backup RB Chase Edmonds was far superior on a per-carry (4.6 yards per rush vs. 4.0) and per-route (1.33 yards per route run vs. 0.55) basis.
The 2020 season marked the first year of Drake’s career that he surpassed 225 touches dating back to his time at Alabama; he’s a young 27 when it comes to football years. Still, his average of 4.1 yards per touch last season was a full 0.9 yards removed from his previous career-low mark. There was plenty of reason to be excited about Drake’s potential before the season; it’s just undeniable that he struggled to resemble the same dynamic threat we saw during the first four seasons of his career.
Dream spot: 49ers. If anyone knows how to get the most out of his RBs, it’s Kyle Shanahan. He’s had bad luck with trying to further enable similarly perceived veteran backs like Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, but that’s been more due to injury than any sort of inability to get his playmakers the ball in space.
Nightmare spot: Cardinals. Coach Kliff Kingsbury said the team sees Edmonds as a potential “bell cow” back. Edmonds is already the primary receiving back, while Kyler Murray is the most likely man to score on the ground near the goal line. This continuation would also seemingly indicate a lack of much of a market for Drake, as it doesn’t look like the Cardinals are willing to spend much to keep his services.
Best-guess spot: Falcons. The team is in dire need of help in the backfield with both Todd Gurley and Brian Hill set to hit free agency. They’re hardly overflowing with cap space, but a decent one-year deal could be enough to convince Drake to return to his hometown team and serve as the undisputed lead back for the first time in his career.
RUNNING BACK: JAMES CONNER
Breakdown: Calling this Steelers offense predictable in 2020 is an understatement: They ranked dead last in play-action rate, boasted PFF’s 31st-ranked offensive line in run-blocking grade and nobody averaged fewer yards per carry. Yes, Conner deserves some of the blame for this, but it wasn’t like the man was consistently failing to get easy yards. Overall, Conner’s average of 0.21 missed tackles forced per rush was tied for ninth with Lamar Jackson, Alvin Kamara and Devin Singletary among 51 players with at least 100 carries last season.
This isn’t to say that Conner should be seen as one of the league’s best rushers; just realize the larger issue in 2020 was a lack of elite volume combined with covid. Of course, this has been the case throughout the four-year veteran’s career, as he’s missed a total of 14 games since entering the league in 2017. Credit to Conner for catching 55 passes in 2018, but it’s tough to call PFF’s 30th-highest-graded receiving RB among 43 backs with at least 100 targets over the past four seasons a true three-down option.
Dream spot: Steelers. Reports indicate the Steelers are “unlikely” to re-sign Conner, and it’s tough to think of another team where he could enter Week 1 as the undisputed starter with anything resembling the same level of certainty. It’d behoove the Steelers to look at upgrading the position, but a reunion would be best for Conner’s fantasy business.
Nightmare spot: Eagles. This scenario would screw over Conner’s fantasy prospects due to 1) Miles Sanders being the heavy favorite to continue to work as the featured back, and 2) life with a dual-threat QB like Jalen Hurts. Throw in the likelihood that the Eagles boast a below-average offense in 2021, and it’s easy to see why this spot would be no bueno in fantasyland.
Best-guess spot: Cardinals. Kingsbury can talk all he wants about viewing Edmonds as a three-down back, but they’ll need to at least somewhat address the position through free agency or the draft. Cardinals RB coach James Saxon worked with Conner during the first two seasons of his career, and this could be a cheaper way of replacing Drake.
RUNNING BACK: LEONARD FOURNETTE
Breakdown: The artist known as Playoff Lenny — or maybe we’re going with Lombardi Lenny now — truly had some great moments during the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run.
PLAYOFF LENNY pic.twitter.com/1s1LlDcCpS
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 25, 2021
It’s a good thing Fournette saved his best for last because coach Bruce Arians said the team nearly released him after he was a surprise inactive in Week 14.
Fournette is big, strong and fast; the man is a handful to get down in the open field. He’s hardly the first player to have issues with the Jaguars’ organization, and the 26-year-old back has been able to stay relatively injury free over the past two seasons.
The slander on grouping Fournette among the league’s worst backs needs to stop; this doesn’t mean anybody should be signing up to give the man anything close to eight digits per season. The lack of even an average receiving back on the 2019 Jaguars and 2020 Buccaneers led to Fournette seeing more targets than a player with his hands should get, but he remains a plenty solid early-down grinder for teams that are into that type of thing.
Dream spot: Seahawks. Oh baby. Speaking of teams that are looking to jam their RB into the teeth of the defense 20-plus times per game, Pete Carroll and company would likely supply Fournette with his largest projected role around the league. This move would have to coincide with the team choosing to not re-sign Chris Carson. Somehow this scenario would likely result in Fournette again finding himself as the de facto pass-catching RB on another roster without a clear-cut scatback.
Nightmare spot: Broncos. Broncos beat reporter George Stoia told The PFF Fantasy Football Podcast that he could see the team moving on from Melvin Gordon. Both Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman are expected to be back in 2021, meaning Fournette would theoretically find himself in a three-headed committee with an erratic young QB under center.
Best-guess spot: Buccaneers. Reports indicate the Buccaneers “would like” to have Fournette back in 2021. This is hardly a guarantee with Ronald Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughn capable of picking up the slack, but the successful marriage could get another go if Fournette fails to find a deep-pocketed suitor elsewhere.
RUNNING BACK: TODD GURLEY
Breakdown: Gurley truly played well for the first five weeks of 2020, posting 14-56-1, 21-61-0, 14-80-1, 16-57-2 and 14-121-1 rushing lines despite rarely getting the benefit of a positive game script. Unfortunately, Gurley struggled to get much of anything going the rest of the season, failing to average more than 4.0 yards per carry even once in Weeks 6-17.
The result was truly anyone’s idea of a bad RB:
- PFF rushing grade: 59.3 (No. 45 among 47 RBs with 100-plus carries)
- Missed tackles forced per attempt: 0.17 (No. 26)
- Yards per carry: 3.5 (tied for No. 43)
- Yards after contact per attempt: 2.5 (tied for No. 35)
- PFF receiving grade: 44.1 (No. 43 among 46 RBs with 25-plus targets)
- Yards per reception: 6.6 (No. 34)
- Yards per route run: 0.72 (No. 38)
This was arguably the league’s single most dynamic back during the 2017-2018 seasons. Ahead of 2021, Gurley is closer to being the league’s 50th-best RB than the NFL’s No. 51 overall player.
Dream spot: Seahawks. At this point it seems like Gurley’s best-case scenario is to find a coach that remembers him far more fondly than the current edition. Who better than to make this mistake than his longtime NFC West rival?
Nightmare spot: Eagles. Same concerns as James Conner considering this pairing would create issues due to 1) Miles Sanders being the heavy favorite to continue to work as the featured back, and 2) life with a dual-threat QB like Jalen Hurts.
Best-guess spot: Raiders. Gurley sat out the Falcons' 43-6 win over the Raiders in Week 12, meaning the last time Jon Gruden saw him play with his own two eyes was in Week 1, 2018 during his re-debut with the Raiders. Regardless of the potential for Gruden to make another poor personnel decision, Josh Jacobs’ late-season DUI issue (he was never charged after an initial suspicion) makes some sort of offseason addition to this RB room likely.
RUNNING BACK: MIKE DAVIS
Breakdown: Davis made life bearable for Christian McCaffrey fantasy investors if they were lucky enough to properly handcuff the reigning 2019 fantasy MVP. All the sixth-year journeyman RB did in 15 games of action is rack up 1,015 total yards from scrimmage with eight trips to the end zone. Davis achieved all of this in style, leaving countless defenders grasping for air along the way.
Mike Davis is a tough dude to tackle pic.twitter.com/RpgwOfE8iF
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 28, 2020
In Weeks 1-16, only Dalvin Cook (78), Derrick Henry (67) and David Montgomery (67) racked up more total forced missed tackles than Davis (65). Only Nick Chubb (0.31) had a higher rate of broken tackles per touch than Davis (0.29) among 65 players with 100 total touches.
This performance in 2020 comes after less successful stints with the 49ers, Seahawks and Bears, although we still saw signs of the same slippery tackle-breaking ability. Davis graded out as PFF’s 12th-best back in receiving grade among 46 qualified players; he’s an overachieving grinder that possesses true three-down ability.
Dream spot: Falcons. Someone needs to be the recipient of coach Arthur Smith’s fantasy-friendly backfield, and the cap-strapped Falcons could do worse than Davis, who racked up 226 total yards and a score in two combined matchups against the Panthers’ NFC South rival in 2020.
Nightmare spot: Patriots. A return to the Panthers or elsewhere might lead to less overall touches than this spot due to the potential for a more backup-focused role, but at least we know Davis is a viable three-down handcuff. That role doesn’t really exist in New England, as OC Josh McDaniels has regularly utilized committees of all shapes and sizes during his tenure. Perhaps Davis could find a way to work his way to the top of the depth chart, but even then life might not be too productive if Cam Newton is again under center (and scoring all the goal line TDs).
Best-guess spot: Seahawks. Reports indicate Davis could be among the Seahawks’ free agency targets. He’d certainly be cheaper for them to sign than Chris Carson, and there’s plenty of familiarity here considering the Seahawks handed Davis 229 combined touches during the 2017-2018 seasons.
BEST OF THE REST
- Marlon Mack needs to prove he’s the same caliber player post-ACL tear, but he’s a shifty early-down option if healthy. A reunion with ex-Colts OC Nick Sirianni — now the Eagles' head coach — makes a lot of sense for both sides.
- Jamaal Williams is truly a solid RB who is underrated in the fantasy community purely because of frustration stemming from Aaron Jones not getting enough touches. The former back will be the far more affordable option for the Packers to retain; don’t be surprised if he opens the season as the 1.A option in the backfield ahead of A.J. Dillon.
- Duke Johnson didn’t offer his token elusiveness in 2020 and missed five games due to injury after appearing in every single contest during the first five seasons of his career. One can dream about The U’s all-time leading rusher being afforded a true chance to seize a three-down role, but the more likely scenario is Johnson signing on as a clear No. 2 scat back on the cheap.
- James White to the Buccaneers is my closest thing to a lock in the entire cycle.
- Carlos Hyde continues to provide average to above-average rushing ability regardless of what logo happens to be on his helmet. The 30-year-old back has become a one-year mercenary of sorts at the position in recent years; don’t expect more than an early-down committee role at best.
- Le’Veon Bell didn’t manage to break out for the Chiefs, hurting the case that his struggles with the Jets were due to Adam Gase. There are a lot of miles on the 29-year-old RB, although Bell’s reputation and still-solid receiving ability should land him an opportunity somewhere.
- Tevin Coleman has been a combination of banged up and bad over the past two seasons. He looked like a shell of his former dynamic self in 2020; it’s tough to see the six-year veteran finding more success outside of a Shanahan-coached offense.
- Devonta Freeman: same as Coleman except Freeman has rung up seven years of NFL service.
- Gus Edwards is a restricted free agent and is tentatively expected to be back in Baltimore next season. J.K. Dobbins should be considered the favorite to lead the backfield in touches, but the ADP disparity between the two in fantasyland will likely be far wider than what their eventual production looks like.
- Phillip Lindsay is another restricted free agent who is fully expected to return to their original team. The problem for expecting more from Linsday down the road is that the Broncos seem reluctant to trust him with a huge workload due to size (5-foot-8 and 190-pounds) concerns, and he’s also never been trusted as a high-frequency receiving back.
- Darrel Williams is an incredibly solid real life back that figures to eat into Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Damien Williams’ pass-down reps if both Williams are back with the Chiefs in 2021. Still, don’t expect Darrel to emerge as the starter without multiple injuries.
- Wayne Gallman looked like the best RB with the Giants not named Saquon in 2020 and will need to look elsewhere to find a larger role. He fits the Mike Davis-mold as a theoretical three-down back that could feasibly produce solid-enough results with a large workload; it’s just unlikely that we see a team prioritize that situation for a still-unproven RB.
- Matt Breida flashed on a regular basis with the 49ers, but (predictably) struggled to provide the same sort of explosiveness away from Shanahan and company. One of the fastest players in the league, Breida is too dynamic at his best to be a free agent for long, but he’ll likely need to earn a committee role wherever he lands.
- Malcolm Brown repeatedly vultured away snaps and touches alike from this backfield over the years; Brown is unlikely to land a larger spot elsewhere, but his departure from the Rams would objectively be great news for both Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson.
- Adrian Peterson is apparently set to keep on keeping on. The soon to be 36-year-old back is a liability on pass downs, although he’s provided some tough between-the-tackles running with Washington and Detroit over the past two seasons. It’ll likely take another old-school/bad offense to take a chance on the future Hall-of-Famer for AP to again crack 150 carries.
- Jerick McKinnon played in all 16 games in 2020 after missing both the 2018-2019 seasons. The problem is that McKinnon was seemingly benched on multiple occasions due to concerns regarding his ability to handle anything resembling a consistent workload. The pipe dream of McKinnon being a true three-down back is all but over, although a scatback role somewhere could happen.
- Mike Boone the preseason all star has made the most of his few opportunities with the Vikings during his three-year career. He’s another back that *could* emerge as a major free agency winner if selected to fill a major role; it’s just unlikely that he earns a red rose to be anything other than a clear-cut backup.
- Mark Ingram was a team and fan favorite with the Ravens, but was ultimately badly outplayed by both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards in 2020. Thirty-two years old in December, Ingram has assuredly played his best football already. Still, proof of good health and a continued positive attitude could seemingly land the 10-year veteran a small early-down role somewhere.
- Rex Burkhead missed 23 games with the Patriots over the past four seasons but was anyone’s idea of a solid three-down back whenever healthy enough to suit up. It takes a special offensive coordinator to truly tap into Burkhead’s abilities; it wouldn’t be surprising if Burkhead’s eight-year streak with fewer than 100 touches continues into 2022.
- Frank Gore no longer has Adam Gase to inexplicably give him 13.5 touches per game, but the 16-year veteran’s desire to continue playing will likely be met by some team looking to add a credible voice to their locker room.
- Cordarrelle Patterson remains the league’s most feared kick returner and has proven capable of lining up all over the field on offense. As longtime president of the Cordarrelle Patterson fan club, I can confidently tell you that C-Patt stans of all shapes and sizes will be absolutely thrilled if he ends up with the 49ers.