Teams that need a running back have a few avenues this time of year:
- They can wait for free agency and try to sign one of the big ones. With Le’Veon Bell now staying with Pittsburgh, the list of the “big ones” includes Dion Lewis, Carlos Hyde, and maybe Rex Burkhead and Jerick McKinnon if you’re being generous. Maybe you can uncover a surprise gem, but the list isn’t deep.
- They can wait for the draft and hope to land a stud. Without an early pick, Saquon Barkley isn’t in the cards, but in a deep running back draft, there are plenty of options … if you target the right one and manage to get him drafted. The right draft pick can make a franchise, but it’s hard to make the right pick when everyone has access to the same information. (Hey! On that note, check out the PFF Draft Guide so you have that information as well!)
- They can sign one of the currently available free agents. As we’ve seen from Richard Sherman, Chris Ivory, and others already this offseason, players who are cut don’t have to wait until free agency opens to sign — they can join a team right away. And with only a little over a day until free agency opens, there are four big-name running backs who can be signed right away: Doug Martin, DeMarco Murray, Adrian Peterson, and Jonathan Stewart.
Of course, each player type has its pros and cons. Waiting on a stud free agent could yield top-tier player, but you have no assurance of getting the stud you want, and there’s always the winner’s curse — you often have to overspend to get a free agent, and then, well, you overspent on a player. Waiting for the draft is cheaper, but you could get sniped by another team, and you could just whiff on a player — and then there’s the fear that if you do miss out on draft day, there’s no real fallback.
The cons of signing one of the already-available free agents are obvious — players like Murray, Peterson, and their ilk were cut for a reason. They are no longer the stars they once were. But on the benefit side of the equation, hey, some of the questions are answered quickly.
Right now, as free agency is almost set to open, the question is whether any of the four high-profile(ish) backs is still worth a look. Can any of Martin, Murray, Peterson, or Stewart recapture his old glory and be a starter in 2018?
As I wrote a year ago, Martin’s career has been wildly inconsistent. He’s literally never had a PFF grade in the 70s, and never finished anywhere between fourth and 44th in standard fantasy scoring. He’s played all 16 games twice in his career (2012 and 2015), averaging 4.7 yards per carry in those seasons. In the four years he’s missed time, his YPC average has been 3.3.
Among all qualified running backs in 2017, Martin was the least elusive, by a lot. His PFF elusive rating (which measures what a runner does beyond the help of his blockers) was 13.5 — Javorius Allen was second-worst at 21.6, and only nine running backs had lower than a 30.0. He couldn’t even average 3.0 yards per carry despite a middle-of-the-road offensive line. And to top it all off, he only had 18 targets in 11 games — he’s averaged just over 2.0 targets a game since his relatively pass-happy rookie year, and isn’t likely to be a big contributor in the passing game.
Verdict: A team might look at Martin as a reclamation project, but no one is going to add the ex-Buccaneer and proclaim itself done at the position this offseason. He’s a backup/lottery ticket in 2018 in the NFL, and almost certainly undraftable in fantasy.
Murray is only a year removed from finishing as the No. 5 fantasy running back in both standard and PPR leagues, but saw his efficiency numbers fall off across the board in 2017. At his peak, Murray was both elusive and explosive, finishing 11th in the league in 2014 in elusive rating and eighth in breakaway percentage (yards gained on runs of 15-plus yards). In 2017, he finished 42nd and 36th, respectively, in those two measures.
Still, he’s not without his benefits. Even with his yards per carry dropping from 4.4 in 2016 to 3.6 in 2017, Murray still finished as the No. 23 fantasy back in standard leagues and still managed a grade of 71.2, highest among the four backs we’re considering here. If not for Derrick Henry’s rise in the Tennessee backfield, Murray might still have a job with the Titans.
Verdict: Murray is already linked as a possibility with the Lions. He’s never going to repeat his 2014, when he finished as the No. 1 fantasy back in standard leagues, or even his No. 5 2016. But if he can get an early-down role on a team like Detroit, Indianapolis, or somewhere else that has little else, he still has potential — and could be a mid-round fantasy pick as well.
Peterson’s career slide has come as he’s passed the typical peak age for running backs, yes, but it’s also come as his offensive lines has gotten worse. His last two years in Minnesota and his 2017 split between New Orleans and Arizona featured some of the worst offensive lines in the league.
Of course, Peterson has aged. He put up better than 3.0 yards after contact per attempt every year of his career until 2014 and hasn’t topped 2.3 since. He had his moments in 2017 with Arizona — 134 yards on the ground and 2 scores in Week 6, 159 on the ground in Week 9 — but his 43.5 overall grade was the second-worst of his career (ahead of only 2016, when he played only 84 snaps) and the second-worst of all qualifying backs last year (ahead of only Ameer Abdullah).
Verdict: Get Peterson a two-down role to himself behind a competent offensive line, and you have to believe he’ll at least take what the line gives him. Are there any such jobs available? Possibly, if a Cleveland or a Green Bay wants to take a stab at a veteran and expend the rest of their efforts elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine anyone trusting a soon-to-be-33-year-old with one good season since 2013 to a concrete role. If Peterson has an NFL job in 2018, it’s going to be a part-time role at best.
Even before Christian McCaffrey arrived in Carolina, Stewart’s days as a receiving option were behind him — he’s topped 32 targets in a season exactly once, back in 2011, and averaged 17 a year in the six seasons since. As a runner, he just put up a career-worst 2.2 yards after contact per attempt and 3.5 yards per carry overall. Stewart’s 51.5 PFF grade in 2017 was easily the worst of his career, and 23.0 points below his grade of 74.5 of 2016.
Verdict: He turns 31 on the same day Peterson turns 33, but has neither the long-term success nor health history Peterson does. Stewart might get a backup/split-time gig, a la his ex-teammate DeAngelo Williams in Pittsburgh, but even that is best-case scenario.
Sign any of them?
If you’re a team like Detroit or Indianapolis with needs across the roster, DeMarco Murray is the only real candidate of this group that would let you even pretend to be done with significant backfield additions. All four of these options carry significant risk — otherwise they’d still be employed — but Murray would at least give a team an excuse to focus its attentions on other parts of the roster.
From a fantasy perspective, the story is largely the same — if Murray gets signed before free agency gets going, we can talk about his draft status. Any of the others get a job, and pump the brakes a bit, because odds are that won’t be the last backfield move that team makes this offseason.