News & Analysis

The fantasy running back landscape heading into free agency

Dec 17, 2017; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back Chris Ivory (33) run with the ball against the Houston Texans during the first quarter at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The official start of the 2018 NFL season is nearing, and this year’s free agent rush is going to be a doozy.

Before the madness begins, we’re going to run through the potential implications for each team on a position-by-position basis.

Let’s start with the running back position.

High impact potential

These backfields could see some major fantasy-relevant changes via free agency.

Denver BroncosThe Broncos aren’t losing anyone of note. Jamaal Charles is a free agent, but C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker are still in town. Anderson quietly had a 1,000-yard season last year, while Booker added nearly 600 total yards as a complementary piece. The underrated duo seems to be on shaky ground in Denver, though, with Anderson rumored to be a potential cut. If Anderson leaves and Kirk Cousins signs with Denver, this becomes one of the better free agent landing spots for a running back.

New England PatriotsDion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are unrestricted free agents, and the duo combined for 17 of the 25 total touchdowns scored by New England running backs last year. New England’s backfield is never easy to predict, but it has always been fruitful from a fantasy perspective. If a true lead back lands in New England, that back would be an obvious candidate to put up fantasy RB1 numbers. Even if a strong duo comes to town, we can’t discount their individual upside; Lewis was a top-10 fantasy running back on the season as a whole last year, and he was the No. 5 running back in fantasy over the final eight games of the season.

Pittsburgh SteelersIn the unlikely event that Le’Veon Bell does get away from Pittsburgh, then this becomes one of the most intriguing landing spots for a free agent running back. It’s probably not going to happen, but if it did, the fantasy potential would obviously be high. DeAngelo Williams slotted in as a high-end RB1 in fantasy whenever Bell missed time over the past several seasons.

San Francisco 49ersIt’s hard not to be excited about San Francisco’s offensive prospects moving forward, and with Carlos Hyde set to hit the open market, the 49ers could have a big void to fill. Matt Breida showed promise in 2017, but Hyde leaves 783 snaps and about 300 total touches on the table for the taking in an offense that’s going nowhere but up.

Seattle SeahawksIn the Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks typically ran more often than they passed. That script has been flipped on its head over the past two years, with Seattle approaching more of a 60-40 run-pass split in 2017. The Seahawks have a bunch of recognizable names in their backfield, but none emerged as a lead back in the post-Marshawn Lynch era, and now Thomas Rawls, Mike Davis, and Eddie Lacy are now set to be free agents. If someone can claim that crown, the upside here is palpable.

Tampa Bay BuccaneersTampa Bay has a young, rising offense whose backfield has been spearheaded by an on-again, off-again Doug Martin over the past several season. Now Martin and pass-catching partner Charles Sims are both primed for free agency. This offense has yet to realize its full potential, but a newcomer at running back could be the spark needed.

Washington RedskinsWashington’s backfield is led by Samaje Perine, Rob Kelley, and Chris Thompson. Thompson was phenomenal out of the backfield last year, but he’s coming off a broken leg. Perine was on-again, off-again as a rookie, and Kelley never took the expected step forward. This trio might lead the way again in 2018, but the team has given them lukewarm endorsements, at best, and the door is certainly open for a big name to join the squad and immediately become the top dog.

Medium impact potential

These backfields could see some meaningful, but not game-changing, fantasy-relevant changes in free agency.

Baltimore RavensThe Ravens are losing Terrance West, but Alex Collins was strong down the stretch last year, ending the season with a 212-973-6 line. Kenneth Dixon, Javorius Allen, and Danny Woodhead are all still with Baltimore as well. Even still, head coach John Harbaugh seems open to the idea of adding better players. The crowded backfield limits the potential success for a free agent addition.

Carolina PanthersThe Panthers spent a ton of draft capital on Christian McCaffrey last year, and they used him extensively through the air (RB-high 106 targets), but Jonathan Stewart still led the team in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns, and he won’t be in Carolina in 2018. A free agent addition wouldn’t become the “lead back” with McCaffrey still in town, but there’s decent potential here for a split-time back.

Cleveland BrownsThe Browns are losing the never-was-as-good-as-he-should’ve-been Isaiah Crowell this year. They are a “medium impact potential” landing spot simply because Crowell was the lead back, and he leaves a void of 200-plus annual touches that are certainly worthwhile from a fantasy perspective, even if unspectacular.

Detroit LionsAmeer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are fine, but neither is a workhorse, and it’s not a stretch to think the Lions might look to upgrade the running back position in free agency. At the very least, this could turn into a three-way committee, in which case the newcomer would still carry marginal fantasy value. Or the newcomer could take the early-down duties outright. That’s certainly possible given that Abdullah gained just 3.3 YPC last year.

Indianapolis ColtsFrank Gore is on his way out, and Andrew Luck is (hopefully) on his way back. Marlon Mack flashed tons of potential as a rookie, but there’s little doubt the Colts will look to add to their backfield via free agency or the draft (or both). There’s definitely some fantasy upside here.

Miami DolphinsThe Dolphins are losing Damien Williams to free agency, and this would be a potentially “high impact” landing spot if it weren’t for Kenyan Drake’s explosive finish to the 2017 season. Drake is a borderline RB1 in PPR leagues for 2018, but there’s still a gap to fill behind him.

New York GiantsThe Giants are losing Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen this year. Darkwa led the team with 751 rushing yards, and Vereen paced the backfield in targets (52), receptions (44) and yards (253). Neither player was spectacular, but the void left by the combination of the two is sizable for fantasy purposes. If the rest of New York’s offense weren’t so anemic, this would be a “high impact potential” landing spot. But the uncertainty at quarterback limits them to the middle ranks.

New York JetsMatt Forte is stepping away from the game, but Bilal Powell was New York’s true lead back in 2017 anyway. Powell is still around, as is Elijah McGuire, but neither player is primed to be a lead back for the Jets in 2018. This will likely be a crowded backfield again in 2018, but even crowded backfields come with some fantasy goodness.

Oakland RaidersMarshawn Lynch’s status for 2018 remains up in the air, but even if he’s a go, Lynch will be a 32-year-old running back thinking about his (second) retirement. Given Lynch’s age and uncertain future — coupled with Oakland’s talented offensive playmakers — this is a worthwhile landing spot for free agent running backs, from a fantasy perspective.

Philadelphia EaglesLeGarrette Blount is primed for free agency, which leaves 353 snaps on the table in Philadelphia. The team did acquire Jay Ajayi in the middle of the 2017 season, but from that point onward, Ajayi only out-carried Blount 104 to 93. Blount, meanwhile, scored three rushing touchdowns to Ajayi’s zero (including the playoffs). This isn’t to say Ajayi won’t be the definitive lead back in 2018, but it does suggest that a newcomer could still see an ample workload behind Ajayi.

Low impact potential

These backfields probably won’t see a fantasy-relevant change as a result of free agency.

Arizona CardinalsDavid Johnson will be back in 2018.

Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons are still spearheaded by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. There’s little room for more.

Buffalo BillsLeSean McCoy isn’t going anywhere.

Chicago BearsJordan Howard followed up his 1,313-yard rookie season with a strong 1,122-yard sophomore campaign.

Cincinnati BengalsThe Bengals are losing Jeremy Hill to free agency, but the succession plan is already in place with Joe Mixon.

Dallas CowboysEzekiel Elliott is still in town, and he’s not suspended for six games this year, either.

Green Bay PackersThe Packers went from not really having a running back to having so many promising young running backs that they are far more likely to work with that they have than further muddy the waters.

Houston TexansThe Texans appear set for 2018 with Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman.

Jacksonville JaguarsChris Ivory and Corey Grant are set to be free agents, but Leonard Fournette eats up so much of this offense that a new addition would have little fantasy impact.

Kansas City ChiefsThe Chiefs are loaded at running back with Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware.

Los Angeles ChargersThe Chargers seem mostly set with Melvin Gordon as the lead back and Austin Ekeler as a change-of-pace option.

Los Angeles RamsIt’s the Todd Gurley show for the Rams.

Minnesota VikingsThe Vikings are losing Jerick McKinnon, but they are getting back a healthy Dalvin Cook. And Latavius Murray will still be in town to occasionally spell Cook.

New Orleans SaintsThe NFL’s best backfield doesn’t need to make any changes for 2018.

Tennessee TitansThe Titans have a weird backfield situation heading into 2018, but with Derrick Henry rising and DeMarco Murray lingering, it’s hard to see a newcomer making any major noise in fantasy.

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