NFL News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Running Backs

Dec 19, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. RB Aaron Jones

Jones is one of the league’s best running backs, but like all backs, he is heavily dependent on his environment. Jones has been running behind an impressive offensive line and catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, neither of which may be true with his next team.

Jones has four straight seasons with a PFF rushing grade of 79.0 or higher, and he ranks fourth in receiving grade among running backs since the start of the 2019 season, behind only Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, each of whom has had a big payday in large part because of that skill.

Jones is a well-rounded threat at the position and a player with little in the way of weaknesses. He has also been kept relatively fresh by Green Bay’s use of a committee approach to their backfield, so should still have tread left on the tires.

Contract Analysis: Jones watched this offseason as fellow 2017 draftees Joe Mixon ($12M APY), Dalvin Cook ($12.6M APY), Alvin Kamara ($15M APY) and Christian McCaffrey ($16M APY) signed huge deals. Green Bay was smart to hold off, and we’d be surprised if Jones is a Packer in 2021.

Prediction: Dolphins sign Jones for four years, $46 million ($11.5M APY): $25 million total guaranteed, $15.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. RB Chris Carson

You will find few harder-running backs than Chris Carson, and that play style has led to him having some of the most consistent PFF rushing grades of any back in the league during his career. He hasn’t had a rushing grade below 75.0 or above 81.0 in four years and has always maximized his yardage. In each season of his career, he has gained at least three yards per carry after contact, topping out with 3.63 yards on average in 2019 — a season in which he broke 62 tackles including the playoffs.

Carson may not possess the receiving skill set of other backs, but he has been bucking that trend in 2020, already bettering two of his previous three seasons in terms of receiving first downs and soon to set a new career-high in that area. While Carson wasn’t a high draft pick, he has been one of the better players at his position since entering the NFL.

Contract Analysis: Chris Carson has had as strong of a start to his career as possible after being selected 249th overall in 2017 (26th running back taken). Nevertheless, Seattle drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round in 2018 and added DeeJay Dallas in the fourth round in 2020, which could signal they’re looking to replace Carson — not retain him. 

Prediction: Bills sign Carson for three years, $27 million ($9M APY): $15 million total guaranteed, $10 million fully guaranteed at signing.

3. RB Kenyan Drake

Kenyan Drake was expected to have a huge year in 2020 given what we had seen from him within Arizona’s offense after his arrival the year before, but it never quite happened. Drake ended the season with a 60.9 overall PFF grade, the lowest mark of his career. And his 4.0 yards per carry was a full half-yard lower than any other season of his career. 

It wasn’t all Drake’s fault, however, and he still generated 2.5 yards per carry after contact and broke 31 tackles, but the lack of dominant production in a No. 1 role will immediately scare off plenty of teams. Overall, he still has plenty of ability in the right situation, yet he needs a good environment. 

Contract Analysis: Drake had an eventful path to unrestricted free agency, as he was traded in the middle of the 2019 season from the Miami Dolphins to the Arizona Cardinals for a conditional sixth-round pick. After a strong finish to the 2019 campaign, Arizona placed an $8.483 million transition tag on the 26-year-old running back for 2020. While Drake finished the 2020 season strong, backup Chase Edmonds looked every bit as explosive. And the Cardinals as a team finished the season 2-5, getting bounced from the playoffs in Week 17.

Prediction: Cardinals sign Drake for three years, $20 million ($6.66M APY): $11 million total guaranteed, $8.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

4. RB James Conner

Conner is a productive player with an incredible story, and after defeating cancer and graduating from Pittsburgh, he was able to continue his career in the Steel City. However, with the Steelers drafting Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell Jr. in the fourth round in back-to-back years, they may have already jump-started the process of moving on.

Contract Analysis: Conner’s production has stalled after an impressive start to his Steelers career, but the lack of dominance also coincides with the team’s run blocking getting worse. Conner has solid PFF grades in all four seasons of his career.

Prediction: Jets sign Conner for three years, $20 million ($6.66M APY): $10 million total guaranteed, $8 million fully guaranteed at signing. 

5. RB Mike Davis

Despite just 3.9 yards per carry during the 2020 season, Davis impressed with 43 missed tackles forced as a runner and another 22 as a receiver, all leading to a career-high 75.0 overall grade. He’s never been a big-play threat, but as a back who will take what’s in front of him while creating after contact, Davis has proven to be a good option in a backup role. 

Contract Analysis: Davis was signed in 2019 by the Chicago Bears, who promptly cut him before Week 10 for compensatory pick purposes — a loophole that was very unfriendly to players and was closed in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Davis was able to land in Carolina to close the 2019 season and was then provided a golden opportunity in 2020 when Christian McCaffrey was sidelined for an extended period. Davis played over 70% of offensive snaps in each game from Weeks 3-8, and he averaged 14 carries and five receptions over that stretch. 

Prediction: Buccaneers sign Davis for two years, $8.5 million (4.25M APY): $5 million total guaranteed, $4 million fully guaranteed at signing.

6. RB James White

White is a specialist — he’s far better at catching the ball out of the backfield than he is carrying it as a traditional runner. He’s an excellent route-runner with good hands and shiftiness after the catch, all adding up to a perfect option in a pass-heavy attack. As a runner, White generally gets what is blocked, as he’s averaged just 2.0 yards after contact during his career. However, he can still be an effective pass-game weapon in the right offense. 

Contract Analysis: While Tom Brady had a phenomenal season, the Buccaneers seemingly used a different running back in the third-down role every single week. Brady missed his checkdown security blanket in White, and a lot of teams could benefit from the running back’s skill set. 

Prediction: Patriots sign White for two years, $10 million ($5M APY): $5 million total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

7. RB Le’Veon Bell

The great Le’Veon Bell that was once arguably the best back in the NFL is long gone, but he is still a capable player in the backfield with a well-rounded skill set. His trademark “patient” rushing style that was so successful in Pittsburgh seems to have morphed into a general lack of explosion over time, and he hasn’t had a carry longer than 20 yards since he was playing for the Steelers.

This season, Bell ended with a 73.9 overall PFF grade and averaged more than three yards per carry after contact in addition to dropping just one pass. He won’t break the bank anymore and could be a useful addition to a backfield lacking in talent.

Contract Analysis: Le’Veon Bell’s tenure with the New York Jets ended with an unceremonious breakup after never really getting off the ground, as he was more or less phased out of the offense in favor of 37-year-old Frank Gore. Bell will certainly benefit from performing on the biggest stage in the playoffs with the Kansas City Chiefs, and perhaps a few big performances can entice a team to take another chance on him.

Prediction: Dolphins sign Bell for two years, $10 million ($5M APY): $5M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

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