2021 Free Agent Running Backs
Hello Heat Seekers, welcome to episode 127 of Sully’s 2 Cents Fantasy Football Podcast. I am you host; I am Rob Sullivan. The Sully’s 2 Cents Fantasy Football Podcast is a proud member of the RotoHeat family of podcasts.
In Episode 127, I continue the four-part series that takes an early look at the Free Agent class of 2021. Today we will focus on the RB position. As usual I will be looking at it from a fantasy perspective and give you my two cents on where I think the available RBs are best situated. Of all the skilled positional players that come up for free agency the running backs are the most interesting to me. If you know me, I am not a fan of large second contracts for running backs. This season is even more interesting in my opinion based on the quality of the backs available in this free agent class.
2017 was a great draft in terms of running backs and as a result 2021 is a real solid free agent class. As expected, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon all part of that special draft class didn’t make it to free agency, Leonard Fournette the highest drafted of them all not only makes it here and he does so after playing for multiple teams.
There are a group of free agent running backs that I expect to remain Free agents well into the offseason and perhaps into training camp. It happens every year, and in 2020 we saw this play out for Carlos Hyde who was a late add by the Seattle Seahawks and Devonta Freeman who was in street clothes until signing with the New York Giants prior to Week3.
The following free agent Running Backs are backs that I see struggling to find a contract, and if they do find one, I expect their role in the offense on the team that signs them to be quite limited.
Marlon Mack – Suffered a torn achilles in Week One. There isn’t an injury that is harder for a running back to come back from. With Johnathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins under contract in 2021, you can rule out a return to Indianapolis. As a result, Mack falls out of a tier of running backs that I believe will top teams shopping lists this offseason.
Boston Scott – Scott was a 6th round pick of the New Orleans Saints back in 2018 and was released before the end of the season. Scott surfaced in Philadelphia and showed some promise towards the end of the 2019 season after Myles Sanders was injured. Scott struggled in 2020 despite the opportunity presented to him from yet another Sanders injury. Scott is an average back and an undersized back at that. Teams seeking a pass catching back at a discount will have a look at Scott closer to training camp.
Le’Veon Bell – It seems like just yesterday that Bell was the best RB in fantasy football and was in the midst of sitting out the 2018 season instead of playing on the franchise tag with the Steelers. With 2018 a lost season, Bell joined the New York Jets in 2019. Combined with a poor offensive line, questionable usage and an overall terrible offense play calling, Bell finished as RB16. Bell entered the 2020 season as the Jets starting running back. In Week 1, he suffered a hamstring injury, an injury that landed him on IR. He retuned in Week 5 and was released prior to Week 6.
Bell landed with the Kansas City Chiefs and it looked like an opportunity to bounce back. Instead of bouncing back, Bell ran for 254 yards and two touchdowns in 9 games. He looks nothing like the back we once knew. He seems to be slow and his play sure didn’t impress. Le’Veon Bell is not the type of back to take a discount, despite the diminishing on field showing, his ego is in tack and he will be looking to get paid. As a result, teams will pass him buy when looking for RB help.
Todd Gurley – Another former best fantasy football running back that is a shell of his former self. His knees are clearly an issue. Gurley has gone from a top back in the league to a RB that is extremely TD dependant. Teams may show some interest in Gurley, but it will be on an incentive laden deal and if Gurley goes that route it will be late in the offseason, or perhaps after the season begins.
Jerick McKinnon – It seems like 20 years ago that McKinnon left the Minnesota Vikings and joined the San Francisco 49ers as a Free Agent. Well after two lost seasons, (2018 & 2019) due to knee injuries McKinnon appeared in all 16 games for the Niners in 2020. He touched the ball 114 times and turned those touches into 573 yards and 6 touchdowns. Jerick McKinnon will be entering his age 29 season in 2021. I would not at all be surprised if this is the end of the road for McKinnon.
Carlos Hyde – A late signing in 2020, Hyde is destined for the same fate in 2021. Teams searching for running back help this offseason are not likely to have Carlos Hyde high on their shopping lists. As a result, I don’t see Hyde being added until late in camp or even after the season begins.
Restricted Free Agents
Restricted free agents (RFAs) are players who have three accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. RFAs have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club until a specified deadline. In 2021 that deadline is tentatively set for April 28th.
If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.
There is one running back that is a RFA’s that I believe is a relevant asset in fantasy football and to whichever team employs them in 2021. There would have been a second one on this list, but Jeff Wilson Jr. recently re-signed with the 49ers as I expected to him to do.
Gus Edwards played college football at the University of Miami from 2013–2016 and Rutgers in 2017. In 2018 he went undrafted and signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
In his rookie season, he started 6 games, pushed my pal Alex Collins out of the lineup and rushed for 718 yards and 2 scores. Edwards took a backseat to Mark Ingram in 2019, and the duo of Mark Ingram and rookie J.K. Dobbins in 2020.
Edwards is a Restricted Free Agent, I believe that he will negotiate with other teams and he should. I also believe that the Ravens will give the Bus a qualifying offer that comes with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. It makes sense for Baltimore since they have released Mark Ingram.
Fantasy Impact – We should see a similar share between Edwards and J.K. Dobbins in the early stages of 2021. I do believe that Dobbins will gain an increased share of the workload as the season transpires. Gus Edwards is a nice piece for your dynasty roster and a RB that you will likely be able to flex here and there. Should Dobbins be injured, Edwards brings RB2 value.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Unrestricted free agents are players with expired contracts that have completed four or more accrued seasons of service. They are free to sign with any franchise.
Aaron Jones likely has played his last down for the Green Bay Packers. Could he be brought back? Sure, but all signs seem to indicate that the backfield will move forward with A.J. Dillon and another RB or two in 2021 and beyond.
Jones completed his entry level deal having appeared in 54 games (starting 42) for the Packers. He has compiled a stat line of 651 carries for 3364 yards with 37 touchdowns. In addition, he added 131 receptions on 184 targets for 1057 yards and 6 more scores.
Jones is likely seeking a new contract similar to fellow 2017 draft classmates as Joe Mixon & Dalvin Cook. Mixon inked a 4-year $48MM of which $10MM is guaranteed and Cook a 4-year $63MM od which $16.3MM I guaranteed.
Will Jones get a contract like either of these deals? In my opinion no, but he should get a decent deal with some term and guarantees on the free agent market.
So, the question of where Jones lands comes into play. The teams with the biggest need and best fit in my opinion are Seattle, Atlanta, Buffalo, and San Francisco.
Seattle – Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde are free agents, Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas are not going to cut it and Rashaad Penny remains a question mark. Brining Jones in to compliment Penny makes a lot of sense for a team hell bent on running the football. They have $2.7MM in projected cap space at the moment with a lot of flexibility in terms of finding cap space.
Atlanta – the Falcons have two things that jump out to me, cap space and RB need. Brian Hill, and Ito Smith are not the answer and Todd Gurley is a Free Agent not likely to return. Atlanta needs a lot more than Aaron Jones but the thought of him in that offense sure is interesting. In the end I don’t see him landing here and I see Atlanta using pick 35 or 99 to support their backfield.
Buffalo – Simply put the Bills need to find a way to get some productivity out of the backfield. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are nice complementary pieces but neither of those options are going to move the needle. Drop Jones into that offense with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs etc., and look out AFC. Bills will need to move some things around salary wise to make it happen but again this early in the offseason it should be rather easy to accomplish.
San Francisco – One of the most crowded backfields in all of football is suddenly not so. Raheem Mostert is the only RB of significance currently under contract for 2021. Jeff Wilson is a RFA, Tevin Coleman and Jerrick McKinnon are also free agents. I do not see the Niners bringing either Coleman or McKinnon back, so there is the potential for the Niners to be in the RB market. In the end I believe they sign Wilson, add thru the draft and roll with Mostert and Wilson as their 1-2 punch.
Destination – Seattle.
Fantasy impact – no change, Aaron Jones will remain a highly sought-after fantasy asset, and should see the volume on the ground and via the pass to maintain top-12 RB status.
As mentioned, Carson is a free agent heading into the 2021 season. In four seasons as a Seahawk, Carson has appeared in 45 games, starting 44 of them. He has totaled 3270 rushing yards on 715 carries and added 101 catches for another 775 yards. He has scored a total of 28 touchdowns.
These numbers are not too shabby for a back selected in the 7th round 249th overall. Carson should have no problem fining work in 2021. Buffalo, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston top my list of potential landing spots for the soon to 27-year-old RB. As mentioned, Buffalo could use the upgrade, we discussed the Niners and touched on Atlanta.
I add Houston here as I believe they are in the RB market. Duke Johnson has one year left on his deal and can be cut saving the Texans just over $5MM. David Johnson is on the last year of his deal and can be cut saving them $6.7MM. I do believe that Houston who is starved for cap space releases one or both. The more likely scenario is Houston releases Duke, drafts a back in the later rounds and seeks a cheaper RB via Free Agency. Chris Carson will not command Aaron Jones money, but he will get a reasonable deal the likes of which the Texans can’t afford.
Destination – Atlanta
Fantasy impact – Slides into the offense as the top back, should see an uptick in volume in the passing game, and has a top-24 RB season. Atlanta should they stick with Matt Ryan which I believe they will, wills core points. The red zone opportunities will eb there for Carson giving him some legit RB1 upside.
I am a card-carrying member of the Kenyan Drake fan club. I was extremely high on him entering the 2020 season based off his talent and what I saw from him at the tail end of the 20-19 season in Arizona.
Drake finished the season as RB16, a somewhat disappointing result when compared to his preseason ADP.
Teams that are running back needy will look to have him on their backfield in 2021. The teams that I have gone thru already including the Arizona Cardinals will consider Drake.
Throughout his 5-year career, Drake has found himself in a shared backfield to a certain extent every season. His 264 touches in 2020 are a career high and its only the second time Drake has gone over 200 touches in a single season. Drake likely is not the three-down back that I wanted him to be going forward and regardless of where he lands, he almost certainly lands in a shared situation.
This landing spot just makes sense for the player and the back. Buffalo selected Devin Singletary in round 3 in 2019 and Zack Moss in the third round of 2020. I would think that the Bills who drastically need an upgrade in the backfield are going to look to find that back in free agency or trade. The contracts of both Singletary and Moss are easy to get out or trade should the Bills go the route, they are also slight over $2MM in total, retaining them both is certainly viable. Drake can slide in with Moss or Singletary giving the Bills a solid goal-line back, with great hands and the abilty to break it to the house every play.
Buffalo is currently tight to the cap, but they have several moves that can create more space most notably cutting John Brown and saving $8MM against the cap in the process.
Destination – Buffalo Bills
Fantasy Impact – Joins an offense that is firing on all cylinders. His usage in the Bills backfield especially at the goa-line will give Drake a RB2 floor with some mid-low RB1 upside.
James Conner for lack of a better term disappointed last season. He was one of many of my favorite late round running backs and a back that I targeted when drafting with a zero RB focus. Needless to say, in those leagues I didn’t fare so well. Conner in my opinion is a good running back, a back that can do it all, he run thru the tackles, bounce a run to the outside, pass protect and catch the ball very well.
Health has always been a concern with this back going all the way back to his college days at Pitt in terms of knee injuries and a battle with cancer. All that being said, James Conner is going to get a deal in 2021. I believe that deal will come from the New York Jets. The Jets are rebuilding there is no doubt about that. They own the No.2 overall pick in the draft that some feel they will use to draft a QB. Personally, I believe that they should draft Oregon OT Penei Sewell.
The Jets have holes all over the team on both sides of the football. They also have 5 picks in the top 100 in the 2021 draft. Drafting a RB likely won’t happen and it shouldn’t. The Jets will enter the 2021 offseason with a Ty Johnson, Josh Adams and Lamical Perine in the running back room. Not exactly a murder’s row.
They currently have $63.5MM in cap space. They should spend some of it on James Conner and have him mentor the Ty Johnson’s and Lamical Perine’s. Conner won’t be a break the bank kind of deal, and with his injury history it’s a contract likely full of incentives.
Destination – New York Jets
Fantasy Impact – Conner in NY would be the lead back. He would also be joining the worst offense he has been apart of in his career. The require volume is likely there for Conner and as long as he is healthy can give you a season in the RB2.
Playoff Lenny is a free agent entering the 2021 season. The running back that was the highest drafted back in the star studded 2017 class is going to market. After watching Fournette down the stretch with the Bucs and in the post season I believe his logical spot in back with Tampa. In fact, I would not be surprised in fact if he never makes it to market.
Coach Bruce Arians loves vets in this backfield and Fournette possesses something that most backs can only dream of and that is Tom Brady’s trust. I see Tampa bringing back Fournette, Ronald Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughan. They currently have 24.3MM in cap space and Fournette shouldn’t be overly expensive.
Destination – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Fantasy Impact – Forms a one two punch with Rojo once again and in an offense that should be rather productive once again in 2021. Fournette has a top-24 RB ceiling and barring injury a top-36 floor.
From one running back that I believe stays with his current team to another enter Jamaal Williams. I see Williams and AJ Dillion forming a two-headed monster in Green Bay a two headed attack that has the chance of being as productive as the Aaron Jones Jamaal Williams duo has been the past few years. Williams should be involved especially in the Packers passing game. Resigning with Green Bay is in the best interest of the player and the team.
Destination – Green Bay Packers
Fantasy Impact – lots of moving parts in Green Bay. Should Arron Rodgers remain a packer in 2021, I like Williams a lot. Top 24 ceiling and likely a top 36 floor. If Rodgers leaves all best are off and I likely won’t be to be thrilled with my Williams shares.
James White had a tough 2020 season. He had to deal with the tragic loss of his parents in an early season automobile accident. He missed Weeks 2 and 3 as a result. From Week 6 after the Patriots Week 5 bye, White averaged 5 touches a game. He was a victim of poor QB play and a victim of an overall bad offence.
Free Agents that leave New England do not have the greatest track record; Dion Lewis is a prime example of that. I do believe that White gets a 2021 contract and I believe that contract will come from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Destination – Philadelphia Eagles
Fantasy Impact – There is very little to get excited about I am afraid with James White. The upside will always be there due to his ability in the passing game. He won’t do much on the ground and he has a very low floor and top 36 ceiling in my opinion.
Lindsay was a RB in the 2017 class that went undrafted and gave all if his fantasy managers exceptional value especially in the first few years of his career. I do not see Denver brining back Lindsay. Where I do see him landing is in Arizona as backfill for the departed Kenyan Drake.
Destination – Arizona Cardinals
Fantasy Impact – Lindsay in the Kliff Kingsbury offense is an interesting asset. Lindsay catches the ball well and can assume the Chase Edmond role as Edmonds slides into the primary role.
Now I don’t expect Lindsay to bounce back to massive fantasy relevance as a result of this signing, but he will be flex worthy more often than not. Arizona is a team that offensively I expect to take a step further in Kyler Murray’s 3rd season. Lindsay should he land there will benefit.
The final relevant Free agent RB is Mike Davis. Forever a career journeyman RB with stops in San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, Davis found success and fantasy relevance in Carolina. With Christian McCaffrey sidelined the majority of the year, Davis stepped in and stepped up. He proved to be a weekly must start RB with opportunity on all three downs for the Panthers.
Destination – Houston Texans
Fantasy Impact – Houston is going to move on from Duke Johnson, David Johnson or both this offseason. The team is a mess, Deshaun Watson likely isn’t back, they are tight to the cap and have no real draft capital. Signing Davis won’t be expensive and the cutting of one or both of the RBs gives Davis a little juice and some RB2/3 value.
Now not all of these teams that I have identified are going to add RBs via free agency, there are those that add thru the NFL draft. Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, are two examples of backs that will be drafted and there are another 6-8 that I believe may have a role of significance in the league next season as well.
That’s going to do it for today’s episode. Thank you for listening to the 2021 Free Agent Running Backs episode.
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I’ll be back next week as we have a look at some of the key Wide Receiver Free Agents heading into 2021. Until then, stay safe and stay healthy Heat Seekers.