Ideal Landing Spots for Derrick Henry and the NFL's Top FA Running Backs

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 26, 2020

Ideal Landing Spots for Derrick Henry and the NFL's Top FA Running Backs

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When NFL free agency opens March 18, there's a good chance we'll see several of the hottest running backs hit the market along with some of the most distinguished rushers. 

    There's not a deep pool at that position, but it's a fascinating one that is supposed to feature several breakout stars as well as at least a couple of strong Hall of Fame candidates. 

    Where might the eight most notable impending free-agent running backs land? Here's a look at the top out-of-house destinations for each of 'em. 

          

Derrick Henry: Houston Texans

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    If the league's reigning rushing champion doesn't return to the Tennessee Titans, it might make the most sense for Derrick Henry to remain in the AFC South. 

    The Houston Texans are in win-now mode, and they have a superstar quarterback in Deshaun Watson. The offensive line is finally pretty talented and made strides in 2019, star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins can give Henry space, and the offense could have an opening in the backfield. 

    Veterans Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller will both be 29 at the start of the 2020 season, and each is slated to hit free agency next month. The Texans would love to get younger with the 26-year-old Henry, who would probably love two cracks per year at the Titans if they let him go. 

    Most importantly, the Texans can pay the man. Henry has made it clear he's looking to annihilate the bank, and Spotrac projects Houston will possess more than $60 million in salary-cap space. The Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are probably the only contenders who have that much money to spend and could use new running backs. 

Kenyan Drake: Tennessee Titans

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    It would be quite the coup if the rebuilding Miami Dolphins could bring back Kenyan Drake after lending him to the Arizona Cardinals for half a season in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. And while that was a strong consideration, you have to think the Henry-less Titans would make more sense.

    Drake isn't Henry. He isn't as powerful or as physical. But he's a gently used 26-year-old coming off a breakout campaign, and he's undoubtedly the second-best running back scheduled to hit the open market. 

    If the Titans can't or won't pay for Henry, they can likely get Drake a lot cheaper because he's a lot less accomplished. Still, the 6'1", 211-pound back exploded for 643 yards and eight touchdowns in eight games with Arizona in 2019. 

    And the Titans would be damn attractive to any back who saw what Henry did behind a high-quality offensive line in 2019. The pieces are in place for a competitive 2020 campaign. You have to think they'd be every back's top realistic choice. 

Melvin Gordon: Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins have gone young. Real young. But rebuilding teams still need veteran leaders, and Melvin Gordon III would make a lot of sense for a Miami squad that needs a jolt in the offensive backfield. 

    The two-time Pro Bowler should have a few good years left in him as he approaches his 27th birthday in April. And we all know he wants to get paid after last year's holdout. The Dolphins lead the league in projected cap space by a wide margin.

    They can afford to outbid anyone for Gordon, who might figure the payday is worth waiting for a completed rebuild. He'd immediately become the face of a franchise that lacks star power, and a move to South Florida is never a bad thing. 

Carlos Hyde: Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons can save $3.5 million by parting ways with veteran back Devonta Freeman, who is coming off a disappointing age-27 season and hasn't been himself since the Kyle Shanahan era (2015-16) in Atlanta. 

    NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported earlier this month that the team is considering a divorce with Freeman. And if that happens, Atlanta would become an intriguing potential landing spot for free-agent backs. 

    The Falcons have just $4.9 million in projected cap room and might not be able to afford Henry, Drake or Gordon, but they could probably use those savings in order to bring in Carlos Hyde, who put together his first 1,000-yard season last year in Houston at the age of 29. 

    Hyde has always been a quality back, and it looks as though he's a late bloomer. The 2014 second-round pick displayed surprising burst and went over 100 yards three times in a nine-game span midway through last season. 

    If Hyde doesn't return to the Texans, it would make a lot of sense for him to sign a short-term deal with Atlanta to jump from an offense featuring Watson and Hopkins to one starring Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

Jordan Howard: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jordan Howard is no longer positioned to enter an NFL training camp as a No. 1 back. His resume is strong, but the 25-year-old hasn't been consistently reliable since his 2016 rookie season with the Chicago Bears. 

    That's why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be the perfect destination for Howard, who would seemingly fit right in as a complement to the more nimble Ronald Jones II. 

    Jones finally emerged late in his 2019 sophomore season with 225 yards from scrimmage in Weeks 16 and 17, but the jury remains out. Regardless, it's easy to imagine head coach Bruce Arians using both Jones and Howard frequently. The Buccaneers have no one of note in the backfield after impending free agent Peyton Barber struggled mightily last season. 

    Critically, Tampa Bay looks primed to become a contender after a strong finish in 2019. The organization has $85 million in projected cap space and can afford to overpay Howard in hopes that he rediscovers some magic. The 2016 Pro Bowler would enjoy a low-pressure environment thanks to the presence of Jones, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and whomever they roll with at quarterback. 

Lamar Miller: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    As a soon-to-be 29-year-old coming off a torn ACL, Lamar Miller might not have a lot left. But the longtime Dolphins and Texans back made the Pro Bowl with a 4.6 yards-per-attempt average in 2018. He's likely in line for a one-year prove-it deal this late in his career, and it'd make a lot of sense if that came with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

    After what happened with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels last season, the Steelers could use an experienced, accomplished player in the backfield. Conner and Samuels are only 24 and 23, respectively, and they combined for a mere 3.5 yards per carry in 2019. 

    It might be too early to give up on Conner considering that he made the Pro Bowl with 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in only 13 games in 2018, but Miller can introduce a fresh feel on and off the field. 

    A shot at joining the Steelers would be tough for Miller to pass up, even if he'd only be looking at a short, inexpensive commitment. That defense is jacked, finishing fifth in the NFL in 2019, and the Steelers should be getting gunslinging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from an elbow injury. 

Frank Gore: New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots love their older players, and Frank Gore deserves one more shot at a ring. It just feels like those two need to get together for one potentially forgettable season. 

    It's tough to tell what the Pats would get out of Gore, who saw his yards-per-attempt average plummet one yard to a career-low 3.6 during his age-36 campaign with the Buffalo Bills in 2019. But head coach Bill Belichick has been watching Gore for practically two decades, and he'd probably be excited to see what he could get out of him. 

    Meanwhile, the always-competitive Patriots would make too much sense for Gore, who wouldn't have to play a large role in an offense that already features Sony Michel and James White. The former's yards-per-attempt average plummeted from 4.5 in 2018 to 3.7 in 2019, while the latter is more of a pass-catcher, so there could be room for an established bruiser like Gore.

    It wouldn't be shocking if New England were to essentially trade in Rex Burkhead for Gore.

LeSean McCoy: Philadelphia Eagles

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    LeSean McCoy said prior to the Super Bowl that he's not ready to retire, which likely means he'll be back with the Kansas City Chiefs alongside younger backs Damien Williams (27) and Darwin Thompson (23). After all, he's one of head coach Andy Reid's guys. 

    But the Chiefs could decide that they want to give more reps to Thompson in his second season, which would leave the 31-year-old McCoy with few opportunities. If it turns out he could get more work elsewhere, you'd have to wonder about Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, New England or even Atlanta.

    But the Philadelphia Eagles are irresistible. General manager Howie Roseman seems to enjoy getting the band back together, and McCoy could essentially replace Howard as the veteran complement to emerging 2019 second-round pick Miles Sanders. 

    In August, Rapoport reported that the Eagles were interested in bringing back McCoy. That shouldn't be any different now, and McCoy, 31, would probably jump at a chance to return to where it all started and play for a contending Philly team in 2020.