Ranking the Top RBs on the 2020 NFL Free-Agent Market

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2020

Ranking the Top RBs on the 2020 NFL Free-Agent Market

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Running back is again one of the most perplexing positions heading into NFL free agency. 

    The supposed devaluation of the position mixes oddly with some of the big contracts doled out. Austin Ekeler, who would've landed as a top-five back here, just received a four-year extension worth $24.5 million with the Los Angeles Chargers, landing him among the top 10 in average at his position. 

    Ekeler is the poster child for the high end of running back rankings—he's just 24 years old, and he's not only an efficient rusher, but he's also an elite receiver out of the backfield. 

    Restricted free agents like Kareem Hunt and Matt Breida could land on new teams this offseason, but it's not a likely outcome. Let's rank the remaining unrestricted free agents based on a combination of factors including age, versatility and projected contract value, among others. 

10. Marshawn Lynch

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Think we've seen the last of Marshawn Lynch

    Probably not. Lynch only appeared in one regular-season game last season after arriving late with the Seattle Seahawks and he's going to turn 34 years old in April. But his skill set and arguably unrivaled locker room presence mean he stays on the short list. 

    Lynch didn't have a huge impact last season, but in 2018 with the then-Oakland Raiders, he still averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored three times on 90 attempts, catching 15 of 20 targets in the process. 

    A Lynch deal will come cheap and on a short-term basis, likely with a team looking for a sledgehammer in a rotation that would also benefit from a mentor for younger backs. So, the Seahawks. 

    Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks

    Contract Prediction: 1 year, $2 million 

9. LeSean McCoy

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    LeSean McCoy wasn't exactly a staple of the Kansas City Chiefs running game over 13 appearances last season and is going on 32 years old in July. 

    And yet, Shady ran for 465 yards on a 4.6 average with four scores and caught 28 of his 34 targets. A healthy 200 of his yards came after contact, and between rushes and receptions, he managed 30 first downs. 

    McCoy has plenty left in the tank, especially when he's rotationally used in a high-powered offense for which defenses are more concerned about the quarterback. He's not going to get monster money or a long-term look, but it's clear he'd be productive again in a place like Kansas City. 

    Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs 

    Contract Prediction: 1 year, $3 million 

8. Chris Thompson

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Chris Thompson isn't the biggest name, but NFL teams know what he's all about: catching the football. 

    Over the last five seasons in Washington, Thompson has caught at least 35 passes in each. Last year alone, he caught 42 of his 58 targets over just 11 games, even tallying 337 of his 378 receiving yards after the catch. 

    Reading between the lines, attendance is the issue for the back who turns 30 in October. He's played a full 16-game season just once in his career and has missed 17 games over the last three seasons. 

    Even so, Thompson averages 4.8 yards per carry for his career and is an elite receiver. He'd fit any team searching for a receiving threat out of the backfield. The Philadelphia Eagles would be a good fit as a complement to Miles Sanders who can handle the larger workload while Thompson steps in as the change-of-pace back.

    Best Fit: Philadelphia Eagles

    Contract Prediction: 2 years, $8 million 

7. DeAndre Washington

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Will DeAndre Washington get a shot at an expanded role in 2020?

    Washington has quietly put together some interesting lines over the last four years with the Raiders after being drafted by them in the fifth round in 2016. He has averaged four yards per rush on the nose over 282 attempts and seven yards per catch, having caught 88 of his 110 career targets. 

    The Raiders seem set with Josh Jacobs and Jalen Richard, which means Washington could head somewhere like...Washington. The Redskins, in the name of better availability, figure to let Chris Thompson walk but could use some help in the form of injury insurance behind Derrius Guice. Washington's blend of skills makes him a viable backup with starter upside for such a situation. 

    Best Fit: Washington Redskins

    Contract Prediction: 2 years, $5 million

6. Lamar Miller

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    It's easy to forget about Lamar Miller after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL. 

    But provided Miller is healthy, it's doubly easy to forget he's still only 28 years old and handled 200-plus rushes in three consecutive seasons. Just as quietly, he caught at least 35 passes in six consecutive seasons before the injury. 

    With a career average of 4.3 yards per carry and four seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns, Miller could serve as a bargain buy for a team willing to take the injury risk. 

    A team losing a pricier starter but in need of a rotational piece with upside like the Los Angeles Chargers would make sense. There wouldn't be too much pressure on Miller with Austin Ekeler leading the way, and Miller could also build his value in hopes of a bigger contract in 2021. 

    Best Fit: Los Angeles Chargers

    Contract Prediction: 1 year, $4 million 

5. Carlos Hyde

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Carlos Hyde has spent time with five different teams over the last three seasons, so it's a testament to his ability that he slots this highly in a solid free-agent class. 

    Hyde put in 16 games of work with the Houston Texans last year, carrying the ball 245 times and gaining 1,070 yards on a 4.4 per-carry average. He only saw 16 targets through the air, though when actually used in this manner he's been effective—in 2017, he turned 88 targets into 59 catches for 350 yards. 

    And while Hyde might have plenty of value on the open market after such a performance, he's already stressed he would like to remain with the Texans

    Why not? Two of Houston's top rushers are free agents, and bringing back Hyde at a fair price could shore up the spot while still leaving room for a stronger rotation. 

    Best Fit: Houston Texans

    Contract Prediction: 2 years, $5 million 

4. Jordan Howard

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The end of Jordan Howard's 2019 campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles left a sour taste in the mouth as he suffered a midseason shoulder injury, causing him to fall out of favor in the rotation as the coaching staff stuck with hot hands into the playoffs. 

    But Howard has shown he can be that hot hand, too. He has 1,000-yard campaigns in two of his four seasons and has scored at least six times on the ground in each season. While his reputation isn't the greatest as a pass-catcher, Howard has caught 82 of 123 targets and averaged nearly eight yards per catch. 

    Keep in mind Howard is only 25 years old, so he might settle for a short prove-it deal to potentially cash in on a bigger pre-30 deal. A rebuilding team with plenty of space and a seemingly open battle at the position like the Miami Dolphins makes sense—they can overpay a bit to get him in the door and use their draft assets elsewhere. 

    Best Fit: Miami Dolphins

    Contract Prediction: 2 years, $8 million 

3. Kenyan Drake

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    A 26-year-old running back coming off a career year is about to get paid. 

    Kenyan Drake shined with the Arizona Cardinals over eight games, rushing for 643 yards on a 5.2 per-carry average, eclipsing 100 yards three times and scoring eight times. He also caught 28 of his 35 targets. 

    The brief, explosive performance there confirmed Drake went sorely underused and/or misused in Miami, yet he sits on a career average of 4.8 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch. The upshot to his weird usage in Miami? One could argue he doesn't have as much wear and tear on his body as he probably should. 

    It doesn't seem likely the Cardinals would invest in Drake only to let him get away after eight games. His stats over 16 games as a workhorse will end up justifying the big money he'll demand. 

    Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals

    Contract Prediction: 3 years, $24 million 

2. Melvin Gordon III

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Melvin Gordon III had a down year after holding out. The result was that Austin Ekeler was handsomely rewarded while the 2015 first-round pick has to test the market. 

    Luckily for Gordon, the market should be pretty kind. Gordon disappointed in 2019 with 612 yards on a 3.8 average and eight scores. But he's still scored 36 rushing scores over five seasons, averages four yards per carry and has quietly caught 40-plus passes in four of his five seasons. 

    In other words, Gordon has steadily shown to be a reliable three-down workhorse who can thrive with 300-plus touches—and he turns only 27 in April. 

    Gordon is a hotbed for running back debates these days, and he overplayed his hand with the holdout. But a team in need that doesn't mind overpaying for production and wants to use draft assets elsewhere will come calling. That could take Gordon to Tampa Bay, where he'd get to be the showcase of the backfield. 

    Best Fit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Contract Prediction: 4 years, $34 million 

1. Derrick Henry

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Derrick Henry is the big whale in a market of fish. 

    Henry, 26, simply erupted last year with 1,500-plus yards on a 5.1 average with 16 rushing scores before he was the lifeblood of the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs en route to the AFC title game. 

    While he's used sparingly in the passing game, Henry surpassed 200 carries for the second time last season and is understandably looking to cash in while he has the chance. He's mentioned the six-year deal worth $90 million Ezekiel Elliott got in Dallas. 

    Henry is one of the most difficult free-agent subjects in recent memory. He defies some of the qualifiers (passing-game versatility), yet his impact could mean a gargantuan deal. 

    But given Tennessee's situation in that the front office doesn't figure to be paying out massive money at quarterback if Ryan Tannehill is the affordable move, so there should be wiggle room to front-load a Henry deal and retain the heart of the offense. It's reasonable to think negotiations go from Elliott-type numbers to something more in line with the deal Le'Veon Bell (four years, $52.5 million) got last offseason. 

    Best Fit: Tennessee Titans

    Contract Prediction: 4 years, $50 million