NFL Free Agency 2021: Predicting Where the Top RBs Will Land
The running back position has changed in recent years, as most of the NFL's top ball-carriers can also catch passes. Typically, those players sign for bigger contracts than their one-dimensional counterparts.
Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry stands out as the exception among the position's highest-paid players. He hasn't reached 20 receptions in any of his five seasons, but the two-time rushing champion carries a heavy load.
Most running backs who are set to test free agency when the league year starts in March will sign one- or two-year deals because a majority of clubs feature multiple ball-carriers, which puts a cap on potential earnings.
Last offseason, Melvin Gordon III signed the most lucrative deal among tailbacks, inking a two-year, $16 million contract with the Denver Broncos. None of the free-agent running backs signed a contract longer than two seasons.
This offseason, Aaron Jones and Kenyan Drake, two dual-threat running backs, can push for salaries that average $10 million or more following strong campaigns.
We listed 10 impending free-agent running backs and projected their landings spots based on roster fit and a club's projected cap space for 2021.
Among running backs, Aaron Jones will likely generate the most interest on the open market. He's coming off a career-high 1,104 rushing yards and his first Pro Bowl season. Despite his strong 2020 showing, the Green Bay Packers can move on with cheaper players.
Jamaal Williams has served as a solid backup for most of his four-year career. He's also set to become a free agent but won't cost top dollar. The 25-year-old hasn't eclipsed 818 scrimmage yards or six touchdowns in a single season.
The Packers selected AJ Dillon in the second round of the 2020 draft. As an early pick, he's probably the next tailback in line for the featured role. The Boston College product recorded 21 rushing attempts for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans in Week 16.
We could see a one-two punch with Dillon and Williams in the Packers backfield next season. Jones can chase a lucrative multiyear contract elsewhere.
A move to the AFC East could be in order, as the Miami Dolphins' most versatile running backs don't have much experience.
Myles Gaskin has accumulated 1,156 scrimmage yards in two seasons, but he's only suited up for 17 contests—seven as a starter. Salvon Ahmed put together a 122-yard performance against the New England Patriots in Week 15. Yet the rookie out of Washington appeared in just six contests.
The Dolphins have a projected $27.9 million in cap space, so they have enough financial capital to offer Jones a sizable deal to becoming their lead runner.
Prediction: Jones signs three-year deal with the Dolphins
The Arizona Cardinals don't have to spend a lot of money on a lead running back with quarterback Kyler Murray under center. In 2020, the dynamic signal-caller ranked second on the team in rushing yards (819) and led the ground attack in touchdowns (11).
The Cardinals need someone to complement Chase Edmonds. He's a smaller pass-catching back (5'9", 210 lbs), who grabbed 53 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns in 2020.
Yet that doesn't mean the Cardinals have to add a running back from the open market. They can re-sign the 6'1", 211-pound Kenyan Drake, who recorded a career-high 955 rushing yards this past season.
Drake had a reduced role in the passing game compared to 2019, but he remained effective as the featured tailback on the ground. Coming off a season on the transition tag, the five-year veteran will likely test the market, but the Cardinals should push to retain him.
Prediction: Cardinals re-sign Drake on a two-year extension
Chris Carson eclipsed 1,313 scrimmage yards in consecutive terms in 2018 and 2019. He suffered a foot injury and an illness that cost him a quarter of the 2020 season. The four-year veteran finished with 681 rushing yards, 287 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Carson's drop in productivity will hurt his market value, though he's only 26 years old and has had two strong years. The 5'11", 222-pound running back can test free agency, but Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll wants him back.
"We would love for him to be with us," Carroll told reporters. "He's been a terrific part of our team and hopefully we can keep that going. ... In my mind, I can't imagine anything else happening."
The Seahawks shouldn't feel comfortable with the remaining tailbacks on the roster.
Rashaad Penny, a 2018 first-rounder, hasn't found his footing. He's missed 21 games in three campaigns, which includes 13 outings this past season while recovering from a torn ACL. When healthy, the San Diego State product hasn't played a big role in the short passing game, recording just 17 receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown.
Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas haven't flashed the ability to take over the starting role.
Carson can split rushing duties with Penny while Homer and Dallas soak up leftover touches.
Prediction: Seahawks re-sign Carson on a two-year extension
While Le'Veon Bell held out for a new contract, James Conner had a breakout 2018 Pro Bowl campaign, logging 1,470 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns. Since then, he's battled injuries, missing nine games over the past two years.
In 2020, Conner led the Pittsburgh Steelers' rushing attack with 721 yards and six touchdowns. He eclipsed the century mark three times as a ball-carrier but struggled through the second half of the season while spending time on the reserve/COVID-19 list and dealing with a quad issue.
The Steelers are $30.6 million over the salary cap. They should look for a new lead running back in the draft.
As for Conner, another team can utilize him in a complementary role. At 6'1", 233 pounds, he's a big back who can run between the tackles and finish drives near the goal line. The Pittsburgh product also has soft hands, hauling in 124 receptions for 963 yards and four touchdowns through four seasons.
The Washington Football Team can pair Conner with Antonio Gibson, who played wide receiver at Memphis and converted to running back. The latter rushed for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020.
As Gibson learns the intricacies of the position, Conner can fill in the gaps and take on short-yardage situations while J.D. McKissic continues to contribute primarily in a third-down pass-catching role.
Prediction: Conner signs two-year deal with Washington
Coming off a 1,091-yard rushing season, Marlon Mack tore his Achilles in the 2020 season opener. He only played 11 snaps.
The Indianapolis Colts selected Jonathan Taylor in the second round of last year's draft. In place of Mack, he finished third leaguewide in rushing yards (1,169) and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Because of Taylor's impressive rookie campaign, the Colts can comfortably move on with him in the workhorse role. Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins could spell him. The former has great hands, catching 170 passes for 1,227 yards and six touchdowns through three seasons.
Mack can resurface in a new environment and handle a significant number of touches for a squad with an unsettled backfield.
In all likelihood, the New York Jets will move on from 37-year-old Frank Gore, who's set to become a free agent. With a new coaching staff, La'Mical Perine still has a lot to prove after logging just 64 carries for 232 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie season.
Gang Green has five draft picks within the first three rounds. They can select Clemson's Travis Etienne or Alabama's Najee Harris on Day 1 or 2. Still, general manager Joe Douglas should address the position during free agency to give himself draft-day flexibility.
If the Jets sign Mack, they can fill other needs such as cornerback and edge-rusher with their early picks. With starting experience, he could take on primary rushing responsibilities for the next couple of years.
Prediction: Mack signs two-year deal with the Jets
Phillip Lindsay led the Denver Broncos backfield in his first two seasons, eclipsing 1,010 rushing yards in both campaigns. In 2020, he took a back seat to Melvin Gordon III, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the club last offseason.
In addition to the shared rushing duties, Lindsay also suffered toe and hip injuries, which cost him five games. He finished with 118 carries for 502 yards and a touchdown and didn't have much of an impact on the passing game (seven catches for 28 yards).
The Broncos have Gordon under contract for another season, and they can keep their backfield duo intact. Denver has a projected $19.5 million in cap space.
Lindsay will become a restricted free agent, which means Denver can extend a tender to retain him.
In 2020, the Broncos fielded a decent ground attack that ranked 13th in yards, so there's logic to keeping Gordon and Lindsay together for another season.
Prediction: Broncos re-sign Lindsay, extending a second-round tender
Last offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars waived Leonard Fournette. He went unclaimed but landed in a much better situation with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won Super Bowl LV.
Fournette didn't lead the Buccaneers in rushing but had some solid performances. In Week 2, he ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers. The four-year veteran recorded 132 scrimmage yards and a score in Tampa's 31-23 wild-card win over the Washington Football Team and racked up 135 scrimmage yards along with a score in Super Bowl LV.
At 26 years old, and after scoring in all four of the Buccaneers' playoff contests, Fournette could generate a fair amount of interest on the open market.
Tampa Bay wants him back, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Nevertheless, as Garafolo reported, Fournette expressed dissatisfaction with his light workload midway through the season. He could make more money and take on a bigger role elsewhere.
The Buccaneers also have a lead running back in Ronald Jones II, who's going into a contract year. Several other key players are set to hit the open market, too, including edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, linebacker Lavonte David, and wide receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
As for an alternate Fournette destination, the Detroit Lions can pair him with D'Andre Swift for a dynamic duo. The former has a more physical running style, while the latter brings more speed and great hands.
Lions head coach Dan Campbell is considering using Swift as a slot receiver, which may free more carries for a No. 2 running back. Fournette can fill that role over Kerryon Johnson, who has seen a decline in scrimmage yards every year since his 2018 rookie season.
Prediction: Fournette signs two-year deal with the Lions
After the Jets released Le'Veon Bell in October, he made a decision that could extend his longevity.
Bell signed with the Kansas City Chiefs over the Miami Dolphins because he wanted fewer touches while contributing to a winning team, per Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald.
"I had already missed three games earlier in the season," Bell said. "I [was] going to miss half the games this year. I want to go somewhere where I can still have my body and still help the team win. That's what separated the Dolphins and the Chiefs. I felt like if I went to the Dolphins, I would have done a little more."
Through nine contests with the Chiefs, Bell recorded 76 touches for 353 yards and two touchdowns. Apparently, he wants to extend his career rather than wear himself down in a featured role.
Bell can find a new home with the Las Vegas Raiders, who will probably allow backup running back Devontae Booker to test the open market. Head coach Jon Gruden has signed notable veteran tailbacks in all three of his most recent offseasons with the team: Doug Martin (2018), Isaiah Crowell (2019) and Booker (2020).
Vegas, which is $18.8 million over the cap, can easily clear salary space to make room for a Bell on a modest deal.
The Raiders could release oft-injured wideout Tyrell Williams and 37-year-old guard Richie Incognito to clear $17.2 million in cap space. In the 2020 draft, Las Vegas selected a couple of wideouts, Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, in the first three rounds. Denzelle Good played well at left guard during the 2020 term. So the two suggested cuts wouldn't have much of an on-field impact.
If the club trades quarterback Marcus Mariota, who's generated interest, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, that's an additional $11.4 million off the books.
Bell can spell running back Josh Jacobs to maintain and perhaps elevate the Raiders' run-heavy offense.
Prediction: Bell signs one-year deal with the Raiders
At 26 years old, Todd Gurley's best days have likely passed. Since 2017, he's seen a steady decline in touches. This past season with the Atlanta Falcons, he recorded a career-low 678 rushing yards and only caught 25 passes for 164 yards.
With the Falcons, Gurley eventually took a back seat to Ito Smith, who logged double-digit rushing attempts three times in the last six contests. The two-time All-Pro didn't record more than nine carries in a game during that span.
Although Gurley isn't equipped to carry the majority of the load, he can still produce in a limited role. In 2020, the six-year veteran scored nine touchdowns. Another team can use him in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could land Gurley on a cheap deal and plug him into a reserve role to replace Fournette.
Gurley would spell Jones, with 2020 third-rounder Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the No. 3 spot following his nondescript rookie term.
On the open market, Gurley should cost less than Leonard, who assembled a strong finish to the 2020 campaign, recording 448 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns in the postseason.
Prediction: Gurley signs one-year deal with the Buccaneers
With a productive 2020 campaign, Mike Davis created a market for himself.
The Carolina Panthers utilized Davis in a featured role for most of the season because Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games with various injuries. Davis, 27, logged at least 11 carries in 10 outings and finished with 1,015 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns.
He may have priced himself out of Carolina. Assuming McCaffrey can stay healthy, he'll reclaim a heavy workload after the Panthers signed him to a four-year, $64.1 million extension last offseason. Given that, they're unlikely to make an aggressive offer for a No. 2 running back.
The New England Patriots could lose James White and Rex Burkhead in free agency. They would be notable losses since offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spread the workload among multiple running backs this past season. Four tailbacks had at least 84 touches.
In 2020, White and Burkhead combined for 74 receptions, 567 yards and four touchdowns. Sony Michel and Damien Harris, the top two remaining backs, haven't shown much as pass-catchers.
Davis is younger than Burkhead (30) and White (29). He's a decent pass-catcher, logging 125 receptions for 803 yards and three touchdowns mostly in a backup role through six seasons.
Davis could compete for a significant number of carries as well. Michel has missed 10 contests in three seasons. He's also coming off a down campaign, rushing for just 449 yards and a touchdown through nine outings.
With Cam Newton on an expiring deal, the Patriots may lean heavily on the ground attack if they don't find a high-end signal-caller to lead the offense.
Prediction: Davis signs two-year deal with the Patriots
Team salary-cap projections for 2021 courtesy of Over the Cap.