Ideal Landing Spots for Leonard Fournette and the NFL's Top FA Running Backs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2022

Ideal Landing Spots for Leonard Fournette and the NFL's Top FA Running Backs

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    Alex Menendez/Associated Press

    The NFL continues to be increasingly quarterback-driven, but running backs have their value. While it's virtually impossible to go deep into the postseason without a high-level signal-caller, it's important to have at least a serviceable ground game.

    Free agency can play a significant role in establishing that.

    The draft is still the best place for NFL teams to uncover franchise running backs. However, we've seen free-agent and trade additions like Leonard Fournette, Sony Michel and Damien Williams contribute heavily to recent Super Bowl runs.

    Teams generally aren't willing to spend big on free-agent running backs, but valuable talent can be acquired on the open market. That remains true in 2022, when runners like Fournette and two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon III are scheduled to be available.

    Here, you'll find a look at the top nine running backs on the 2022 market and the ideal landing spot for each. Factors like past production, player health, potential upside, team needs and cap space were considered here.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order.

James Conner

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    James Conner returned to Pro Bowl form in 2021, which should reestablish his value heading into 2022 free agency.

    After making the Pro Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, Conner had two largely forgettable years with the Steelers. However, he landed in a perfect situation with the Arizona Cardinals this past offseason and became a dangerous all-around threat once again.

    Conner finished the season with 752 rushing yards, 375 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns while sharing the load with Chase Edmonds.

    Given Conner's resurgence in Arizona and his fit in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, a return would make the most sense. It's also something Conner would welcome.

    "With the opportunity they gave me and the relationships I've built [in Arizona], I would love to continue out there," Conner told Dani Sureck of the team's official website.

    Bringing back Conner will take some work, as Arizona is projected to have just $2.7 million in cap space—while Conner has a projected market value of $6.0 million annually—but it's not unrealistic. If the Cardinals can free up a little cap space and/or creatively structure Conner's deal, they can provide him an ideal situation next season.

    Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals

Chase Edmonds

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    If the Cardinals decide to make Conner their workhorse running back long-term, they probably won't re-sign Edmonds too. He has a projected market value of $5.3 million annually, and given its cap situation, Arizona will likely have to choose one or the other.

    While Edmonds has never been a true every-down back—he's split time with Conner, Kenyan Drake and David Johnson over the years—he can be a valuable committee member. He was limited to 12 games in 2021 by a high ankle sprain but still finished with 592 rushing yards, 311 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

    Edmonds would be a great addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' backfield if Fournette, Ronald Jones II and/or Giovani Bernard depart in free agency.

    Tampa will have a new quarterback—assuming Tom Brady stays retired—but offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will return. Leftwich was Arizona's quarterbacks coach and interim offensive coordinator in 2018, Edmonds' first season in the NFL.

    Leftwich has regularly used a committee approach in Tampa, and he should know how to get the most out of Edmonds as a complementary piece. Again, we're looking at a tricky cap situation—the Buccaneers are projected to have $6.9 million available—but not an impossible one.

    Best Fit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Leonard Fournette

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    Alex Menendez/Associated Press

    Fournette has never been to a Pro Bowl and might not be considered a truly elite running back. However, he's an extremely effective dual-threat who was instrumental in helping Tampa win the Super Bowl just over a year ago.

    This past season, Fournette totaled 812 rushing yards, 454 receiving yards and 10 combined touchdowns. He now enters free agency with a projected market value of $6.2 million annually.

    Given his ability to contribute in both the running and passing games, Fournette should be viewed as a quality lead back. That's precisely what the Miami Dolphins could use after relying on a fairly underwhelming committee in 2021.

    Miami ranked 30th in rushing and 31st in yards per carry.

    New Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel knows the importance of a strong ground game after spending five years as the run-game coordinator and later offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. He'll likely use a backfield committee as he did in San Francisco, but McDaniel could use Fournette as his centerpiece.

    With $62 million in projected cap space—most in the NFL—Miami should have no trouble meeting any contract demands that Fournette might have.

    Best Fit: Miami Dolphins

Melvin Gordon III

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Fournette and Gordon might be the two veteran backs most heavily pursued in 2022. Gordon was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Los Angeles Chargers and was an above-average starter in two seasons with the Denver Broncos.

    Gordon topped 900 rushing yards in both 2020 and 2021 while averaging just over 4.5 yards per carry and scoring 20 total touchdowns. He'll turn 29 in April and might not be viewed as a long-term answer, but he should be a fine two- or three-year option for a team like the New York Jets.

    The Jets have a promising young runner in 2021 fourth-round pick Michael Carter, but their ground game was far from impressive overall last season. New York finished just 27th in rushing. It's also set to lose No. 2 runner Tevin Coleman in free agency.

    Gordon, who is quite adept as a pass-catching back (284 career receptions), could help support quarterback Zach Wilson alongside Carter and receiving back Ty Johnson.

    The Jets could also provide a little familiarity, as former Broncos offensive quality control coach Rob Calabrese now serves as New York's quarterbacks coach. Calabrese and Gordon spent the 2020 season together in Denver.

    Armed with a projected $44.7 million in cap space, the Jets shouldn't be shy about upgrading Wilson's supporting cast. Adding Gordon—who has a projected market value of $5.2 million annually—could help do exactly that.

    Best Fit: New York Jets

D'Ernest Johnson (Restricted)

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    Nick Cammett/Associated Press

    D'Ernest Johnson is set to be a restricted free agent in March, but it would be a surprise if he doesn't draw significant interest. Though stuck behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the Cleveland Browns offense, Johnson has shown tremendous promise in limited opportunities.

    The 25-year-old first flashed with a 95-yard outing against the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 during which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. He got his first career start this past season and racked up 146 rushing yards, 22 receiving yards and a touchdown against Denver.

    Johnson started a second game in 2021 and rushed for 99 yards with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average and 58 receiving yards against the New England Patriots.

    At worst, Johnson projects as a high-end No. 2 back, and that could be perfect for the Chargers. Los Angles has a splendid starter in Austin Ekeler but has struggled to find a consistent power-rushing complement.

    Justin Jackson filled the role admirably in 2021 (364 yards, 5.4 yards per carry) but was hampered by a knee injury in 2020 and is set to hit the free-agent market.

    A lot may hinge on how the Browns choose to tender Johnson as a restricted free agent—a second-round tender is probably too rich, a first-round tender would certainly be so—but money shouldn't be an issue. Los Angeles is projected to have $57.5 million in cap space, second-most in the NFL.

    Best Fit: Los Angeles Chargers

Sony Michel

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In August, the Los Angeles Rams acquired Michel in a trade with the Patriots following Cam Akers' torn Achilles. While the Rams may not be thrilled to part with Michel less than a year after adding him, the move would make some sense.

    Akers is again healthy, and it's not as if Michel was an expensive acquisition—he cost L.A. a fourth-round 2023 and a sixth-round 2022 draft pick. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is projected to be $13.2 million over the cap and will likely prioritize players like Von Miller and Austin Corbett over Michel.

    Akers and Darrell Henderson provide a solid foundation for L.A.'s backfield. Michel has a projected market value of $5 million annually.

    Michel was a serviceable starter in 2021—totaling 845 rushing yards and averaging 4.1 yards per carry—but he might be best served as a powerful inside-rushing complement in a committee.

    The Las Vegas Raiders could use such a complement after losing Kenyan Drake to a broken ankle in December. Drake was a fine change-of-pace back alongside Josh Jacobs. However, the duo underwhelmed overall, and Drake may not be at 100 percent early next season.

    New Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels coached Michel as the Patriots offensive coordinator during Michel's first three seasons.

    McDaniels frequently used a committee backfield in New England, and a committee headlined by Jacobs, Michel and Drake could help Las Vegas significantly improve a rushing attack that ranked 28th in the NFL last season. The Raiders, who are projected to have $19.8 million in cap space, can afford to make it happen.

    Best Fit: Las Vegas Raiders

Raheem Mostert

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Raheem Mostert was a fantastic ball-carrier for the 49ers in 2019 and 2020 when healthy. He averaged five or more yards per carry in each season and served as a dangerous home run threat who could score from anywhere on the field.

    The problem is that Mostert has struggled to stay healthy. He was limited to eight games in 2020 by a high ankle sprain and missed all but one game in 2021 with cartilage damage in his knee. Following surgery, Mostert announced on social media that he was "excited about the journey" to come.

    That journey will include several questions about Mostert's health and durability. However, his skill set is intriguing. When healthy in 2019, Mostert appeared in all 16 games, averaged a whopping 5.6 yards per carry and scored 10 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns.

    Mostert represents a gamble, but he can be a great addition as a big-play complementary back.

    Given McDaniel's experience with Mostert, Miami seems like a logical landing spot. The Dolphins head coach should already have insight into Mostert's recovery, and he knows exactly how to utilize him in the offense.

    Mostert wouldn't be "the guy" in Miami, but he could be a key addition for a franchise looking to get over the proverbial hump and back into the postseason.

    Best Fit: Miami Dolphins

Cordarrelle Patterson

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Technically, Cordarrelle Patterson is a wide receiver—or at least, he has been for the vast majority of his career. The four-time first-team All-Pro return specialist spent a lot of time carrying the ball for the Atlanta Falcons this past season, though, and was sensational.

    Patterson finished the year with 618 rushing yards, 548 receiving yards and 11 combined touchdowns. His versatility should grab the attention of multiple teams on the free-agent market. He has a projected market value of $9.1 million annually.

    However, Atlanta appears to be the best spot for Patterson. It was the Falcons and head coach Arthur Smith who chose to give Patterson the opportunity to be an offensive weapon. In 2021, Patterson played 47 percent of the offensive snaps—according to Pro Football Reference—his highest percentage since the 2016 season.

    There's no guarantee that Patterson could get the same opportunity or have the same success elsewhere. Additionally, the Falcons would love to have Patterson back in the fold.

    "I think this is a very talented player, a very talented athlete," franchise owner Arthur Blank said, per Scott Bair of the team's official website. "This is a good example of when a coach understands the scheme—which he does, Coach Smith—and he takes an athlete like this and can use him in a variety of ways I think you see the kind of production that he can have. ... I hope that he'll be a Falcon this time [next] year."

    Cap space could be an issue, as the Falcons are projected to be $1.9 million over the cap. However, Atlanta can and should create enough wiggle room to retain Patterson for the 2022 season.

    Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons

Rashaad Penny

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny was largely a disappointment during his first three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He struggled to get on the field early, suffered a torn ACL in 2019 and had just 823 rushing yards through three years.

    However, Penny exploded down the stretch in 2021, finishing with 749 rushing yards in just 10 games with a league-leading 6.3 yards-per-carry average. And 671 yards came over the final five weeks. This sets up Penny to be one of the most intriguing players in 2022 free agency.

    The fact that Penny finally found his groove with Seattle and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron suggests that a return to the Seahawks would be best for the San Diego State product. Penny has shown that he can flourish alongside quarterback Russell Wilson in Waldron's system, but other teams should have reservations about his consistency.

    If Penny wants to fully establish a high-market value, another year of high-level production in Seattle would be ideal. The Seahawks, who also have Alex Collins headed to market, should be eager to give Penny a "prove-it" opportunity.

    Seattle is projected to have $35.4 million in cap space and can afford to give Penny an attractive offer—likely one with a fair bit of upfront money and an early out for the team in case Penny's breakout performance proves to be a fluke.

    Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks


    Cap and market information via Spotrac.