By Neil Dutton. Still being devalued on draft day, a good running back can be the difference between a good offense and a great offense, or more frequently, a good offense and a bloody awful one. With free agency just around the corner, here are ten tailbacks that could be in line for a bumper pay day. Whether it’s with their 2016 employers, or someone new.
- Le’Veon Bell
2016 Stats 261 rush attempts, 1268 yards, 7 touchdowns
94 targets, 75 receptions, 616 yards, 2 touchdowns
FACT – 100% of all NFL teams would be improved immediately if Le’Veon Bell was on their roster.
FACT – 96.9% of all NFL teams will not see this improvement, at least not in 2017.
After returning from a three game suspension, Bell averaged a staggering 157 yards from scrimmage per game for the rest of the season. He fell 116 yards short of 2,000 total yards for the season, a figure that one expects he would have breezed past had he played all sixteen regular season games. The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to give Bell the franchise tag at the very least, so it would be a shock were Bell not to remain in the ‘Black and Gold’ for a long time.
2016 Stats 71 rush attempts, 360 yards
7 targets, 4 receptions, 28 yards
Ever since a Rookie of the Year season in 2013, Eddie Lacy’s star has fallen. Determined to bounce back after a subpar 2015 season which found him overweight, Lacy landed on injured reserve after five games, finishing his truncated 2016 season with 360 yards on 71 attempts (an encouraging 5 yards per carry average). With the Green Bay Packers backfield certain to be an area in which the team makes changes, Lacy may be wise to take whatever the Packers offer him, which is not likely to be much more than the $2.8 million a year that Spotrac projects him to be worth. Regardless, other teams looking for a player with workhorse capability will likely be prepared to pay him more.
- LeGarrette Blount
2016 Stats 299 rush attempts, 1161 yards, 18 touchdowns
8 targets, 7 receptions, 38 yards
No one scored more rushing touchdowns in the NFL than LeGarrette Blount in 2016, on his way to his second 1,000 yard rushing season and first the for the New England Patriots. The touchdowns masked a rather inefficient season as Blount failed to top 54 yards in seven games last season. It’s not as if the Patriots were playing catch up in a lot games. Now 30 years old, Blount should be looking at another year with the Patriots if they’ll have him back. The Patriots have not hesitated cutting bait with players who are reaching the end of their statistical career. If Blount hits the free agency market, the New York Giants could be a landing spot. The G-Men scored just six rushing touchdowns in 2016, and already released veteran Rashad Jennings earlier this offseason.
- Isaiah Crowell
2016 Stats 198 rush attempts, 952 yards, 7 touchdowns
53 targets, 40 receptions, 319 yards
If only the Cleveland Browns had remained competitive for a little longer in a few of their games last season, Isaiah Crowell would probably have hit the 1,000 yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. His 952 rushing yards still marked a career high for ‘Crow,’ and when one throws in his 40 receptions, it’s easy to see Crowell as one of the few high points of a dismal Browns offense.
Talks between Crowell and the Browns had stalled when last reported, and it is not clear just how highly they value the former Alabama State running back. Were he to move on, the Giants could be a mutually agreeable destination. The Carolina Panthers could also use a younger running back as Jonathan Stewart suffered from injuries in 2016. The Panthers have over $54 million in cap space.
2016 Stats 195 rush attempts, 788 yards, 12 touchdowns
43 targets, 33 receptions, 264 yards
Depending on which reporter you read, which website you visit, or which day of the week it is, you will get a different story regarding the future of Latavius Murray and the Oakland Raiders. He “wants to stay put and finish what he started”, according to the Murray while Vic Tafur believes the Raiders are “likely to move on” from the former UCF running back. Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie says the team wants “to re-sign their own players.”
Latavius Murray was part of a three man rotation last season, splitting time with DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Murray still managed double digit rushing touchdowns. It’s a muddy picture though. Spotrac believes Murray should look for a four year, $26 million deal. The Raiders have more than $51 million in cap space but they need to look to locking down Derek Carr and Khalil Mack long term. Murray himself could be best served hitting the open market.
- Danny Woodhead
2015 Stats 98 rush attempts, 336 yards, 3 touchdowns
106 targets, 80 receptions, 755 yards, 6 touchdowns
One of the best pass catching running backs in the NFL, Danny Woodhead is coming off his second serious injury in three years. In 2015, Woodhead posted 1,091 total yards on over 100 targets as one of Phil Rivers most trusted receiving options. With the offensive coaching staff remaining the same for the Los Angeles Chargers as when they were the San Diego Chargers, Woodhead likely won’t be asked to do much rushing, and could resume his role as the primary receiving running back unless the Chargers choose to lean on Melvin Gordon as the workhorse running back. Entering his age 32 season, he’s not likely to break the bank. He still carries PPR value if he remains with the Chargers.
- Darren McFadden
2016 Stats 24 rush attempts, 87 yards
5 targets, 3 receptions, 17 yards
Another player who enjoyed a productive 2015 season, Darren McFadden appeared in only four games last season after spending the early part of the season side-lined after a bizarre preseason elbow injury. In 2015, McFadden managed 1,089 rushing yards behind the All-Pro offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys. But, the emergence of Ezekiel Elliott and the presence of Lance Dunbar may make him and fellow veteran running back Alfred Morris obsolete in ‘Big D.’
McFadden will be age 30 by the time the new season begins, and with a long and complex injury history (he’s played all 16 games in a season just once in his nine seasons in the NFL), McFadden is not likely to garner too much guaranteed money. A team committed to a platoon approach at running back, and in need of a veteran presence, may be his best bet for employment. If LeGarrette Blount walks, the New England Patriots might find a home for the former Arkansas back.
- Mike Gillislee
2016 Stats 101 rush attempts, 577 yards, 8 touchdowns
11 targets, 9 receptions, 50 yards, 1 touchdown
Mike Gillislee played the role of touchdown vulture last season, finding the end zone on almost 8% of his carries in 2016. He was behind LeSean McCoy in the pecking order, which is nothing to be ashamed of considering McCoy posted 1,267 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016 (surprisingly not enough to be one of Pro Football Focus top 101 players of 2016, which drew the ire of McCoy). As a Restricted Free Agent, the Buffalo Bills may want to keep Mike Gillislee around. But, the Bills also have Jonathan Williams on the roster. Depending what the Bills and Glislee are looking for, Gillislee could be a luxury the Bills can do without. Owner of a 5.6 yards per carry career rushing mark, Gillislee could land on another team at least as a rotational piece, or change of pace back. It would be a surprise if a team broke his door down to hand him the reigns of their ground attack. But, it could happen.
2016 Stats 148 rush attempts, 583 yards, 7 touchdowns
29 targets, 22 receptions, 107 yards, 1 touchdown
2016 was a strange, strange season for Christine Michael. On paper, he averaged nearly four yards per carry, and found the end zone a little over once every four and a half totes. But when one factors in that 117 of those carries and 469 of the yards came whilst still a member of the Seattle Seahawks, his stats as a Green Bay Packer look less than inspiring. His 31 carries in the ‘Green and Gold’ produced just 114 yards at 3.6 yards per carry, and he saw just three targets in the passing game. After being cut by the Seahawks (twice), the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys all in the last two seasons, it is hard to imagine any team ploughing serious funds his way, even at the relatively young age of 26. Christine Michael may have to wait and see what the Packers plan on doing with stable mate Eddie Lacy before his future becomes clear.
- Matt Asiata
2016 Stats 121 rush attempts, 402 yards, 6 touchdowns
38 targets, 32 receptions, 263 yards
The Jerome Bettis for the modern age as he once posted a 30 carry, 51 yard, 3 touchdown game, Matt Asiata has made his living as a goal line specialist. Ten of his 18 career rushing touchdowns have come from the one yard line, and despite showing above average blocking and receiving ability, he has not been a factor in the passing game whenever the Minnesota Vikings have found their way inside the opposing team’s red zone.
Asiata will be 30 years old when the season starts, and there is virtually no chance of him becoming a full-time starting running back anywhere in the NFL. However, he scored six rushing touchdowns last season, and his nose for the end zone may make him an attractive proposition for a team needing a finisher for the paint. The Patriots could bring him in as a cheap alternative to LeGarrette Blount, while the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan may be in need of a versatile blocker / pass catcher. Matt Asiata would end up somewhere, but he’ll be an RB4 dart throw weekly.
Full List of 2017 Free Agent Running Backs
New England Patriots
Damien Williams (R)
Mike Gillislee (R)
Terrance West (R)
(FB) Kyle Juszczyk
Isaiah Crowell (R)
Glenn Winston (R)
Kansas City Chiefs
Bishop Sankey (R)
Juwan Thompson (R)
San Diego Chargers
Branden Oliver (R)
New York Giants
Orleans Darkwa (R)
Kenjon Barner (R)
Chris Thompson (R)
Green Bay Packers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Orleans Saints
Fozzy Whitaker (R)
Los Angeles Rams
San Francisco 49ers