We’re quickly approaching NFL free agency, one of the most exciting times of the year. As veterans continue to be traded and released in the weeks ahead, nothing is official until March 17 at 4 p.m. EDT. That won’t stop us from getting energized about any news, nor will it prevent a look ahead at possible scenarios.
Here are the positional breakdowns of known unrestricted free-agent running backs who may present fantasy football utility in 2021. Each player’s 2020 team is in parentheses, and we’ll focus only on relevant fantasy football commodities.
2021 fantasy football free agents to watch
Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers): Expected to find money that would pay him in the top three of average salaries for his position, Jones hits free agency at an interesting time. He’s the top commodity among his backfield mates, and Spotrac suggests he will have a market value close to $15 million annually. Green Bay currently projects to be $18.55 million over the minimum cap of $180 million. Regardless of what the final number is set at, the Packers have the sixth-lowest amount of financial freedom. Jones and backup Jamaal Williams are set to be free agents, and the Packers added running back AJ Dillon in the 2020 draft with this in mind.
Expectation: Green Bay has made multiple offers to Jones, but the two sides have not been able to agree on the guaranteed compensation. The situation is about as fluid as any. Given the cap situation, his price tag, and the Dillon selection, Jones is likely playing in a new city in 2021. The top suitors should include: San Francisco, Miami and the New York Jets.
Chris Carson (Seattle Seahawks): Seattle has itself in an average spot financially, sitting 17th in cap space after the top 51 contracts are tallied. The issue is nine starters from the tail end of last season are free agents. Carson is the top one of the group, and his primary backup, Carlos Hyde, is a free agent in March, too. The Seahawks invested a first-round pick in running back Rashaad Penny in 2018, a move that has proven to be far from rewarding to date. A fourth-rounder was spent on RB DeeJay Dallas last year. Perhaps Seattle focuses on getting the most out of these two and supplementing them with a draft investment or a cheap free-agent veteran, because the pool is super deep with complementary types.
Expectation: While Carson isn’t guaranteed to be playing elsewhere next season, it sure seems like that will be the outcome. Seattle could offer him a moderate short-term deal that is laden with bonus money to kick the can to 2022 when the team has an estimated $136 million in space (12th most). Pete Carroll wants to run the ball more, and he has a proven horse available should the money make sense. That said, Carson certainly could be overpaid by teams in better 2021 financial situations (NYJ, WAS, MI, LAC, SF).
Kenyan Drake (Arizona Cardinals): According to Spotrac’s market value chart, Drake is the second-most expensive running back in the 2021 free-agent pool with an annual estimated salary average of $8.36 million. The Cardinals placed the one-year, $8.483 million transition tag on him in 2020, and while Drake wasn’t awful in any sense, he was nowhere near as explosive as in 2019’s late-season eruption. The Cards threw to him only 31 times after he caught 50 passes in 2019 split between Miami and Arizona. Drake rushed for career highs in attempts (239), yards (955) and touchdowns (10) but posted his lowest yards-per-carry (4.0) and yards-per-touch (4.1) averages of his career.
Expectation: Arizona isn’t out of the race (brisk walk?) to ink Drake in March, but the contract situation will have to favor the Cardinals. Chase Edmonds looked quite capable of being the 1a at times last year, although durability is an issue. The Cardinals have so many cheaper options if the goal is to barely approach 1,000 rushing yards. Drake played his way into a crack at starting somewhere. Teams with the need and money to burn include the Jets, Dolphins, Chargers, 49ers and Cardinals, but Drake could opt for less money and/or a reduce role to play for a team he views as a contender (Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Pittsburgh).
Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Reports had Fournette as a possible roster cut prior to his playoff tear that helped the Bucs win the Lombardi and subsequently play catch with it over open water. In the prime of his career, set to hit the market, Fournette will draw ample interest from teams in great shape financially — and Tampa is one of those franchises (13th in cap space). The team isn’t likely to break the bank on a long-term deal, though, so it could be a one-year pact with plenty of guaranteed compensation.
Expectation: Since Ronald Jones is a tandem back, and the Buccaneers never really explored 2020 rookie RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, it’s as reasonable to think Fournette remains in the mix as is the team allows him to walk. For the sake of continuity with a roster that is paying Vaughn next to nothing and has a Super Bowl repeat in its sights, the current lean is Fournette returns for 2021.
James Conner (Pittsburgh Steelers): It seems like 100 years ago when Conner was making people in fantasy leagues say, “Le’Veon, who?” Following two down years, marred by ineffective utilization, poor play, and suspect offensive line work at times, Conner has himself entering free agency at 25 years old and worth probably a quarter of what he was following the 2018 season. … Only so many hits a back can handle, and even entering his age-26 season, teams will be extremely cautious about giving him significant money beyond a year or two.
Expectation: The Steelers aren’t in a great spot financially, and the drop-off to Benny Snell with a complement of change-up back is negligible, if not zilch. The market for Conner won’t be totally barren, given his versatility and past success. Look for a team in need of a veteran rental or wanting a one-two punch to explore a deal with Conner. Teams likely in place include Jacksonville, the Jets, Miami, the Chargers, Arizona, Seattle and Atlanta. Not on that short list: Pittsburgh.
Todd Gurley (Atlanta Falcons): After what was supposed to be a one-year prove-it deal for Gurley in the ATL, he hits the market again in search of a new home. It’s surreal to realize just how far Gurley has fallen from his pedestal in just two seasons. The star back regressed from being historically productive in 2018 to a touchdown-dependent fantasy RB2 in 2019, and finally settling as a barely playable flex last year in Atlanta. Not all of it is his fault. The Los Angeles Rams and Falcons each struggled to clear lanes for him in the past two seasons, and Gurley’s balky knee has contributed, as well, especially with the teams cutting his receiving targets basically in half.
Expectation: Call me an optimist — and you’ll be the first — but Gurley could rebound in the right situation. He turns 27 in early August and has 254 and 220 touches, respectively, in the past two years. While the knee remains a concern, if he comes at a bargain (say, less than $5 mill), what’s the incentive to take it easy on him? Keep an eye on Seattle and what happens with Carson. Should he be too expensive for a re-signing, Gurley could reunite with Rams assistant and new Seahawks OC Shane Waldron.
Wayne Gallman (New York Giants): Gallman is one of the most intriguing free agents from a fantasy perspective. He rattled off six scores in a five-game stretch during the heart of the 2020 season after Saquon Barkley went down. Unfortunately, he managed only one effort with more than 94 yards and isn’t much of a receiving option. The final five contests saw Gallman finish with zero scores behind a horrid offensive line.
Expectation: He won’t be a bank-breaking signing, and New York could be interested in retaining Gallman if the dollars work out. NYG is in a tight spot financially (19th-least cap space). In the upcoming free-agent period, there will be a market for Gallman as a backup or change-of-pacer.
Mark Ingram (Baltimore Ravens): Baltimore turned to younger, more dynamic backs in 2021’s stretch run, and Ingram will once again hit the market to search for what should be his final NFL home. The days of Ingram being a workhorse are gone, but there’s still a place for him in the NFL if a contender is looking for a proven vet on the cheap.
Expectation: The 31-year-old could return to the New Orleans Saints if Latavius Murray is shown the door as a cap casualty. As a committee back, Ingram may see interest from several teams in contention, but there’s too much movement ahead to wager much of an educated guess. The Giants and Detroit Lions could be in play, if Ingram is just looking to sign somewhere.
James White (New England Patriots): The Patriots are in full rebuilding mode at this point, and White probably will opt for free agency after seeing his utilization decline in the past two seasons from its peak in 2018. The veteran is a niche role player as one of the best pass-catching running backs in the past five years. White, 29, will be sought after for teams trying to fine tune their points of attack.
Expectation: Look no further than Tampa Bay as the most logical spot for White. He and Tom Brady were money together, and the Bucs have enough cash to make it even more attractive to White. Leonard Fournette is a free agent in March, too, and LeSean McCoy (also a UFA) probably retires. The Buccaneers will look to complement Ronald Jones one way or another. Miami could be in play, and Green Bay may opt for White as a contrast to AJ Dillon.
Mike Davis (Carolina Panthers): The Panthers turned to the veteran journeyman each time Christian McCaffrey went down in 2020, and Davis played admirably. He rushed for 642 yards and six scores on 165 attempts, adding a 59-373-2 line in the passing game — a poor man’s CMC.
Expectation: Davis, 28, probably didn’t earn himself a starting gig somewhere else, and Carolina could opt for retaining him as insurance for McCaffrey. Depending on how things shake out with the marquee names poised to come available in March, Davis could find himself being a consolation prize as a one-year stopgap for a needy roster.
Le’Veon Bell (Kansas City Chiefs): Bell looks washed up, plain and simple. He enters his age-30 season and isn’t likely to have much of a market, especially if he values himself higher than the rest of the world possessing functional eyesight.
Expectation: Some general manager out there may feel differently if the money makes sense, and Bell has a puncher’s chance of rebounding into a regular fantasy option if the situation works out. He’ll probably wait to see how the market dominoes fall.
Jamaal Williams (Green Bay Packers): Williams is set to become a free agent, along with Aaron Jones, and he will have options in free agency as a rotational backup. The Packers could be in the mix, if the money aligns, assuming Jones doesn’t return.
Expectation: Williams could end up with a number of teams. The rosters in need of a capable receiving back with the ability to start in a pinch includes Jacksonville, the Jets, New England, Carolina, Miami, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Arizona, Seattle, among others.
Marlon Mack (Indianapolis Colts): Entering his first free-agent period, Mack is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. He’s entering his age-25 season, which bodes well, and modern medical techniques have recovery from this injury not as daunting as it was even 10 years ago.
Expectation: There’s little chance Mack will want to re-sign with the Colts to back up Jonathan Taylor, so it really comes down to how teams view his rehab status around the opening of free agency. Smart money says Mack is forced to wait until later in the summer and could find a more appealing situation should a starter go down with an injury of his own.
Tevin Coleman, (San Francisco 49ers): Coleman is an efficient running back and has chops as a blocker in pass protection. He also has an extensive history of injuries and hasn’t been able to take his game to the next level in one of the best rushing systems in the NFL.
Expectation: An offense looking for a 1b in a zone-blocking system would be the ideal fit. Coleman isn’t draftable without entering an ideal setting. Keep tabs on his free-agent tour.
Matt Breida (Miami Dolphins): The former 49ers game is built on explosiveness in a zone-blocking system. Breida has track speed but wasn’t utilized effectively during his short stay with the Dolphins.
Expectation: It’s improbable he returns at this point. Breida is likely to be forced to wait for an opportunity. The 49ers really could be in play for a reunion with Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon both being free agents in March.
Brian Hill (Atlanta Falcons): Hill will be an interesting wild card to watch in free agency. There’s a minimal chance he gets a big deal or even an immediate crack at being a starter. Yet, there’s considerable upside to keep tabs on from a fantasy perspective. In the right setting, such as being a chief backup to a fragile starter, Hill would become a viable fantasy candidate.
Expectation: Hill has the opportunity to find a “1b” role to a more explosive “1a” type. Given the monstrosity that is the free-agent RB market right now, it’s a waste of both of our time to speculate where he could end up. But make note of his name and recognize he could carve out a relevant role in the right city.
Adrian Peterson (Detroit Lions): Peterson will be 36 as of the start of the season, but he continues to prove there’s still something in that Hall of Fame-bound gas tank of his. The Lions’ wholesale regime change makes him highly unlikely to come back to the roster. Regardless of where he lands, Peterson wants to play, which makes his options much greater.
Expectation: Whichever team offers him a veteran-minimum contract will be in the running to sign him, so who knows … the reality is he probably has to settle as being a “mercenary for hire” after an injury.
Malcolm Brown (Los Angeles Rams): Brown could be an interesting signing for the Seattle Seahawks, since he is familiar with the system that comes over with the new OC Shane Waldron. Brown has struggled with some injuries and mediocre play, but the veteran has a place in the NFL as a backup or change-up to a brittle starter.
Expectation: Unless he lands as a starter or primary shareholder of a backfield, Brown is not draftable. Depending on the market conditions, he could be back in LA on a dirt-cheap deal as the likely No. 3 back.
Potential free agents to watch
Due to a likely shrinking salary cap, some teams will be in a bind more than expected when these contracts were signed.
David Johnson (Houston Texans): Save roughly $6 million in cap space by bailing on the sixth-highest positional cap charge for what is the final year of his deal? It’s hard to argue against it since Houston has only $10 million in cap space and a bunch of holes to fill.
Expectation: When push comes to shove, Johnson could be asked to restructure his final year and play it out with incentives to help lower his cost but give him a chance to recoup some of the money.
Duke Johnson (Houston Texans): The Texans will save $5 million and change by cutting Johnson before his roster bonus is due in March. Houston has a little more than $10 million in space right now, and escaping the 10th-highest cap figure among NFL running backs may be unavoidable given the pair of big-money deals allocated to this backfield (David Johnson is No. 6 in highest cap charge).
Expectation: The former Cleveland Brown is likely to be playing in a different uniform in 2021.
Latavius Murray (New Orleans Saints): With the team in dire straits against the cap, Murray is likely to be shown the door. He’s a backup to a highly paid starter and has a contractual out that would allow the team to free itself nearly $5 million while incurring a $1.7 million dead hit to the 2021 cap ($850k for 2022 being accelerated to this year). The Saints would save $3.337 million by cutting him as a June 1 release — an increase in savings even after paying him a $350k roster bonus in March.
Expectation: Unless he’s willing to take a dramatic pay cut, Murray is on the cusp of playing in another city in 2021.