As of Monday, March 14, at noon ET, NFL clubs can legally negotiate with impending free agents ahead of the official opening to free agency on March 16 at 4 p.m. ET. Over the next six weeks, we’ll get a better idea of where some of these players may be headed, but that won’t stop us from trying to make a few guesses along the way.
We currently have a list of upcoming unrestricted free agents, which is where the focus will lie as opposed to addressing players with restricted movement. RFAs can change teams, but it’s rather rare in today’s NFL. Exclusive-rights free agents will not be addressed as they have no bargaining power or leverage.
We’ll examine the four major skill positions in separate articles as part of this series. Some players will be included who aren’t technically free agents but figure to be on the move via trade or eventual release.
In an NFL landscape with nearly all split backfields, only a few of the free agents are capable of being the “1a” of a touch share.
Leonard Fournette: At 27 years old entering free agency, Fournette faces the last legit shot at getting a significant, multiyear payday. He certainly could continue his career on a series of one-year deals, so this one might not come down to the highest bidder if he finds an opportunity play for a contender. Returning to Tampa Bay seems unlikely with the retirement of a Tom Brady, though it shouldn’t be ruled out. Possible landing spots could include Baltimore, Kansas City, Arizona, or he could chase cash from a subpar franchise, possibly Miami, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle or Houston. A weird twist may send him to Buffalo to pair with Devin Singletary, but the Bills would need to get creative to free up some cash.
Melvin Gordon: Gordon will be 29 years old before the regular season begins, effectively putting a kibosh on any real shot at landing a hearty contract. He could return to the Broncos to pair with Javonte Williams once again, but one has to imagine Gordon would be the 1b of this backfield. He could wind up as the 1a elsewhere as teams like Arizona, Seattle, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami, among others, will be in search of bolstering their primary back.
Rashaad Penny: Penny is a real wild card among the impending free agents at his position. Chris Carson could be a cap casualty in Seattle, and Penny expressed his desire to return to the only NFL home he has known. A 2021 late-season swell of production could lead to a large enough contract in a different city that Seattle opts not to match, despite having more than $36 million in available funds (8th most). The former first-round pick’s problem never has been talent. Staying on the field is an overwhelming concern when it comes to the San Diego State product. Penny probably doesn’t get a workhorse gig somewhere, but he makes for an intriguing 1a option in the right setting. Look for teams like Buffalo, Arizona, Denver, both Los Angeles teams, and a few others to at least kick the tires (hopefully they don’t break an axle in the process).
Sony Michel: The question comes down to whether Michel did enough with the Los Angeles Rams during his short stint to endear himself to the team for re-signing purposes. Money and opportunity could drive him to signing elsewhere. If so, he’s in an interesting spot to grab the leading share of the primary chores for a new team. Michel has the pedigree to be the primary ball carrier, although the former Patriot isn’t exactly known for his receiving skills, which makes him rather limited in what he can offer to a franchise. He’ll undoubtedly be part of a committee, and his landing spots are wide open as a result. The Las Vegas Raiders have to be considered given a potential reunion with Josh McDaniels, but Michel isn’t going to overtake Josh Jacobs as the lead, so there’s not a great deal of sense in signing him as more than a spell. Arizona, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, LAC, Seattle, Tampa, and New Orleans are reasonably in play.
James Conner: Conner wants to return to the Arizona Cardinals, which appears to be a dicey proposition given Arizona being pressed for cap space and facing basically its entire offense set to hit free agency. The scoring phenom surely earned himself a pay raise, and he could have a several teams interested in seeing if they can pry him away from the desert. Unless they can reach a bargain agreement money-wise, however, Arizona re-signing Conner remains iffy.
Not a sure thing to get a crack at being a starter, each of these backs has the potential if giving a chance, but they’re no worse than “1b” options for prospective teams.
Cordarrelle Patterson: Coming off a breakout season at age 30 isn’t likely to translate to much financial success on the market for Patterson, but he doesn’t seem to care. Everything he has done thus far has blatantly shown his desire is to remain a Falcon. His versatility will open the door for other teams to sniff around, but re-signing in Atlanta is the best situation for him. Regardless of where he lands, expect a statistical reduction from 2021, and he’s poised for another committee situation in any city.
Chase Edmonds: Both of Arizona’s top backs from 2021 are set to become free agents, and Edmonds may have to take a discount deal if he wants to return to the Cards. The franchise has only $5.395 million in available cap space the this time, and a huge chunk of its offense is scheduled to join Edmonds as free agents. If DeAndre Hopkins restructures, along with a few other moves, the Cardinals will be in much better shape to re-sign him. Edmonds is versatile and may find himself as the spell back in a different zip code once March rolls around. He’d be a nice complementary piece for several teams, including Las Vegas, both New York clubs, Tennessee, Denver, Seattle, and Washington.
Marlon Mack: The impending former Indianapolis Colt will be more than a year removed from a torn Achilles tendon and is young enough (26) to get a two- or three-year deal that offers a starting opportunity. Mack is a two-down back with breakaway speed, but he has more durability issues than just the aforementioned injury. He’d be a most interesting fit in Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, Arizona, Tampa and New Orleans.
Ronald Jones II: It’s difficult seeing Jones returning to the Buccaneers in 2022, and it’s nearly as tough projection where he’d end up. There’s almost no utility for him on passing downs, and he has been erratically productive on the turf. A change-up role or use as a weak 1a component is how this one probably plays out. The former USC Trojan won’t be in high demand, and Jones is probably going to be forced to sign a one-year “prove it” deal in a somewhat congested backfield. He could be a cheap option for the cash-strapped Saints to pair with Alvin Kamara, and that’s about the best-case scenario for him. It’s easy to see Jones signing as a top backup behind an injury liability, such as Saquon Barkley or Josh Jacobs.
Darrel Williams: Returning to the Kansas City Chiefs might be the best option for both parties. Williams is an ideal change-of-pacer for Andy Reid’s system, and there’s obviously a great deal of respect from the coach toward the veteran. That said, money talks, and KC doesn’t have a lot of it to dole out.
The intro says we won’t address restricted free agents, but there’s one player who could see modest interest.
D’Ernest Johnson, Cleveland Browns: The limited action we’ve seen from Johnson has put him in a good light, and if there is anyone who could receive an RFA contract offer, he’s a logical choice. It all comes down to the way Cleveland opts to tender him. It’s improbable he receivers a first- or even second-round tender offer, which would guarantee draft-pick compensation for the Browns should he defect, but it also allocates an untenable amount of money to the position. The Browns have Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt under contract, making Johnson expendable. Expect him to stick around on a $2.433 million tender that gives Cleveland the first right to refusal for this injury policy.
Complementary pieces/roster depth
While almost every backfield is split among two or more guys these days, that’s not to say some of the complements cannot draw enough work to be relevant.
J.D. McKissic: Pass-catching backs are capable of fitting into many different systems, but some teams just don’t throw much to the position. McKissic could return to Washington to reprise his role, or he has a reasonable chance to parlay his success to a different franchise. Las Vegas has an opening, and several teams could be in the mix (TB, KC, ARI, HOU, DEN, MIA, LAR, ATL, SEA).
James White: Retirement could be in play, but re-signing with the only NFL team he has known seems more likely with Branden Bolden also a free agent for New England. No more Tom Brady in Tampa rules out the obvious connection there, leaving a move to Las Vegas being the only other clear connection for White.
Jerick McKinnon: A strong showing in the postseason puts McKinnon on the radar for any number of teams, but we’ve seen more than enough to know what he is and isn’t as an NFL running back. For now, his options are wide open, and the versatile back certainly could return to the Chiefs with Darrel Williams also available for free agency.
Jeff Wilson Jr: Wilson could end up just about anywhere looking for a cheap backup with a chance to start in a pinch. San Fran’s coaching staff is a fan of his services, and Wilson might be an easy re-sign from that perspective, but a desire to see more action could lead him to a new town.
Giovani Bernard: The 30-year-old makes for a decent third-down back in plenty of cities, but at his age, will Bernard settle for any old team if a contender doesn’t come knocking? He’s still a capable receiving outlet with experience in pass protection. Finding an opportunity shouldn’t be challenging.
David Johnson: Plainly, Johnson looks totally washed up and will struggle to find a team willing to sign him. He has strong receiving skills, though, which seems like an easy inroad for a third-down-only role.
Phillip Lindsay: The onset of Lindsay’s career was a nice story, but we’ve seen little in the way of NFL-caliber production from him since. He’s a veteran with a hint of name value, which could land him an RB2 job somewhere to spell a proven starter.
Justin Jackson: The soon-to-be fifth-year pro doesn’t do any one thing with excellence. He has some burst and can get into the second and third levels of the defense, but we’re also talking about a guy with no more than 80 touches in any one season. Jackson has upside for more in the right system.
Devonta Freeman: The once-prized back respectfully resurrected his career in 2021, although it isn’t likely to garner him a shot at being more than a backup. Freeman is right in that last tier of 1b considerations.
Jalen Richard: The veteran is a pass-catching outlet only, and while the Raiders will throw to the position under McDaniels, Richard is not going to have a big market.
Raheem Mostert: Older than most running backs who find success (age-30 season), coming off consecutive injury-shortened campaigns, Mostert still has the speed to make a difference on limited touches or contribute on special teams — but that’s all he offers at this point. Following Mike McDaniel, Miami could be his best destination.
Latavius Murray: Fresh off of his 32nd birthday, the veteran battering ram offers a proven weapon in the red zone — and that’s about it. His age, price tag, and limited skill set serious narrow his options.
Brandon Bolden: New England has a strong tendency to re-sign players it finds highly trustworthy, and Bolden is very much in that camp. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 for a running back, meaning his special teams skills should be what moves the needle if he chooses to keep playing.
Presuming they even latch on with a new team, these guys will have a hard time making a final roster as a running back.
- Le’Veon Bell
- Matt Breida
- Payton Barber
- Damien Williams
- Tevin Coleman
- Alex Collins
- Malcolm Brown
- Taiwan Jones
- Dwayne Washington
- Ty Montgomery
- Corey Clement
- Wayne Gallman
- Royce Freeman
- Buddy Howell
- Kalen Ballage
- Trenton Cannon
Under contract, but …
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks: Carson is an injury-prone but talented weapon who could be expendable in a move that will save Seattle roughly $5 mill against the cap. Only 10 RBs take up more cap space on their respective teams. The Seahawks have just shy of $37 million to spend, so they can retain him if desired.
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta needs to get younger and faster. He is due $3.25 million this year and will cost only $750k in dead money if shown the door. There’s virtually no chance Davis escapes the cutting block.
Carlos Hyde, Jacksonville Jaguars: Hyde’s season ended on IR, and his coach was fired … Doug Pederson takes over, and the Jaguars have a pair of young backs who will assuredly be ahead of Hyde on the depth chart. The 32-year-old pro should be cut before long and may have seen the field for the last time.
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints: Ingram signed a one-year, $1.8M extension in late October, so cutting him may not be automatic. We’ll know for sure by March 20 when he is due a roster bonus. The departure of Sean Payton doesn’t help, and New Orleans absorbs no dead money for releasing Ingram — saving 2.21 million bucks for a team that is egregiously over the limit (-$76M in cap space).