2018 Free Agent Preview: Running Backs

The running back position is always an interesting one. Little generally separates many of the players salaries even if on paper some players seem much better than others. Here is my look at who I believe are the top 10 players and some thoughts on those players as well as a full list of players who should be available this March.

1. Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

Bell may be the last great throwback running back in the NFL. He really does everything well and is out there for almost every play. Still his overall numbers were down this year and he has a ton of mileage on his body even though he has missed games for a variety of reasons.

I have a hard time buying that Bell will draw a ton of interest in free agency in part because it was reported that he essentially wants a contract around $15 million a season. It’s not worth the time of the teams to negotiate with a player whose perception is seemingly so beyond reality that it’s not worth the time. Don’t get me wrong he is a great player and almost every team would be better off with a player like Bell, but the reality is no team runs an offense in the NFL that can dedicate that kind of coin to a running back especially one with a history of suspensions and injuries.

In general the top contracts for running backs come from their original team so I would expect him to stay in Pittsburgh who will probably tag him at $14.5 million to maintain exclusive rights. Even though most recent big money contracts have been disappointing at this position my guess is the Steelers will get a deal done around $12M a season. He would be foolish to turn that down for a second year in a row.

2. Isaiah Crowell, Browns

Crowell should be the least risky running back out there. He has run for at least 700 yards, has over 180 receiving yards, and hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons. He is only 25 so teams should expect a few years out of him.  He plays about 50% of the snaps which means he should be a feature player in a two or three man rotation.

Crowell is a bit of a boom/bust type on a weekly basis. While it’s always hard to judge anyone on the Browns, whose personnel and coaching staff are near the bottom of the league, he has had 7, 90+ yard games in the last three years while also having 8 games under 30 yards. I would expect teams to think that he will be more consistent outside of the Browns organization.

Crowell should be able to find an offer similar but a bit lower than the $6.5 million per year contract that Lamar Miller signed with the Texans a few years back. Miller may have looked a bit better in his smaller stint but its somewhat close and both have the age advantage which makes them more appealing.

The Browns could always retain him and may pay the most, but I could see a player like him looking to leave if the staff remains the same. I think plenty of teams will inquire about his asking price. The Bucs will always pay top dollar for positions like this.  He would be a good fit for Oakland if they moved on from Lynch. You also have the two New York teams and Indy.

3. Carlos Hyde, 49ers

Hyde has very quietly put together back to back 900+ yard seasons in San Francisco. Hyde’s last two seasons should have helped him with two main concerns. One is injury. Hyde missed 11 games in his first two seasons and just three in his last two, with none missed this season. The second is that he was able to be out there in passing situations. In today’s NFL one dimensional runners are worth far less than multi dimensional players and Hyde is proving to be the latter, logging 71% playtime and nearly 50 receptions.

I think the negatives for Hyde are that there are too many weeks where he doesn’t seem to make an impact and that he plays in relative anonymity. He is also 28. None of that really help in getting the buzz going in February that players like Hyde need to move up in class. Hyde is a better player than Latavius Murray but I think that Murray had more notoriety as a young player on an improving Raiders team. My guess is their contracts end up pretty similar in the $5 to $5.5 million range.

I’d thing that the 49ers will potentially retain and I’d expect more than a few teams will look at him, especially those with big cap room. He could make some sense for teams like the Eagles and Lions and Id anticipate the Jets, Colts, and Broncos to at least explore the possibility. Hyde had a few big games against Seattle so they perhaps they consider a look too, though he may be too expensive for what could be a limited budget.

4. Dion Lewis, Patriots

Lewis’ play at the end of the season is creating that buzz that I mentioned is missing from Hyde and that should only help Lewis in free agency. Lewis was finally healthy for the full season and exploded for nearly 900 yards on the ground and over 200 in the air. He averaged almost 5 yards a carry and had two 100+ yard games down the stretch.

Still Lewis is only a rotational player. He barely passed the 35% snap mark this year and is one of many in the New England backfield. I think there are teams that will shy away from him thinking that outside of the Patriots system he won’t make a big impact even with an increased role.  However I am sure there will be at least two teams that see him as a full time player and will pay accordingly.

Lewis is a little older at 28 but doesn’t have miles on him. I could see the Eagles being somewhat bullish and if the Packers are actually willing to go in on a free agent I think that is the kind of offense he could thrive in.  The same teams mentioned for Hyde should be in here too.

Lewis salary may be dependent on how the playoffs end. I think there is a wide range for a player like him. $4.5-$5M is reasonable but I think he could go higher. If there is negativity towards him being a Patriots system player he could fall into the $3.5M a year category.

5. Jerick McKinnon, Vikings

I think McKinnon is a clear notch below the first four names, but I’m not sure if his contract will drop that far below some of them. While McKinnon offers little value as a runner he is a very capable receiver/third down back and those players generally receive more interest than the solid, but more traditional, two down player.

Since McKinnon is still in the playoffs he has potentially up to two more games, at the time of this writing, to increase his stock with a big performance. I don’t believe he can hurt his stock in any of the remaining games.

With Bilal Powell at $3.75 million a year and James White at $4 million a year, I think McKinnon should slot right in that grouping. He could be back in Minnesota to spell Dalvin Cook, but it may depend on whether or not Murray returns next season. I think he has a skillset that could suit the Texans, Raiders, Seahawks, Broncos, and possibly Cowboys.

6. Jeremy Hill, Bengals

Is there a team out there willing to take a gamble on Hill?  As a rookie Hill was terrific and while not very efficient the two years after he still was able to shoulder a load and is one of the better backs around the goal. This year, however, was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

Hill saw his playtime and role reduced and then opted for surgery, which the Bengals clearly disagreed with, after aggravating an ankle injury in practice. There is probably a good chance that the surgery had more to do with free agency and that could turn some teams off.

If the Patriots didn’t have such a glut of players I would think that they would take a shot at someone like this. The Eagles as well as a replacement for Blount if he is cheap enough. Seattle just took a shot on Eddie Lacy and this could be a similar option. The Giants could also take a look. My guess is he is likely looking at a 1 year contract in the $2-$3M range but there is more upside here if he has a good season.

7. Rex Burkhead, Patriots

Burkhead made $3 million essentially off one game, but I’m not sure if he can do that again after an injury filled season with the Patriots. There is probably little upside to Burkhead’s game but also little downside. If you need someone whose job is to adequately fill a role every third series he is solid for that role. He is an ok runner. He is an ok receiver. He is an ok blocker. Nothing spectacular but a solid vet.

Burkhead’s ultimate price will probably come down to how many teams need a pure backup type whose role is to relieve a main guy on three downs. I don’t think he would draw the situational interest of a more proven runner or receiver. If you look at two names on this list, Hyde and Crowell, Burkhead is the type that you pair with those players letting them take 65% of the snaps and Burkhead 30%. That’s probably worth $2.5-$3M a season. If a team like the Cardinals wanted to give David Johnson a break off surgery this is a reasonable guy to take some of the load off him. Jacksonville I think would be a nice destination for him if they don’t keep TJ Yeldon.

8. Orleans Darkwa, Giants

Darkwa very quietly put together a decent season for the Giants running behind a terrible line for 751 yards and 5 touchdowns. Darkwa is pretty limited as a runner and you don’t get many frills with him, but he consistently had to earn the job all season and week after week he continued to show the Giants he was the best option they had. He really gave a great effort in a complete lost season which counts for something.

Darkwa has a pretty limited track record but should draw some interest and is only 26. He made $1.1 million this past season and should earn at least $1.5 million in 2018. If he finds the right team, and that team may be the Giants, he may be able to get closer to the $1.75M number that Jazcquizz Rodgers signed for this past offseason

9. Frank Gore, Colts

Gore has indicated that he would like to keep playing even after 13 seasons in the NFL. Gore is amazingly still capable of going out there on a weekly basis and play around to 50% of the team snaps. Perhaps more impressive is that he hasn’t missed a game since 2010.  Based on longevity he probably is making a case for the Hall of Fame.

But Gore is 35 years old which is like the equivalent to a quarterback being 45. Once in a blue moon you see it but its pretty rare. Would a team be comfortable with bringing in Gore at this age even with his consistent health?  Gore is no longer a big time player but he has been playing behind a bad offensive line so maybe there is a bit more in the tank.

I really don’t have a comp here. Darren Sproles was the only older runner to get an extension of note but he is a specialist and his contract seemed to be a bit of a “thank you for the years” kind of contract. I’d guess Gore’s best bet is to stick in Indy if he doesn’t retire otherwise I cant really come up with a good destination. It would have to be a team in need of a veteran that already has a decent but not great younger option.  Ill guess someone gives him a shot for $2 million plus incentives.

10. Alfred Morris, Cowboys

Morris found little interest in free agency two years ago when he landed with the Cowboys. He was a non-factor in Dallas in 2016 and looked every bit as finished as he did as a Redskin, but he made the most of his opportunities in 2017 to help cover for Ezekiel Elliot’s suspension. His 127 yard effort against the Redskins was his best game in years and reminded people that Morris still had talent.

Though Morris is going to be 30 he hasn’t had much use the last two seasons and hasn’t taken the beating some others at his age have taken.  Morris has zero ability in the passing game so hes pretty limited but for a team that is just looking for a veteran that can give you four decent games and a few series all season he is a nice piece to have for under $2 million. I could see a team like the Titans, if they were prepared to cut DeMarco Murray to see Morris as a nice low cost reserve behind Derrick Henry.

Here is the list of players we have listed as unrestricted free agents and a rough estimate of an annual contract value they may receive in free agency.

Rank Player Current Team Age Snap % Projected APY
1 Le’Veon Bell Steelers 26 85.30% $12,000,000
2 Isaiah Crowell Browns 25 50.10% $6,200,000
3 Carlos Hyde 49ers 27 71.20% $5,500,000
4 Dion Lewis Patriots 28 35.40% $4,800,000
5 Jerick McKinnon Vikings 26 47.20% $4,000,000
6 Jeremy Hill Bengals 26 8.00% $3,000,000
7 Rex Burkhead Patriots 28 17.20% $3,000,000
8 Orleans Darkwa Giants 26 29.00% $1,750,000
9 Frank Gore Colts 35 53.90% $2,000,000
10 Alfred Morris Cowboys 30 19.10% $1,500,000
11 Shane Vereen Giants 29 30.00% $1,500,000
12 Darren Sproles Eagles 35 7.80% $1,500,000
13 Charles Sims Buccaneers 28 34.40% $1,250,000
14 Terrance West Ravens 27 6.10% $1,100,000
14 LeGarrette Blount Eagles 32 31.20% $1,000,000
15 Benny Cunningham Bears 28 17.70% $900,000
16 Alfred Blue Texans 27 14.30% Minimum
17 Kerwynn Williams Cardinals 27 21.40% Minimum
18 Damien Williams Dolphins 26 18.40% Minimum
19 Lance Dunbar Rams 28 3.70% Minimum
20 Andre Ellington Texans 29 28.20% Minimum
21 Jamaal Charles Broncos 32 18.20% Minimum
22 Eddie Lacy Seahawks 28 12.80% Minimum
23 Branden Oliver Chargers 27 10.00% Minimum
24 Christine Michael Colts 28 0.00% Minimum
24 Travaris Cadet Bills 29 11.10% Minimum
25 Kenjon Barner Eagles 29 6.90% Minimum
26 Brandon Bolden Patriots 28 3.70% Minimum
27 Stevan Ridley Steelers 29 3.50% Minimum
28 Mike James Lions 27 0.00% Minimum
29 Cedric Peerman Bengals 32 0.00% Minimum
30 Jordan Todman Texans 28 0.00% Minimum
31 Taiwan Jones Bills 30 0.30% Minimum