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2021 Free Agency: Running Backs

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2021 Free Agency: Running Backs

The official start to the 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching with the league year and free agency opening at 4 p.m. on March 17. Teams will be able to begin signing free agents and trades like the Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz deals will become official starting on that date. There are a couple of other key dates to remember before the league year officially kicks off. Teams can use their franchise and transition tags on individual players from Feb. 23 through March 9. The NFL also has a legal negotiating window from March 15-17 when teams can start contacting and negotiating with the agents of unrestricted free agents.

With that said, it’s time to start breaking down the 2021 free agency class, which includes Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, and Leonard Fournette at the RB position. Be sure to follow Fantasy Points throughout free agency for in-depth breakdowns of every major (and minor) move. We’ll be tracking every off-season transaction from a fantasy perspective through our “Off-season Tracker” articles and Graham Barfield’s “Fantasy Fallout” pieces. We’ll also be constantly updating our Best Ball rankings if you’re looking to get an early start to draft season.

NOTE: Players are loosely ranked based on talent, age, plus previous and expected future fantasy relevance.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Free Agency information courtesy of OverTheCap.com

Previously Fantasy Relevant

James Conner (Pit, 26) — Conner’s time in Western Pennsylvania appears to be coming to an end after a four-year run with the Steelers and a four-year run at Pitt, which came after he grew up in Erie, Pa. Conner’s 2020 campaign got off to an inauspicious start when Mike Tomlin benched him in the season opener and he never really got on track behind a bad Steelers O-line. The fourth-year back would bounce back with a solid six-game stretch when he averaged 17.8 FPG before he stumbled again over the final nine weeks of the season when he averaged just 9.1 FPG while missing three games to a quad injury. Conner ended the year with 169/721/6 rushing and 35/315/0 receiving to finish as the RB26 with 12.7 FPG in 13 games. Shoulder and quad injuries have marred his once-promising career as he’s missed 12 of a possible 48 games the last three seasons. Conner isn’t a player to bet against considering his beaten cancer to get to this point in his career, but he’s unlikely to be signed as a bell-cow back heading into 2021.

Potential landing spot: Conner may not be able to find a starting job in free agency and he might have to settle for a top backup role next season. Chicago needs to find a competent backup behind David Montgomery after their depth was exposed after Tarik Cohen’s ACL injury. Las Vegas could also be in the market for a top backup behind Josh Jacobs with Devontae Booker heading to free agency.

Duke Johnson (Hou, 28) — Dookie has been one of the league’s best passing backs since he broke into the league with the Browns in 2015. His role has rarely extended past his receiving duties despite the pleas from the fantasy football community, and he’ll likely be pursued only as a receiver in free agency this off-season after the Texans cut him in February. Dookie posted 28/249/1 receiving and 77/235/1 rushing for 86.4 FP while playing 51% of the snaps in 11 games. Johnson previously posted 44+ catches and 410+ receiving yards in each of his first five seasons in the league, and he owns a 4.2 YPC average mainly as a change-of-ace runner. Dookie will be one of the more desirable complementary backs on the market this off-season.

Potential landing spot: Duke could receive some interest from Bill Belichick and the Patriots this off-season since the passing-back roles in their backfield are cloudy heading into free agency. James White could leave New England in free agency and Rex Burkhead will be recovering from a torn ACL this off-season. The Patriots certainly coveted receiving backs during Tom Brady’s tenure and they’ll be looking to upgrade at quarterback this off-season.

Todd Gurley (Atl, 27) — Gurley will be just 27 years old next season but he looked older than fellow free agents Frank Gore (38) and Adrian Peterson (36) last season. Gurley got off to a lucky start last season with nine touchdowns in his first nine games despite averaging just 3.7 YPC with just 79 receiving yards. The wheels fell off in the final eight weeks of the season, though, as he totaled just 94 rushing yards and 85 receiving yards without a touchdown in his final six games. GROSS. Gurley is completely lacking in lateral agility and one-cut explosiveness, which were once hallmarks of his game before knee injuries sapped his ability. He can no longer be considered as a team’s lead back and it’s debatable he even has enough left in the tank to be a solid backup.

Le’Veon Bell (KC, 29) — Bell seems to have something left in the tank, but certainly not enough for the Chiefs to play him in the postseason. The Jets cut him after Week 5, and the Chiefs signed him. He became a fantasy annoyance more than anything else, posting just 63/254/2 (4.0 YPC) rushing and 13/99 receiving on 17 targets in nine games with Kansas City. Bell had zero finishes as a top-12 RB on the year and just two as a top-24 RB. And the Chiefs didn’t even use him in the Super Bowl, where he received exactly 0 touches. Bell should find some interest, but the issue is his expectations for his role might not be commensurate with how teams view him now. It’s not a guarantee he won’t ever be fantasy-relevant again, but he has an uphill climb to be so.

Wayne Gallman (NYG, 27) — Gallman had a strong season with the Giants at the right time. Filling in for an injured Saquon Barkley, Gallman posted 147/682/6 (4.6 YPC) and 21/114 receiving on 27 targets. The Giants initially didn’t want to give the reins in the backfield to Gallman — they tried Dion Lewis and signed Devonta Freeman — but Gallman outplayed all comers. His first start came in Week 8, and from that point forward he averaged 11.7 FPG. Over those nine games, he finished as a top-24 RB five times, including three times as a top-12 RB. So while he wasn’t a game-changer, he was a good fantasy fill-in on a bad offense. Gallman is easy to like — he’s a hard-charging runner who is a good blocker and decent receiver. However, he hasn’t played special teams since early in the 2019 season, and if he wants to land a multi-year deal as a backup somewhere, that probably needs to be part of the equation. His best fit might be re-signing with the Giants and giving New York some solid insurance behind the rehabbing Barkley.

Adrian Peterson (Det, 36) — Peterson still wants to play, and he’s still reasonably effective as a grinder and — according to D’Andre Swift — a mentor. In 16 games with the Lions last year, Peterson made 10 starts and posted 156/604/7 (3.8 YPC) rushing and 12/101 receiving. He finished as a top-12 RB twice and was very touchdown-dependent in terms of fantasy relevance, and I doubt that will change going forward. Swift wants the rebuilding Lions to re-sign Peterson but, much like with Frank Gore, it depends on what Peterson’s motivations are. If he wants to get the most carries and continue to pursue Emmitt Smith’s rushing record (however futile that exercise is, given he’s about 3500 yards shy), perhaps re-signing with the Lions is best. If he wants to pursue a championship, each of the other 31 franchises likely gives him a better chance.

Frank Gore (NYJ, 38) — There doesn’t seem to be any indication Gore is ready to retire despite the fact he turns 38 in May. But the question is if he’ll sign with a good team this off-season — he’s already expressed interest in returning to the 49ers. Gore is way past the time of fantasy viability. With the Jets in 2020, he posted 187/653/2 (3.5 YPC) in 15 games, missing the final game with a lung contusion. He’s averaged under 4.0 YPC in five of his last six seasons after doing so exactly zero times in his first 10 seasons. He hasn’t caught more than 20 passes in a season since 2017. So if Gore signs somewhere, like with the 49ers, it’ll be as a veteran mentor as he slightly pads his Hall-of-Fame resume.

Jerick McKinnon (SF, 29) — McKinnon finally debuted with the 49ers after missing the first two seasons of his three-year contract with knee injuries. And overall, I thought he acquitted himself well, playing all 16 games and posting 81/319/5 as a runner and 33/253/1 as a receiver. Overall, his average was just 7.9 FPG in 16 games. But in the four games he “started” in a banged-up 49ers backfield, his average was 15.2 FPG, which by comparison was the same number Ezekiel Elliott averaged. Of course, McKinnon fell out of favor with coaches, losing carries to guys like Jeff Wilson at points throughout the season. He did at least pick up more and more special teams snaps throughout the season, and most importantly stayed healthy as he tries to continue his career. His versatility should draw some interest from clubs.

Chris Thompson (Jax, 31) — One of the most accomplished receiving backs in the NFL, Thompson nonetheless has failed to produce as much as his talent would indicate because of constant back issues dating back to his time in college. He played in just eight games in 2020 before landing on IR with the back injury, and he hasn’t played more than 11 games in a season since 2016. Thompson also hasn’t played special teams on even a semi-regular basis since 2017, so if he decides he wants to continue playing, he’s going to have to get healthy and find his way onto a roster as a receiving specialist. He has 232 catches in 74 career games.

Jordan Howard (Phi, 26) — Howard had an abysmal 2020 season after signing with Miami. While he scored 4 TD in 5 games, he posted just 33 yards rushing on 28 carries and lost 3 yards on a single reception. He fared better in a return to Philadelphia, but still ended the season on the practice squad. Howard is still young, but his motivation seems inconsistent and he’s not dynamic enough to play lackadaisically.

Devonta Freeman (Buf, 29) — Raise your hand if you remember Freeman signing with the Bills in January, because I didn’t. It’s just an extreme example of how boring his 2020 season was. Freeman didn’t sign with a team until an opportunity presented itself a few weeks into the year, when the Giants’ Saquon Barkley tore his ACL. But Freeman averaged a career-low 3.2 YPC in five games on 54 carries before an ankle injury effectively ended his season — Wayne Gallman and Alfred Morris were simply more effective than Freeman. The Giants cut him in January and the Bills picked him up for their playoff run, with Zack Moss suffering an ankle injury of his own.

DeAndre Washington (Mia, 28) — Washington had a pretty rough 2020 season. He signed a one-year deal with the Chiefs in April, and was a popular late-round fantasy pick when Damien Williams opted out due to COVID-19. But the Chiefs cut him in early September, and he spent most of his time in Kansas City on the practice squad. At the trade deadline, he was sent to Miami in a late-round pick swap, but posted just 28/86 rushing (3.1 YPC) and 4/28 receiving in three games. Washington is a capable receiver and can play special teams, but he hasn’t averaged more than 3.8 YPC since his rookie season in 2016. He’s a #3 RB, at best.

Rex Burkhead (NE, 31) — Burkhead has an uphill climb to find work. While he’s been a generally productive back — 6 TDs in 10 games in 2020 — who can play on third downs and on special teams, he’s entering his age-31 season and is coming off a serious knee injury that required surgery. Burkhead is well regarded in New England’s running-back room, so that might be his best chance of continuing to play, but he’s on the “one-year deal” portion of his career.

LeSean McCoy (TB, 33) — “Shady” has had it pretty good the last two years, though I bet he has some FOMO — he’s won the last two Super Bowls without recording a single carry in the playoffs for either the Chiefs or the Buccaneers. Those two good teams have decided he’s cooked, so it’s hard to imagine there’s much work available to him on the open market. My guess? He signs with the Eagles … to retire as a member of the franchise.

Other UFAs

Corey Clement (Phi, 27)

Alfred Morris (NYG, 33)

Tyler Ervin (GB, 28)

Dion Lewis (NYG, 31)

Brian Hill (Atl, 26)

DJ Foster (Ari, 28)

TJ Yeldon (Buf, 28)

Dwayne Washington (NO, 27)

Senorise Perry (Ten, 30)

Kenjon Barner (TB, 32)

TJ Logan (TB, 27)

Michael Burton (NO, 29) — Fullback.

Restricted Free Agents

Free Agency information courtesy of OverTheCap.com

Previously Fantasy Relevant

Gus Edwards (Bal, 26) — Given Edwards is a restricted free agent and the Ravens are already moving on from Mark Ingram, it’d be a shock if they didn’t bring him back in 2021. Yes, I fully anticipate that JK Dobbins will be their lead runner in 2021, but Edwards led the Ravens in carries in 2020, and OC Greg Roman has very much enjoyed deploying a RBBC the last two seasons. A fan-favorite grinder, Edwards has run for 711 to 723 yards in each of his three NFL seasons, and his 144/723/6 on the ground were all career highs in 2020. Expect him to return to pair with Dobbins in one of the NFL’s most run-heavy offenses — whether on the RFA tender or via extension.

Kalen Ballage (LAC, 26) — Ballage had a few moments with the Chargers in 2020, as Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson dealt with injuries and Joshua Kelley fell out of favor. But ultimately, the “best” season of his career is only such because we grade him on a curve based on his awful earlier performances. In 11 games with the Jets and Chargers, Ballage posted 91/303/3 rushing (3.3 YPC) and 29/166 receiving. His career YPC stands at 3.1 on 201 rushes. That’s sub replacement level, and the Chargers aren’t likely to tender Ballage at anything but the lowest number.

Other RFAs

Dare Ogunbowale (Jax, 27) — Ogunbowale is an exclusive-rights free agent.

D’Onta Foreman (Ten, 25)

Ryan Nall (Chi, 26) — Nall is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Patrick Carr (Sea, 26) — Carr is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Khari Blasingame (Ten, 25) — Fullback. Blasingame is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.

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