With the Super Bowl decided and the NFL Draft set for mid-April, plenty of NFL teams are wondering if free agency can solve their problems, especially in the back field. With some pretty big names available, NFL teams may not need to draft their running back, but instead may find someone looking for a new home or a restart for their career.
For the players, there are plenty of reasons to hit the open market. For many, their days as the starter are over and they are just looking to stay in the league and make as much money as they can while they are still able to run. Life spans for NFL running backs are amongst the shortest in the league (usually around five years) so even getting a back up role is a good pay day for veteran runners.
The running back position has seen a resurgence as of late, as the league went pass heavy a few years back. It is returning to the ground game and a mixed style where running backs are playing a vital role in both the passing and running game. With a heavy number of running backs available and more on the way through the NFL Draft, it’s very likely that many of them are going to find new homes. Here are 15 we think will find playing time next season, whether that would be as a back up, starter, or as part of a time share program with another back.
15 Frank Gore: Chicago Bears
Frank Gore’s three year stint with the Indianapolis Colts has come to an end, and he isn’t about to head back to the San Francisco 49ers where he spent the first 10 years of his career as the team's starting running back. He still holds team records in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. At 34-years-old, Gore is still able to put up nearly 1,000 yards on the ground, as he did once in three years with the Colts, while the other two years he was just shy of breaking 1,000.
Chicago could be a good home for Gore, who still has something to offer, but whose days are gone from being a starter.
Behind Jordon Howard and Tarik Cohen, Gore doesn’t need to be the feature back, but he can contribute to a three-headed beast.
14 LeGarrette Blount: Carolina Panthers
LeGarrette Blount has the distinction of being one of the few players to win back-to-back Super Bowls with two different teams. In 2016, as part of the New England Patriots, Blount had a team high 18 touchdowns, en route to a win in Super Bowl LI. He then signed with the Philadelphia Eagles where he scored two touchdowns and rushed for 766 yards in a three back system most of the year.
Blount may not be able to be a starter, but he can still bull over the line and score.
He should look to Carolina, who could use a power back for their goal line stands, as well as a big body who could block for Cam Newton, and rush up the middle for some trench yards.
13 Jamaal Charles: Washington Redskins
With a career average of 5.5 yards per carry, Jamaal Charles is the all-time leader in NFL history in that category. After nine seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was one of the leagues premier running backs, Charles moved on to Denver where he played more of a supporting role behind CJ Anderson. He didn’t start a game and managed just 296 yards on 69 carries, so clearly the Broncos aren’t seeing Charles as an option. Charles should look at the Washington Redskins, who have a pass catching back in Chris Thompson, and could use a back who could eat up some yards on the ground to keep Thompson away from the trench and injuries. Even as a back up, Charles was averaging 4.3 yards per carry last season, so he still has something to offer.
12 Darren Sproles: Arizona Cardinals
Darren Sproles has had a lengthy career since entering the NFL back in 2007 with the San Diego Chargers. But he has always been behind the starter or in a split back situation, as was the case in San Diego, New Orleans, and then with Philadelphia, where Sproles was a part of the Super Bowl winning Eagles despite being injured most of the season. With over 4,600 yards catching and 3,300 on the ground, Sproles is a dual threat running back who is a check down option who can chew up some yards. Arizona has gone through plenty of running backs as of late, and while Sproles isn’t a long-term fix, he’s still able to carry yards if given the ball.
11 Eddie Lacy: Buffalo Bills
Eddie Lacy was more effective when he was heavier, but entered Seattle at 250lbs. In eight games with the Seahawks, the former Green Bay Packers running back rushed for just 176 yards, and for the second straight season didn’t reach the end zone.
Lacy isn’t a starting running back any more, so a perfect spot for him would be in Buffalo.
He would take the No. 2 spot behind LeSean McCoy, who could use a big frame on the goal line. Shady isn’t going to give up his No. 1 spot, and Lacy doesn’t have options to be a starter again, so settle in behind one of the leagues elite and vulture touchdowns when you can to the boo’s of McCoy fantasy football owners everywhere.
10 Shane Vereen: New England Patriots
Sometimes, you just need to go back to where you started. Shane Vereen has played the last three seasons with the New York Giants, where he was barely used as a passing down back. But considering Vereen once made 11 catches for 64 yards in Super Bowl XLIX with New England, earning a championship ring, perhaps he should return to where he had his most successful run as a running back and hook up with Tom Brady who could use another target from the back field. He had over 400 yards in his last two seasons in New England, and scored three touchdowns as well. Considering the Patriots can make even average players look great, Brady could make Vereen look like the league’s best running back if he wanted to.
9 Alfred Morris: Seattle Seahawks
After four seasons with the Washington Redskins where he was the starting running back, Alfred Morris moved to Dallas and played third string at one point, before moving up to the starting job due to Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension to start the season. Elliott is the clear future of the Cowboys back field.
Morris could stick around and hope that Elliott acts up again or gets injured, but there is no chance in him taking over the No. 1 spot full time.
It may be time for Morris to move to Seattle and reclaim a starting role. He managed 547 yards last season on 115 carries, tying a career high 4.8 yards per run. He is clearly still capable of gaining ground, he just needs more touches to be effective.
8 Dion Lewis: San Francisco 49ers
Dion Lewis has his Super Bowl ring from his time with the New England Patriots, and has been in the past two Super Bowls. Lewis has some experience getting to the big game. He also had his best season last year, rushing for 896 yards while adding another 216 through the air and scoring nine touchdowns. All those are career bests for Lewis, who has also had stints with Philadelphia, Cleveland and Indianapolis. But now Lewis is ready to take on a true No. 1 role, and San Francisco could be that location, considering they are losing their top running back as well. Lewis could, however, fall under that line of players who is only good in the Patriots system and with Tom Brady at quarterback. Coming off his best year, his stock has never been better to get a deal done with the 49ers as their new starter.
7 Isaiah Crowell: Minnesota Vikings
Isaiah Crowell could not be happier to leave Cleveland after they went 0-16 last year. In four seasons in Cleveland, Crowell has rushed for over 3,100 yards, scored 21 touchdowns and added 770 yards receiving. He has yet to top the 1,000 yard rushing mark, although, he has had over 1,000 yards combined the last two seasons. And, he played for the Browns, so it wasn’t like he was getting much help. So trade with McKinnon and head to the Vikings, where Crowell would become the starter and have a much better offence to work with than he ever had in Cleveland. No rotating quarterbacks, unless one gets hurt again, and he could easily set Latavius Murray back to the second string spot and become a real running power in the NFL.
6 Thomas Rawls: Detroit Lions
Thomas Rawls has seen his attempts decline the past three seasons, and has always been in a share program, as well as battling injuries. Last year he had just 157 yards on 58 carries, his lowest career totals so far, and never found the end zone. It’s debatable whether Rawls can be a starting running back in the NFL, so a move to Detroit could put him in a familiar role he had in Seattle, but with defences he could chew up yards against. At this point, Rawls will have to hope for a shared role to get his career back on track, as he started duties in Seattle and didn’t give many NFL teams confidence that he should be the feature back for them going forward.
5 Jeremy Hill: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jeremy Hill was the starting running back in Cincinnati, but always had to contend for touches with Giovani Bernard, who had more of a 1A and 1B type partnership with Hill. Enter Joe Mixon, and now the Bengals have three running backs, and Hill is on the open market. He is still capable of being a starter, but needs the role to himself, so he could end up in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs have little faith left in Doug Martin as a starter, and lost Charles Sims to free agency as well. Hill's injury short season last year could turn some teams off, or the Bucs could look at 2016 where he had 839 yards and nine touchdowns on 222 carries. Not bad for a split back.
4 Jerick McKinnon: Cleveland Browns
After Adrian Peterson left the Minnesota Vikings, Jerick McKinnon was supposed to lead the back field for the purple men. But that never happened, as McKinnon always found himself in a shared role, despite being given ample amount of chances to be the team's starter. Between Matt Asiata and Latavius Murray, McKinnon wasn’t given 100 percent confidence that he could carry the full load. So a trip to Cleveland could be the prime destination for McKinnon, who would have to contend with Duke Johnson Jr for passing down touches, but would become the primary runner, although, on the league’s worst team. That might not be the greatest landing spot, but if you want to be the true starter sometimes you have to go where the spots are open, and the Browns are open.
3 Carlos Hyde: New York Giants
The New York Giants need a starting running back now more than ever. Considering quarterback Eli Manning is on his last run, the committee approach by the Giants just isn’t going to work when they put a new quarterback under centre. As the starter in San Francisco, Hyde has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards the last two seasons, and has scored eight touchdowns. At 27-years-old, he still has more to give, and the Giants are going to need someone who can play starting back minutes, especially considering they have lost pretty frequently with their committee and need to restock the back field for next season. Not to also mention that last season Hyde caught 57 passes for 350 yards, showing he is a dual threat from the back field.
2 Rex Burkhead: New Orleans Saints
In five seasons in the NFL, Rex Burkhead has turned into a jack-of-all-trades, but has truly mastered none. Drafted in the sixth round by Cincinnati, Burkhead spent four seasons with the Bengals before spending last year with the New England Patriots, where he nearly won a Super Bowl. The 27-year-old has just eight career rushing touchdowns, and half that while receiving, while he has managed 639 yards on the ground and 542 through the air. His claim to fame so far is being the first player since 1977 to catch a touchdown and block a punt. With his contract up, New Orleans would be a good spot for Burkhead. He wouldn’t take over for Mark Ingram, but could find a nice back up role where he would be the predominate pass catching back.
1 Le’Veon Bell: Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell may be the best running back in the NFL for the past two seasons, and has put up over 1,200 yards each of the last two years, along with seven and nine touchdowns in each season. In five years in Pittsburgh, Bell has over 3,500 yards on the ground, another 2,600 through the air, and a total of 42 touchdowns. He simply is one of the best and the Pittsburgh Steelers know that. They will definitely want to keep him in their back field for the future. There is some rumour that if the Steelers put a franchise tag on Bell that he will retire, but the Steelers should be thinking long term with their star running back, and offer him an extension for the future. So much of the offence runs through him, so he needs to be locked up.