The Running Back landscape for 2021
Unlike the usually stable quarterback market, running back has always had significant movement every season. Teams are not keen to spend a lot on the position unless their offense does not work without them. With injuries frequent, turnover is high.
Let us look at how each team is affected by the upcoming free agent pool and NFL draft and attempt to foresee what will happen over the coming months.
The Free Agent pool will be strong with Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake, Chris Carson, Mike Davis, James Conner, Todd Gurley, Wayne Gallman, Gus Edwards, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Williams, James White, Malcom Brown, Rex Burkhead, Frank Gore, Mark Ingram II, Tevin Coleman, Carlos Hyde, Le'Veon Bell, Marlon Mack among others available.
We will start by eliminating discussion on the teams set at the position and unlikely to cut a significant player, sign a free agent or draft an elite prospect.
Cleveland - Nick Chubb heads into the final year of his rookie deal. He may even attract an extension. Kareem Hunt should stay but would save the team 3.5 million on the salary cap if there is an issue.
Dallas - Ezekiel Elliott will be looking to rebound in 2021. His contract is difficult to escape from for the next two seasons. Tony Pollard is on a cheap rookie deal for the next two years and provides more than adequate depth.
Indianapolis - Jonathan Taylor developed well over his rookie season. Nyheim Hines provides a spark. Even a depth option such as Jordan Wilkins is inexpensive. Marlon Mack will now be a free agent after missing 2020.
Kansas City - Clyde Edwards-Helaire may not be an every-down back, especially here, but he is explosive and with Damien Williams back from a year off, the Chiefs will only need to fill the bottom of the depth chart.
Los Angeles Chargers - You can never tell what a new coaching staff will do, but with Austin Ekeler as the starter, he is almost certain to be the main guy. Inexpensive depth options such as Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson provide relief. The team may improve their depth, but it depends on their priorities.
Los Angeles Rams - Cam Akers came on nicely as the season progressed and is likely to share the workload with Darrell Henderson, also on a cheap rookie deal. Again the Rams could add a runner, but it seems illogical given their other needs.
Minnesota - Dalvin Cook and his new deal will not be going anywhere. There were times last year he looked like the best back in the league. Alexander Mattison is a cheap quality depth option that can start if required.
The next group of teams are where we have a clear starter or committee in place, where a depth option is a serious consideration.
Baltimore - The performance of J.K. Dobbins proved Mark Ingram II expendable. With Gus Edwards hitting free agency, Dobbins will need help as the running game is crucial to Baltimore’s success. Edwards may return if he doesn’t find an alternate suitor. I would expect Baltimore to wait for a free agent to get desperate and sign on the cheap.
Carolina - Christian McCaffrey missed too many games in 2020. Mike Davis filled in admirably, but he is now a free agent. His best option would be to return. His Chicago experience proved he isn’t suited to every team. Carolina may look elsewhere if his demands are excessive.
Chicago - David Montgomery finally lived up to expectations and should be the clear starter. Tarik Cohen will be back from injury to fulfil his utility role, but the Bears need better depth if Montgomery wears down or is injured. With the quality of free agents, I expect the team to look there rather than the draft.
Cincinnati - Joe Mixon will be keen to earn his contract in 2021, but behind him is a lottery. Giovani Bernard is in the final year of his contract, but the team saves over $4 million by cutting him. The Bengals will look to get or continue to use cheap options to support Mixon. Probably in the draft, but an inexpensive free agent will be an option.
Detroit - A new coaching group makes D'Andre Swift an unknown commodity in 2021. I suspect that Swift is the lead running back but will primarily excel as a receiver. Kerryon Johnson is still under contract but had few opportunities in 2020. Adrian Peterson led the team in carries, but the Lions are likely to get younger for the lead ball carrier.
Jacksonville - James Robinson was a revelation as an undrafted rookie free agent. A new coaching scheme and a desire to get their guys put his position at risk. The Jaguars lack depth. Both a free agent and a runner in the draft are possibilities. Robinson should start 2021 as the lead back no matter what, but I would be wary of what the Jaguars do here in the offseason.
Las Vegas Raiders - Behind Josh Jacobs, the depth with the Raiders needs a boost. Jalen Richard can be cut and save the team $3.5 million, while Devontae Booker is a free agent. Las Vegas has options but will be looking to go cheap.
New England - The Patriots will let James White and Rex Burkhead explore free agency, while Sony Michel and Damien Harris are likely to play out their rookie contracts. New England often carries five or more backs. While I wouldn’t expect any new arrivals to hit fantasy radars hard, their moves will still attract interest.
New Orleans - With New Orleans likely to have cap trouble, Latavius Murray is a prime candidate to be let go saving the team about $2.5 million. I would expect the Saints to draft a rookie to complement Alvin Kamara. Which round in the NFL draft the team jumps in will be interesting.
New York Giants - Saquon Barkley will return. The Giants will hope he can stay on the field. Wayne Gallman filled in well down the stretch but is a free agent. If Barkley continues to incur injuries, what the Giants do here will be worth watching.
San Francisco - The 49ers have done well with unknowns such as Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and previously Matt Breida. Pricey free agents such as Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon haven’t been as successful. Given the success of their undrafted free agent project, even Jamycal Hasty chipped in last year. They could add more this year. Or they could land another free agent that fits their scheme.
Tampa Bay - Leonard Fournette is unlikely to be back. Ronald Jones II will be in the final year of his rookie deal. Ke’Shawn Vaughn doesn’t look like the answer, but a proper training camp may get him into the picture. With another Super Bowl run likely, I expect a free agent to be signed.
Tennessee - With Derrick Henry approaching the 400 carry mark in 2020, the Titans need to help him before he wears down. Darrynton Evans was drafted high but was invisible. Jeremy McNichols came from nowhere to help out at the end of the season. Expect to see a signing in the offseason.
Washington - Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic are signed for 2021 but combined save the team $2.5 million combined if they are both released. Antonio Gibson will continue to develop as the starter on his cheap rookie deal, but what the team do to support him this year will be interesting.
Now we move on to teams that could do with improving their depth, but I suspect they stick with what they have got
Buffalo - Devin Singletary and Zach Moss shared the load in 2020, but neither looked capable of being the dominant ball carrier. With the rushing ability of Josh Allen, a legitimate ball carrier in the Buffalo backfield would make this team a multi-purpose threat. With Moss and Singletary on inexpensive rookie deals, investing in a free agent makes sense, but I do not expect this to happen.
Denver - Melvin Gordon III is the key here. If Denver keeps him, there will be no change. If they cut him, all options become open. A $6.5 million dead cap hit is not an easy ask, despite saving almost $2.5 million against the salary cap. Phillip Lindsay is a restricted free agent and expected back, and Royce Freeman is on the last year of his rookie deal. They need more out of their runners but will likely pass.
Green Bay - Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams hit free agency. The team doesn’t appear interested in bringing them back. A.J. Dillon looked great against the Titans in week 16 and will be let loose in 2021. The Packers may draft a late-round back. I expect this team, despite the need, to avoid a pricey free agent or high draft pick.
Philadelphia - Boston Scott and Corey Clement will go to free agency, while Miles Sanders does not get the touches you expect of a lead ball carrier. The Eagles may continue their success in grabbing late-round/undrafted free agents like Scott and Clement. Don’t expect a high draft pick. They also cannot afford a decent free agent to support Sanders
The last group of teams need a starter and maybe more.
Arizona - Kenyan Drake hits free agency. Chase Edmonds is in the last year of his rookie deal. The team will not rely on Edmonds to carry the load with high expectations for the team. Expect the Cardinals to either draft high or spend what they can in free agency to land a big name.
Atlanta - Todd Gurley and Brian Hill, the top two ball carriers last year, won’t return. Under a new coach, expect the team to develop a runner taken as high as the second or third round. A free agent is possible, but with limited cap space and so many needs, the money will be tight. Leonard Fournette has been the name most linked to the team.
Houston - Talk about a mess. Duke Johnson Jr was released. David Johnson was to follow, but a restructured contract saves him for now. What being the starter in Houston means in 2021 is an ugly question. There will be additions to this squad, but with a seeming lack of direction, it could be anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Miami - Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed were fantasy useful for their time as starters last year, but Miami has expectations to land a big-name free agent such as Aaron Jones. Whatever happens, this position on this team will be upgraded and be an early fantasy draft pick in 2021. A situation to monitor carefully.
New York Jets - Adam Gase and his 3.5 yards a carry Frank Gore led running game are gone. What happens here will have fantasy relevancy, but there will be so many unknowns heading into the season. History suggests the Jets will get it wrong and either draft a rookie too high or overspend on a free agent. Maybe the new leadership group changes this path.
Pittsburgh - The Steelers have taken a running back after more than 100 players were drafted for the last four years. The first of these players in James Conner hits free agency. With Pittsburgh likely to evolve beyond Ben Roethlisberger sooner rather than later and the other late-round picks untrusted to carry the load, what do they do? Higher in the draft or free agency? Maybe they draft another fourth-rounder?
Seattle - The Seahawks need a strong running game. With Chris Carson hitting free agency and Rashaad Penny unable to stay on the field, it remains a question what the team does in 2021. After spending a first-round pick on Penny a few years back, they may look to a better free agent instead after having limited success with Carlos Hyde and Mike Davis types