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Antonio D'Arcangelis | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Top 6 Free Agent Running Backs for 2018: Best-Case Scenario

With free agency less than two weeks away let’s take a look each skill position and highlight some of the biggest names available. I’ll match each player with a team that I think would be a best-case scenario for his fantasy value in 2018. I’ve already discussed the tight ends and wide receivers. Up next are the Running Backs.

Jerick McKinnon

McKinnon is looking for an opportunity to be an every-down back. The Giants seem like a perfect fit.

1. Le’Veon Bell

Bell has played all 16 games in just one of his five seasons in the NFL, the missing 18 games the result of suspensions and/or injuries. But the 25-year-old has been so effective when he is on the field (he’s amassed almost 9,000 yards from scrimmage and 45 TDs in 62 career games), that he’ll undoubtedly find a buffet of lucrative options on the open market. He played on a $12.1 million franchise tag in 2017, and that number is projected to increase to around $14.5 million for next season. But Bell has said that he’ll sit out a season – or even retire – if he’s his smacked with the franchise tag… then changed his tune, stating he wouldn’t hold out.

Best Fit: Steelers

When asked if the Steelers could reach an agreement with Bell before the March 6 NFL franchise tag deadline, Kevin Colbert said, “We hope so.” And last July, Bell turned down a long-term contract that reports said was worth up to $30 million in the first two years – because he felt the team didn't value his full skill set. But cooler heads, if not greedier ones, should prevail in this case. The Steelers have no really good reason to move on from Bell, and the dynamic back’s skills seem to be essential to the quick-hitting, efficient offensive attack that makes the Steelers so dangerous.

Other possibilities: Lions, Bucs, Patriots, Browns

2. Jerick McKinnon

McKinnon is tired of playing second-fiddle in Minnesota – blocked from exceeding much more than 150 rushing attempts and the majority of snaps during his time there. He told ESPN in January that he wants “to be the guy” and is looking forward to “bigger and better things for myself.” But with Dalvin Cook set to return from an ACL injury and Latavius Murray under contract for a couple more seasons, he’s not going to find his happy place with the 2018 Vikings. Teams like the Browns, Bucs, Jets and Dolphins will all be looking for backs in free agency, but there’s one team that makes a perfect fit.

Best Fit: Giants

With former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur headed to New York as the Giants new head coach, it’s easy to picture McKinnon tagging along. The Giants are in desperate need of a back with McKinnon’s skill set and talents, as well as someone who fits into the vision of the coaching staff – a problem that’s plagued their running game for several seasons. The G-Men ranked just 26th in rushing in 2017 (96.8 ypg) and could use McKinnon’s speed and sensibilities to give the passing game a little more breathing room. The Giants don’t have anybody who’s a clear-cut option better than McKinnon, so if he’s looking for a fair shot at playing time in 2018, he should just hitch his wagon to Shurmer, who’ll be calling the plays. At 5-9, 205, I doubt he’ll ever be a workhorse, but those are rare these days anyway. But cracking 200 carries and posting 50-60 catches a season is realistic for McKinnon, who’ll be 26 in May.

Other possibilities: Bucs, Browns, Dolphins, Jets

3. Dion Lewis

I’m a huge fan of Lewis, but I’m from the Capital Region in New York State, and there aren’t a lot of NFL running backs that Albany can call its own. Lewis has had a bizarre, tumultuous career thus far, culminating in last season’s breakout for the Pats. While the shifty 27-year-old back has spent the last three seasons in New England, he was limited in his first two years after tearing his ACL midway through 2015 and spending much of 2016 rehabbing.

His career started in Philadelphia. After failing to find much playing time as a fifth-round pick for the Eagles in 2011, he spent some time with the Browns (fractured fibula) and Colts (seven days in 2014). But this past season, he played all 16 games for the first time in his career and finished with 896 rushing yards and six TDs.

Best Fit: Jets

Lewis is a veteran back without a ton of miles on his legs, and he’s probably just what the Jets are looking for in terms of upside and effectiveness. They’ll have plenty of competition, since no fewer than seven teams have expressed an interest in pursuing his talents. And while New Jersey isn’t really home (he was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Albany), he went to Blair Academy prep school in rural New Jersey and led their football team to a Prep state title. The Jets don’t currently have a playmaker running back of his caliber, and they are most likely looking at a committee of sorts, where Lewis could fit quite well, chipping in on special teams if needed.

Other possibilities: Texans, 49ers, Colts, Raiders

4. Carlos Hyde

Hyde is a tough, elusive back who has been hindered in San Francisco on a team without clear leadership and vision, and while the tide is turning for the Niners, the future is still up in the air since they have a host of notable free agents and have bad negotiators handling their contract discussions. Hyde did have his best season in 2017, when he rushed for 940 yards and eight TDs, hauling in 59-350-0 receiving. Looking at some of the analytics gives us a more robust picture, including these tidbits:

Hyde forced a missed tackle every 5.3 rushes in 2017, 11th best among eligible RBs.

He was not tackled on 28.3 percent of times an opposing player first contacted him.

Best Fit: Lions

I get the feeling that Hyde is looking for a change of scenery, and that the Niners are fine moving forward with UDFA Matt Breida and Joe Williams, who is fully recovered from the ankle injury that cost him his rookie season. The Niners didn't seem all that committed to Hyde throughout coach Kyle Shanahan's first year in charge, and the narrative shows us that Hyde consistently lost crucial reps to Breida, and his receiving numbers really fell off once Jimmy Garoppolo took over. I don’t think the current talks are in earnest.

The Lions, on the other hand, have their own versions of disappointment to look at among their current depth chart and need a change. Hyde’s not going to cost a bundle, so they can sign him for a fraction of the bigger names on the free agent list, and he’s going to be an improvement on Ameer Abdullah and company.

Other possibilities: Jets, Colts, Raiders, Dolphins

5. Isaiah Crowell

It’s unlikely Crowell will remain in Cleveland and he’s probably looking at a decent payday somewhere. He’s played well despite being on a pitiful team (3,888 total yards from scrimmage and 22 TDs over four seasons in only 45 career starts). He’s a grinder-type of back who can shoulder a big workload, and he’s entering his age-25 season. What makes him a favorable target is how much mileage he has left. Over four seasons in the league, Crowell has been in the 140-210 carry range, considerably lower than other bell-cow backs (LeSean McCoy, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley) and he’s still entering his prime.

Best Fit: Dolphins

Pairing a back like Crowell with talented speedster Kenyan Drake would allow Miami to keep both runners fresh and maximize their abilities on the field. A lot of the landing spots of Crowell and the other backs like him will depend on negotiations and interviews – where they can hash out their visions for the offense and the convoluted roles on the modern NFL running back. If the Patriots decide not to give Mike Gillislee another shot, Crowell could make a great fit in New England, who have a slew of RBs (Bell, Bilal Powell, Charles Sims) on their radar.

Other possibilities: Panthers, Giants, Jets, Bucs

6. Doug Martin

The Bucs were a team in distress last season, finishing 27th in the NFL by averaging only 90.6 yards rushing per game and Martin was a big part of the problem. He failed to rush for 500 yards for the fourth time in five seasons, and was suspended for the first three games (the remainder of an earlier suspension he incurred when dealing with substance abuse issues and a rehab stint). But Martin’s problems continued, as he was made inactive for another game for violating team rules, which Bucs GM Jason Licht addressed after the season was over:

“I think the lack of, or having a hard time getting the run game going was…you know, Doug just didn't have…he just wasn't ever the same,'” Licht said during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “And it wasn't until late that Peyton (Barber) kind of arrived and things started going a little bit better with him, starting with the Green Bay game and on and on.”

Best Fit: Packers

Tampa Bay saved $6.75 million against the cap releasing Martin, who was an All-Pro as recently as 2015. He’s a veteran back looking for a quiet rebuild to his career and the opportunity to contribute to a contender while ushering in the next generation of talent. So why not Green Bay? The Packers are a running-back needy team and they could easily sign him to a one-year, incentive-laden deal if he’s truly looking to hit the reset button. There probably won’t be too many teams anxious to sign Martin, and the prospect of a long-term deal is minimal. But the opportunity for him to prove himself in a new setting is there, and the Packers could be a great landing spot.

Other possibilities: Giants, Rams, Titans, Ravens, Patriots