2021 Free Agency Primer: Running Backs
Hello everyone, I have been in and around Walt’s site spouting my opinions on everything between mock drafts to preseason team summaries to other opinionated pieces that are able to be had on his site. Now I will dip my toes into what could be a very unique offseason that sees a lot of big names hitting the open market. However, I am not sure you really want to be a free agent this offseason with the salary cap going down and many teams already in bad situations in that department. If you are a free agent looking to get a big deal it might be hard to find. In any case, in the Free Agency Primers to come over the next week or so I will go over who I think are “The Best Ones, the Busts, and the Sleepers” of each position. So without further adieu, here we go!
Bust: Todd Gurley
I never understand the NFL media and fans not able to let guys go. It’s like they have beer goggles when looking at formerly big name players like Todd Gurley. He has been past his prime the past 3 seasons and has been nowhere as good as his breakout seasons in LA. It seemed like it was a switch and it’s unfortunate how quickly it unraveled for him, but so is the life of a running back in the NFL. Atlanta tried to get a buy low talent in Gurley to help out their rushing attack, but clearly it was Fool’s Gold. I can see another team giving it a try just to have a household name on their roster. However, I worry his name brand will whip up a fanbase wanting to see him play, which will block a better and younger back who should be playing.
Sleeper: Jamaal Williams
I know Aaron Jones gets more of the hype between the two backs in Green Bay, but I think Williams is the sleeper back of the two. He had to sit behind and watch Jones get most of the carries for Green Bay’s offense. While I think Williams is the more dynamic pass catcher who has a little more wiggle and speed to break off big gains. He is the fresher back of the two having sat behind the workhorse Jones and could probably be had on a cheaper contract. I would like to see what he could do when he is the sole possessor of the starting role.
Best: James White
I think we all know White is most likely on a shortlist of players that Brady wants on his offense next season. For good reason he is a dynamic pass catching back out of the back field and with his lower mileage as a pass catcher he should have more mileage left on his tires. Obviously he is not a go to between the tackles back or a bell cow back to rely on. However, I can see him having a similar career to Darren Sproles who continued to play into his 30s thanks to his ability to block and catch passes. White does have some injuries to worry about, but he is one of the safer backs who could probably be had on a reasonable contract.
Bust: Leonard Fournette
Fournette landed pretty much in the only location where he could have resuscitated his career and it sort of worked. He was a key part to the Bucs Super Bowl win and down the stretch in the playoffs with his timely running and long touchdowns. Fournette has always had the talent to be a dynamic running back ever since his days at LSU. However, it never seems like he wants to be the best player out there or put in the work each week to be one of the best backs. Watching him it always feels like I want more out of him and often leaves a lot to be desired on the field. His hands are also a little shoddy, oftentimes drawing the ire of Tom Brady with all the drops he had last year. A team will probably want to sign him to a big deal after his performance in the playoffs, but I can see him mailing it in once he gets a big paycheck.
Sleeper: Kallen Ballage
Ballage I think has bounced around in the league a bit due to his immaturity and some off field issues. However, when healthy he has proven to be a solid back to lean on for both of his teams last year. The Dolphins brought him in as an emergency back and ran pretty well for them. Then with the Chargers after Miami let him go he emerged as a better back at times than Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, or Joshua Kelley. He could probably be had on a cheaper deal due to his lack of starting production or consistency to stay on one team. I would love to see him on a team like Chicago, Washington, or either New York team where he could be a key back up and spot starter if the starter goes down. I would not be surprised if he earns a starting gig at some point this offseason.
Best: Aaron Jones
I worry about Jones’ health over the past few years missing games due to nagging injuries. However, in a league where it’s hard to get big second contracts as a running back I can see Jones getting paid at some point this offseason. That could possibly push him into the bust bracket if he gets overpaid, but I think if a team gives him an appropriate price tag he could be a nice back to lean on. He is the bigger and stronger back between him and Jamaal Williams. Jones is also a pretty good pass catcher in his own right flashing a lot of talent in the open field. I can see him being a good fit in a lot of places like Arizona, Seattle, Miami, the Jets, and Denver could all use a talent like him in their backfield.
Bust: James Conner
I am not an emotional type who hangs onto a feel good story too long in sports. One that I think has expired a bit to me has been James Conner, but he will always get more publicity due to him beating cancer. Which is an amazing feat that no one can scoff at, but in terms of football I do not think it’s good enough to just pay him over a nice story. Outside of one very solid year not missing any games, Conner has been too often sidelined to be relied on as a full time every down back. He is also not that strong in the passing game, which is a big must in today’s NFL to keep defenses honest. When Conner is out there on his own you can almost leave him alone if he goes out for a pass. I would not hand him the big contract some think he deserves and will get very overhyped up by the media.
Sleeper: Mark Ingram
Is a former Heisman winning running back a sleeper? I think after the way Baltimore just cast him aside he might be. After already landing a big deal with the Ravens he might be willing to take a more reasonable deal this time around on the open market. While he might not be a bell cow back anymore like he once was he could still be a very valuable goal line back who can be an ideal asset in the short yardage situations. He still has the elusiveness and speed to break big gains as well. I am not sure he is ever going to be an every down starter like he once was, but as a back up he could be an ideal back to take the load off the starters shoulders. Ideal spots could be with the Giants, Rams, Bucs, and the Panthers who all have established, but oft-injured starters.
Bust: Chris Carson
When healthy he is a terrific back, but health has always been an issue for him up in Seattle. He has never been able to put a full season of work together and would always let down Seattle’s offense when he went out. Without him their offense became extremely unbalanced and they were never able to establish the run as well without him. Just on that merit alone he is one of the better backs to hit the open market with his ability to be a dynamic back in the open field and breaking off big gains. However, if a team over pays for his services on a hope he can stay healthy for a full season they will be carrying a pretty bad contract on their roster.
Sleeper: Marlon Mack
Mack is in a similar boat as Conner and Carson as a back who is hard to rely on to stay healthy. However, he is more under the radar back to those two and could be had on a cheaper deal if played right. He is also a better pass catcher than both Carson or Conner. I could see him being had on a cheaper deal just to latch on with a contending team or be willing to take a back up role as a key rotational back. I always thought his size would limit him as an every down back despite the Colts trying hard to make him one. However, as a backup with 10-15 touches a game is right where he can succeed.