2018 NFL Free Agency: Le'Veon Bell leads a deep crop of free-agent running backs
The Steelers star is the big fish, but the Patriots' two best running backs are also on the market
The Super Bowl is over. That means free agency is coming right down the pike. In about a month, each of the NFL's 32 teams will attempt to remake their rosters so that one of them (the Eagles) can defend their championship and the other 31 can try to take it away from them. Over the next couple weeks, we'll be running free agency preview posts for every position group in the league. Below, we'll start by tackling an intriguing group of running backs.
Unrestricted Free Agents (36)
The highlight here is Le'Veon Bell, obviously. He's 25 years old and he's arguably the best running back in football. The Steelers likely want to work out a long-term solution with Bell, and that's what he wants as well. They just have wildly different ideas of what constitutes a fair price-point. If all else fails, the Steelers could use the franchise tag on Bell again, even if he's already said he doesn't want to play out another season on the tag. It seems unlikely that any team would want to surrender not only a deal sizable enough that the Steelers wouldn't want to match it, but the accompanying draft compensation as well. You never know, though.
Bell's not the only high-quality unrestricted free-agent on the market, obviously. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, who were the Patriots' two best running backs this season, are both available as well. The Pats routinely get quality players to take below-market deals to stick around, and it would not be a surprise if they got Lewis, Burkhead, or both to do the same. Both players are 27 years old and they're extremely versatile, and they should be highly sought-after if the Pats let them hit the open market.
Carlos Hyde was a minor disappointment in the first season of the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco, and he may not be part of the team's future plans. But he's a sturdy downhill runner hitting the prime of his career at 26 years old. A team looking for a power component to form one-half of a time share could be interested in his services. LeGarrette Blount could fill the same role, as we saw throughout this season and in the Eagles' Super Bowl victory. With Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement in town, a return to Philadelphia may or may not be in the cards, but he can still play.
Jerick McKinnon has already made noise about wanting to be "the guy" somewhere next season. That's next going to happen for him in Minnesota, where the Vikings already have decent money committed to Latavius Murray and star rookie Dalvin Cook working his way back from a torn ACL. McKinnon is incredibly shifty and a good pass-catcher, but he's not exactly the kind of guy teams think of as a feature back option. Because of his versatility, however, he should be a valued target around the league.
Isaiah Crowell has progressed in fits and starts during his time in the league. Duke Johnson seems like the better overall player and it seems unlikely that the new Browns regime will want to lay out enough money to pay a veteran running back on a long-term deal when they have so many draft picks with which they can potentially find a power complement to Johnson on the cheap. The same is true of Jeremy Hill, but doubly so because the Bengals have both Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon.
Alfred Morris fared well filling in for Ezekiel Elliott this season and could have some suitors; Orleans Darkwa flashed a few times during the Giants' disaster of a season; Frank Gore may want to return to tack on another 1,000-total-yard season; Darren Sproles is seemingly ageless and as long as he's healthy should be able to slide back into his scat-back role for somebody. Damien Williams looked set to be one-half of a timeshare with Kenyan Drake in Miami after Ajayi's departure, but Williams got injured and Drake broke out. He could be a fit somewhere this offseason.
Restricted Free Agents (10)
Corey Grant touched the ball all of 33 times during the regular season for the Jaguars, totaling 248 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries while adding three catches for 41 yards. He exploded for three catches for 59 yards early in the AFC title game against the Patriots before promptly disappearing. He showcased a shiftiness that could make him useful in a limited role for the right team.
Mike Davis flashed some really nice talent down the stretch of the season for the Seahawks. A cast-off from the division rival 49ers, Davis has good size (5-9, 223 pounds) and showed the ability to run with power inside and speed to the outside, and catch the ball out of the backfield as well. Nearly the entire Seahawks backfield is slated for free agency this offseason, but it would not be a surprise if he was one of the guys that returned to the fold. (Thomas Rawls seems less likely to be back, but you never know what might happen.)
Zach Zenner has had an on and off role for the Lions over the last couple seasons but has never seemed like much of a flashy talent. He's a somewhat recognizable name, though, so someone could be interested. Terron Ward has looked better in his limited duty with the Falcons, but he has not gotten much work behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Maybe there's a team out there that wants to make him their speed back.
Exclusive Rights Restricted Free Agents (9)
Alex Collins is the clear class of this group. He has fumbling issues (six on 277 career touches) but he showed during his time with the Ravens this season that he has primary back capabilities. He ran at a 1,023-yard, eight-touchdown pace after taking over the lead role in Baltimore's backfield, and he's only 23 years old. He's got good size at 5-11, 218 pounds and -- as anyone that has seen his Irish dancing knows -- he's fleet of foot as well.
Peyton Barber has looked OK in limited snaps for the Buccaneers and showed very well down the stretch of this season when Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers gave way to him. He's also only 23 years old and could be a nice cheap flyer for somebody (including the Bucs). J.D. McKissic looked at least somewhat capable of handling passing-down snaps when thrust into the lineup for Seattle, and his past experience as a wide receiver lends well to that role.
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