2019 NFL Free Agent running backs: Controversial Le'Veon Bell, Mark Ingram top list after Kareem Hunt signing
The running back class this year is actually a fascinating group of players
Free agent running backs are not typically an attractive group. It's usually a bunch of 27-plus-year-olds, a group that NFL teams have realized present little value after being worn into the ground during their rookie contracts.
This year is a little bit different. Maybe there's not a sea change in terms of who is available, but the age at which most of these guys are hitting the market feels better. Or maybe it's just the odometer feels a little rolled back.
Whatever the case, there are some interesting names out there on the open market. I don't want to get the hype train started too much here, but there's a chance we see multiple big contracts for running backs this offseason, especially with a potentially weaker running back class in the draft after two years of having stacked groups show up for teams to snare. When there's a great RB draft class, it typically weakens an already soft running back market.
This is a really bizarre collection of guys too, because it features one top-shelf back trying to break the bank, another former rushing leader trying to rehabilitate his image after a domestic violence incident got him booted from the team that drafted him (with a suspension looming) and multiple big names who have age/injury questions.
Maybe none of those guys get big contracts, because teams have wised up about the lack of ROI when you invest big in a running back in the free agent market. But at the very least it's a fun group to watch this offseason.
Send your ranking complains my way on Twitter @WillBrinson and make sure to subscribe to the Pick Six Podcast -- you can check it out on iTunes here and on Stitcher here, it's a mirth-filled daily NFL show delivered to your favorite pod app every morning -- to hear our rundown of each position plus much more. Free samples below -- Pete Prisco and I break down the free agent class as a whole.
1. Le'Veon Bell
Easy choice at the top spot. Bell is so talented, he turned down $20.5 million from the Steelers in order to try and hit the open market and really cash in big. There are only two steps left in his conquest to reset the running back market. One: hope the Steelers don't transition tag him and play a game of spite. And two: find a suitor on the open market willing to pay him the obscene deal he wants.
It might be tough after seeing Bell sit out the entire 2018 season. Granted, he's a game-changing player who might be the best pass-catching back of this generation. That's saying something considering who is in the game these days.
But Bell is older, with mileage and off-field concerns. If he's willing to sit out 2018 instead of playing on the tag, there will be teams worried about giving him some massive, long-term deal. Is he going to be in great shape after missing a full season of football? How motivated is he after getting paid? Will he be as effective on another roster without Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and the Steelers offensive line?
Look, I get why someone would want to pay Bell. He's an unbelievable playmaker. But committing huge gobs of money to a free agent running back is how you end up regretting a salary cap decision.
2. Kareem Hunt
UPDATE:on a one-year deal.
Difficult choice for the second spot. Hunt is as talented as it gets in terms of on-field action. He led the NFL in rushing as a rookie. But he's also as questionable as it comes off the field. Hunt was released in the middle of his rookie deal with the Chiefs after a video showed him assaulting a female at a hotel. From a morality standpoint, you can leave him off the list entirely.
From a talent standpoint, Hunt would be the second player on this list and given his age you could make a case to put him in the top spot. Some team is going to sign him -- there are already players saying they would be fine with their clubs inking Hunt. But whoever signs him will face a lot of well-deserved scrutiny for doing so, and will also have to deal with whatever punishment Hunt receives from the NFL. If he is suspended half the season, he can't serve it as a free agent. So whatever deal Hunt gets will be severely mitigated by the amount of punishment given down by the league.
3. Mark Ingram
My only concern ranking Ingram above Coleman here is age. Ingram is trending towards the magical 30-year-old mark that has done in many an NFL player. The list of guys over 30 who have run for 1,000 yards or more in a season since 2010 is very short and includes a pair of mutants. NFL teams have become increasingly less willing to lean on an older back as the focal point of their offense. It makes sense.
Ingram is slightly different thanks to the addition of Alvin Kamara, along with his own pass-catching abilities. Ingram, who won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama before being selected with a first-round pick by New Orleans in 2011, never became the bruising feature back many expected. Instead, he's been kept fairly free of heavy mileage: through a combination of injuries, suspension and the Saints offense, Ingram has only totaled 1,321 carries since 2011. He's one of 18 guys with more than 1,000 carries since 2011, but for comparison's sake, Todd Gurley, drafted in 2015, has just 100 less carries than Ingram.
There's a good chance Ingram could continue to be effective into his 30s. There's also a good chance he and the Saints want to reunite on a cost-effective deal to try and make another Super Bowl run. A 29-year-old back isn't blowing out the open market.
Still a young back with minimal touches, Coleman is intriguing in this class because he has had NFL success for multiple years without being worn down. He only has 528 carries in his career. Coleman has 92 receptions, but that number feels surprisingly low considering how he felt used whenever Devonta Freeman was healthy. I know Coleman wasn't a third-down receiving back for the Falcons with Freeman healthy, but it felt like he was more effective as a pass catcher than the stats show.
It's also a concern that Coleman took over for Freeman after the latter went down with an injury in 2018 and he only produced an OK line: 167 carries for 800 yards, four touchdowns and 32 catches for 276 yards and five touchdowns. The end zone thing is bizarre too. Coleman scored 11 touchdowns in 2016, good for a score on more than eight percent of his touches. That's wildly unsustainable. It fell to 4.3 percent in 2017 and bumped back up to 4.5 percent last year. Coleman scores a lot of touchdowns but isn't tremendously effective when it comes to actual yardage. He averaged a career high 4.8 yards per carry last season but he was replaced by Ito Smith for large chunks of the season. The whole thing feels like a red flag for anyone thinking about giving him a huge free agent running back contract.
5. Jay Ajayi
The great news for Ajayi is a combination of age and mileage. He'll only be 26 when the 2019 season starts, putting him in prime position for a three-year deal that wraps up his prime years. He also has just 562 rush attempts in his career. That's a nice low number for someone who's been around four years.
The bad news is Ajayi, who fell in the draft not because of talent but because of injury concerns, is coming off a season where he was injured. He has a stretch of games where he was as dominant as O.J. Simpson, rushing for 200 yards three times in a single season, including back-to-back games hitting the double-century marker. He has a total of 2,516 rushing yards, but 735 of them came in four games during the 2016 season. His relationship with Adam Gase (see: below) wasn't great, which is how he got traded from the Dolphins to the Eagles. That worked out better for Ajayi than Gase. There might be concerns about his coachability based on that (and he's clearly not going to sign with the Jets and probably not the Dolphins), but there is workhorse potential if Ajayi can get healthy and you don't have to pay him an excessive amount of money.
On the bright side, even if Ajayi doesn't get a deal, he's still pretty good at playing meme games on Radio Row.
6. Spencer Ware
Discussed this with Jason La Canfora on the Pick Six Podcast this past week -- it's our daily NFL pod, you can subscribe to it right here -- but Ware might be the best value at running back on the board. He was set to be the Chiefs feature back after taking over for Jamaal Charles, then he got hurt before Hunt emerged as a rookie.
Ware is a good between-the-tackles runner and an above-average pass catcher. Given his past performance, pedigree and injury history, this isn't someone you have to spend a ton of money on. He'll turn 28 during the season, but he only has 340 career carries and the season he missed with injury was 2017. He flashed effectiveness last year after Hunt was released by the Chiefs before Damien Williams took over the full-time running back role in Andy Reid's offense. Giving Ware a reasonable three-year deal ($15 million?) and making him part of a tandem backfield isn't a terrible idea.
7. T.J. Yeldon
Is it possible he was just miscast by the Jaguars? I could be talked into that. Yeldon had 171 catches in four years with Jacksonville, so the Jags clearly understood his pass-catching ability. When he was taken in the second round, though, it seemed likely to be as a feature back. They had to circle back and add Leonard Fournette, a volume rusher who mitigated Yeldon's ability to make an impact.
Just spitballing here, but if you replaced Ingram with Yeldon in New Orleans, how effective would he be as a running back? Or have the Patriots sign him -- those are obvious landing spots where many players do well because of the system, but it's fair to wonder if Yeldon, who was a very good player at Alabama and a high draft pick, might morph into something more dangerous with his next club. He'll turn 26 during the 2019 season, he only has 465 carries in his career and he might be a decent modern-day complementary back.
8. C.J. Anderson
There are sirens screaming in my brain about avoiding Anderson too high on this list since he might be a product of Sean McVay's offense, and that's totally fair. But ...
I think Anderson showed more than enough in a bounceback return with the Rams down the stretch. He was running hard between the tackles. Anderson only got one chance to be a feature runner, back in 2017 for the Broncos, and that was a broken offense. He's only got 693 carries in his career. There's some injury history and the flameout/lack of usage with Norv Turner and the Panthers last season is a concern. But you're going to get him after he sheds his baby weight, so he might be in the best shape of his life heading into this contract. Also: he has a deep love for Sonic the Hedgehog. I would sign him on that alone.
9. Mike Davis
This might be too low for Davis, who proved in 2018 he can be a very capable pass-catching back who can grind out yards between the tackles as well. Part of a multi-headed monster with the Seahawks, Davis ran 112 times for 4.6 yards per carry and caught 34 passes on 42 targets.
With Seattle trying to feature Chris Carson and also weave in Rashaad Penny, it was a pretty impressive effort given the minimal number of touches he was guaranteed to see on a week-to-week basis. He only had one game where he was given 10-plus touches that he produced less than 75 total yards. From Week 3 to Week 8, he averaged 12.5 carries, 3.2 catches and 74.5 total yards per game. That's something to build on for the former fourth-round pick out of South Carolina who has spent the last four years with San Francisco and Seattle. This was by far his most productive season, and he could be someone a team targets for a cheaper option as a secondary back who can produce out of the backfield.
10. Ameer Abdullah
Well, this list fell off fast. I'm clearly that guy who wouldn't stop drafting Abdullah in your fantasy league. First as a sleeper in the third round, then as a post-hype sleeper in the fifth round, later as a late-round flier, now I'm praying he lands somewhere with a questionable running back situation so I can draft him in the last round. Someone help me.
Abdullah is still young and has shown an ability to be explosive in the passing game. He also had more than 500 rushing yards twice -- maybe someone with a great running backs coach grabs him for nothing and makes him Dion Lewis 2.0 (Lewis was a fifth-round pick out of Pitt who the Patriots snared for dirt cheap and turned into a stud running back).
11. Ty Montgomery
The view of Montgomery is severely distorted by him taking that kick out of the end zone, going rogue and costing the Packers a potential chance at beating the Rams and saving their season. He was traded for peanuts to the Ravens the following week.
Why not take a flier on this guy in 2019? He has great pass-catching ability, having caught 107 passes over four seasons, including a high of 44 back in 2016. He's not going to be your feature back, but a smart team might know how to deploy the former Stanford wide receive who became a running back after being drafted by the Packers in the third round. His skillset plus his age (26) plus his cost (virtually nothing) make him too attractive to completely ignore here.
Honorable mention: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore
These guys are freaks of nature, Hall of Fame running backs who continue to produce despite their age. Peterson running for 1,000 yards at the age of 33 in Washington with Alex Smith, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson at quarterback is low-key one of the most impressive rushing efforts we've ever seen. We should talk about it more. Peterson willed himself over the 1,000-yard mark, but can he repeat the effort again this year on a different team?
Lynch looked spry at times for Oakland, but is he going to come back and contribute for someone other than his hometown squad at this point of his career?
I can't wait for my great-grandchildren to tell their great-grandchildren how they watched an 85-year-old Frank Gore rush for 500 yards for the Orlando Apollos championship team coached by Steve Spurrier IV. Signing one of these guys would be interesting but it certainly would be a risky financial investment based on what history tells us about running backs battling time.
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