NFL free agency 2020: Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey to blow the lid off of running back free-agent market
Whether you think RBs matter or not, these guys are going to get paid
It's that time of the year again when droves of players look to land new NFL contracts with either their respective club or whichever one is prepared to woo them away. When it comes to running backs, things can get a bit dicey, because they're either viewed as a transcendent talent that is not expendable, or simply a disposable cog in one of the 32 machines who can be easily replaced with an inexpensive draft pick. A great example of this duplicity is what occurred in 2019 when both Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon simultaneously held out to land contract extensions.
Elliott, an All-Pro and two-time NFL rushing champ who knows the Dallas Cowboys offensive success is predicated largely upon his presence, returned from his training in Cabo to a six-year, $90 million extension with $50 million in guarantees -- making him the richest running back in league history. With his bag fully secured, Elliott didn't miss a game in 2019, but Gordon went on to miss several before caving and finally reporting. Having overplayed his hand with the Los Angeles Chargers, Gordon failed to secure a new deal despite holding out until Week 5, after the team made it clear they were no longer interested in negotiating.
He now joins a list of unrestricted free agents looking to cash in this offseason, but with a better adjusted value scale. That said, let's take a look at the most notable free agent halfbacks in 2020. With Raiders, it's time for others at the position to quickly follow suit.with the Las Vegas
This list is unranked but instead broken down into tiers, based upon value.
The league's leading rusher in 2019, Henry was a key reason for the Tennesee Titans turnaround that took them from tanking to landing a playoff berth with his career-best 1,540 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Once in the playoffs, Henry leveled up like Gohan when he murdered Perfect Cell (Google it), literally running through both the defending champion New England Patriots and the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens on the road, amassing nearly 400 rushing yards in the process. It took the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs to stop him, but the message had already been sent.
Named FedEx Ground Player of the Year, Henry will command top dollar from the Titans (or any other team). After all, how many running backs do you know who can run for 195 yards and throw a touchdown pass, and in a playoff game?
They call him "King" for a reason.
The only other halfback on this list who can compete with the contract demands of Henry is McCaffrey, and even the king has to take a back seat to what McCaffrey can do. Although the latter isn't a free agent until 2021 (and not then either, considering they'll execute his fifth-year option soon) you can expect him to want an extension expeditiously following a career-best season that saw him rack up a league-high 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns on a massive 403 touches in 2019, and he did it with a carousel of QBs. With that type of workload, it's doubtful McCaffrey will want to enter a contract year this season, but instead -- like Elliott and Todd Gurley before him -- be another workhorse who'd rather secure his future now as opposed to risk it to possible injury in a contract year.
McCaffrey is a freak of nature who is as much a wide receiver and return specialist as he is a game-changing running back, as evidenced by the First-Team All-Pro becoming the only player other than Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk to post a 1,000-yard season as both a rusher and a receiver in the same season. And with Matt Rhule now at the helm in Charlotte, the first order of business will be to understand what McCaffrey means to the success of the Panthers going forward, regardless of who is the team's quarterback.
Since we're on the topic of rebuilt brands, let's talk about one of the better examples in Hyde. The former 49ers running back nearly registered two 1,000-yard seasons in San Francisco before becoming a journeyman in 2018, leaving some to wonder if he'd ever regain his NFL swagger. Once he signed with the Houston Texans in 2019, he did exactly that, delivering the first 1,000-yard season of his six-year career and adding eight touchdowns from scrimmage while he was at it. Hyde outperformed Duke Johnson in every category that matters, making it known he was the starter in south Texas and not the other guy they traded for in August, just three weeks prior.
Hyde is another who isn't Tier-A, but seeing as there are truly only two Tier-A back in this year's market, he should still create stiff competition for others like Gordon and Drake. This makes it truly a buyer's market for Tier-B running back talent, seeing as they're proven starters who simply won't and can't look to break the bank. The Texans will do what they can to retain Hyde and will probably succeed, considering he'd like to not "start all over" again, but he'll get offers from other clubs before making his final decision.
Like Gordon, Drake is definitely a starter in the NFL but, unlike Gordon, he's not trying to financially duel with the highest-paid players at the position. The former third-round pick made a name for himself with the Miami Dolphins, his best season as a pro being with them in 2018 when he rushed for 535 yards and four touchdowns, and he delivered even better production once they traded him to the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. Drake finished the season having rushed for 643 yards and eight touchdowns in Arizona -- career highs in both categories -- turning first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury into a heart-eye emoji.
With nearly 100 more rushing yards and four more rushing touchdowns than David Johnson, who played in eight more games than did Drake for the Cardinals last season, the former Dolphin established himself as a starter and it's expected Kingsbury will try to re-sign him for the future. Considering how Drake has strengthened his brand, however, the Cardinals can expect some competition to land his services, and it'll be interesting to see how his presence in the market impacts a tarnished Gordon; along with what retaining Drake would mean for Johnson's roster spot when looking at his obese $14.17 million cap hit in 2020.
When you roll the dice, you better hope you don't come up snake eyes. That's exactly what happened to Gordon though, and as he tries to work past the mistake of overvaluing his role with the Chargers, he enters free agency with reduced stock on the whole. The two-time Pro Bowler didn't do much to repair it once he returned in Week 5, registering only one 100-yard outing in 12 attempts, although he did nearly make it two with a 99-yard game against the Broncos in Week 14. Overall, his 2019 season was a disappointment by any elite standard of measurement.
Gordon finished with a career-low 612 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, as the Chargers began to rely more on Austin Ekeler in preparation for a future without Gordon. That makes it difficult to fathom Gordon commanding Tier-A money on the open market, but someone will likely grant him a solid payday. He's not a transcendent talent like those mentioned above, .
At the beginning of his career in the NFL, Howard looked like anything but a former fifth-round pick. He instantly became the central point of the Chicago Bears offense in his 2016 rookie season and landed a Pro Bowl nod after rushing for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns. His production took a step back in yardage his sophomore season, but he still racked up 1,122 yards and pushed his rushing TD tally to nine, and mirrored that count in Year 3 while nearly delivering a third consecutive 1,000-yard season, but instead of signing him to an extension, the Bears traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019 in exchange for a conditional sixth-round pick.
His numbers in Philadelphia may not come close to his time in Chicago, but his career as a whole is one that's proven he can dominate at the NFL level. The question for the Eagles, who appear torn on if they'll bring him back or not, is two-fold. Should they approach him with starter money or a bag worthy of a backup, and do they re-sign him knowing it would convert the sixth-round pick to a fifth-rounder for the Bears?
The Eagles also have Miles Sanders and his 818-yard season to hang their hat on in negotiations, and Howard might be able to finagle his way into an RB1 role somewhere else.
Father Time is undefeated, sure, but that doesn't mean some NFL players aren't elite enough to keep stiff-arming him until they choose to call it a day. Gore is one such athlete, and he again proved it in his time with the Buffalo Bills in 2019. The only reason he's in Tier C is because he truly is speeding toward the horizon of his career, as we all can admit no matter how time-defying he's been recently, along with the reality he logged only eight starts last season and his 599 yards -- while more than solid -- were also a career-low for the future Hall of Famer. Gore wants to play in 2020, and there will be a market for him, without a doubt.
He's already eyeing a possible return to the Dolphins, who no longer have Drake in tow, and they won't be the only team calling him to determine his asking price. That number won't be high or anything near, considering he accepted a one-year, $1.25 million deal to produce in upstate New York in 2019. In what could be the swan song of his illustrious career, Gore would make a great backup for any team that needs one, also knowing he could step up and take the reins as the starter in the event of an injury.
While not nearly as aged as Gore, Miller is approaching the all-important RB apex of 30, turning 29 before the start of the 2020 season. He's also coming off of a torn ACL -- suffered against the Dallas Cowboys on his first carry of the preseason -- that ended his 2019 season before it began. His absence led the Texans to trade for both Johnson and Hyde, and I've already laid out what Hyde has done for the club. You can't dismiss Miller outright though, because he's still only one season removed from a Pro Bowl nod wherein he rushed for 973 yards and five touchdowns.
Entering this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, he'll have a choice in where he lands, but he has at least one eye on staying put in Houston. The Texans must then decide if his value to the club is higher than that of Johnson's, and it's a conversation also heavily rooted on if Hyde will stay put or not. If it's the latter and Hyde chooses to leave, then keeping Miller will be paramount. In any event, a healthy Miller will garner enough interest to compete with the Tier B halfbacks on this list, but his age plus a return from a torn ACL both create justifiable concern.
Things didn't go as well with the Chiefs as McCoy thought they would when he quickly shrugged off other offers to reunite with Andy Reid in 2019. Unexpectedly released from the Bills following the 2018 season, McCoy was able to rush for a respectable 465 yards and four touchdowns but saw his reps dwindle as the season neared its conclusion, culminating in him being made inactive in Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers so that Reid and the Chiefs could carry an extra lineman. And while that worked in the team's favor en route to winning in Miami, it's not the ceremonious end to his one-year contract in Kansas City that McCoy envisioned -- landing his first-ever Super Bowl win, but being in street clothes when it happened.
The 31-year-old still has some tread on his tires though, and there's a team or three who'll look to land the six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, hoping he still has the quickness to provide a compliment to someone's power run game. His coming deal will be a reasonable one, no matter who he signs with, and his reps in 2020 (depending on the personnel he joins) will likely be in the 50/50 range or a little less.
Yes, the Browns have made it clear they're willing to give the 24-year-old another chance, but owner Jimmy Haslam also labeled Hunt's latest transgression as "not acceptable", and left the window open to move on if he can't "follow the expectations that are laid out" for him. Hunt recently admitted to a Cleveland police officer during a traffic stop on Jan. 21 that he would fail an NFL drug test if one was administered to him after the officer found marijuana and a bottle of vodka in the vehicle. Hunt wasn't cited for either, because the marijuana found was the total amount discovered was less than one gram, and the alcohol was in a sealed container in the back seat.
A restricted free agent in 2020, the Browns hold the rights to Hunt after signing him following his dismissal from the Kansas City Chiefs. He served an eight-game suspension in 2019 for two physical altercations a year prior -- one which involved a video of Hunt assaulting/kicking a woman. So while Hunt still has a job in Cleveland at the moment, they could also opt to tender him, move on and get something in return. Considering he's a former third-round pick, that'll be a hard sell for other clubs who aren't looking to cough up a third-round pick for a player who rushed for 179 yards and two touchdowns last season, and who's strapped with constant off-the-field issues.
A Right to First Refusal is also an option, which would make sure the Browns don't pay any more for him than they have to.
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