The Output of Free Agent Running Backs
2018 Top 5 Free Agents (by the annual salary of new contracts)
McKinnon signed a 4 year $30million contract in 2018 after leaving the Minnesota Vikings. He was desperately unlucky and was out for two full seasons due to knee injuries, therefore his output was non-existent in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 backfield in San Francisco was crowded which probably explains the lower level of production compared to his 2017 output where for the majority of the season the Vikings had to lean on McKinnon and Latavius Murray to pick up the slack once Dalvin Cook went down.
2017 was a fantastic year for Carlos Hyde. He finished as an RB1 in every format then slid to become an RB4 within a season. Hyde played for two teams in 2018. He initially joined the Browns on a 3 year $15million contract and played 6 games before being traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 5th round pick. Hyde found his 4th home in 2 seasons when he signed with the Chiefs before being traded to Houston shortly after and had a good season hitting over 1000 yards rushing and finished as a low-end RB2 in standard and a high/mid-level RB3 in half and full PPR. Unfortunately for Hyde, this did not last and he crashed back down to earth in 2020 and didn’t finish higher than RB 54 in any format and 2021 isn’t likely to change as, once again he is on the move, although this time it is in a familiar location as he finds himself back in Jacksonville albeit behind 2nd year back James Robinson.
Dion Lewis had a big change in circumstances moving from 2017 to 2018. He was the lead rusher for Super Bowl runners-up, the Patriots, to sharing a backfield with Derrick Henry in Tennessee. His 2017 season was a great one with Lewis putting up his best yards-per-carry statistics of a year where he played the full 16 regular-season games at 5.0. He crashed back to earth with his worth statistical yards-per-carry year after posting 3.3 in his first year with the Titans. It wasn’t all bad for him, however, as he did not have Rex Burkhead and James White to compete with for targets out of the backfield and we can see he had almost doubled the number of targets and catches in Tennessee. Although there some positives for his game i.e. more receiving work it did see his fantasy value take a hit as he dropped from a borderline RB1 in 2017 to an RB3 in 2018.
In 2019 Derrick Henry fully took over the backfield and Lewis’ share of the work shrunk and after the season he was released and signed by the New York Giants in April 2020. He was originally signed to backup Saquon Barkley and when he went down Lewis split carries with Wayne Gallman, Devonta Freeman, and Alfred Morris. 2019 and 2020 were even worse for Lewis from a fantasy angle with him being unusable in weekly line-ups.
Crowell is the first name on this list that has managed to hold his value since joining a new team as a free agent. He finished as a midlevel RB3 at the Browns and sustained that when signing a 3 year $12million contract with the Jets. In Cleveland Crowell mostly had the backfield to himself finishing with more than double that of Duke Johnson. This situation became murkier when he arrived in New York as he now found himself fighting off Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire, although he managed it fine as he beat their combined total in rushing yards combined.
2018 would be the last time we would see Crowell on an NFL field, however, in the following year he was released to make space for incoming running back Le’Veon Bell. Shortly after his release from the Jets he was signed by the Raiders and then suffered a torn Achilles injury during a team workout and was placed on injured reserve which would end his 2019 season.
Long-time Carolina Panther Jonathan Stewart was made a free agent following the 2017 season and signed with the New York Giants in a deal worth $6.8million. The Panthers were a very run-heavy team with Cam Newton, Stewart, and rookie Christian McCaffrey all having over 100 carries. This limited Stewart and meant he finished as a low-end RB3/RB4 in all formats.
Unfortunately for Stewart - and the Giants- his 2018 season was over after week 3 as he was placed on IR after sustaining a foot injury. The Giants did not take up the option on Stewart’s contact and he became a free agent at the end of the 2018 season. A few months later he signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Carolina Panthers.
Other 2018 Free Agent Signings
Chris Ivory- In 2017 Ivory acted mainly as the back-up to Leonard Fournette in Jacksonville and when signed by the Buffalo Bills he was part of a rotation with LeSean McCoy. Neither year was he very relevant for fantasy purposes, finishing as an RB 5/6 in both.
LeGarrette Blount- Blount officially retired in 2020, however, it was actually in 2018 where he played his last games in the NFL. In 2017 Blount was the lead rusher for Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles and then received the most carries in Detroit during 2018, although, he was outperformed by Kerryon Johnson.
C.J. Anderson- This was a drastic change between the two years. In 2017 Anderson ran for 1007 yards with the Broncos before becoming a free agent. 2018 was a rollercoaster for him as he first signed a 1-year contract with Carolina, playing 9 games before he was released. He was signed by the Raiders but was released without playing a game. He finally settled with the Rams playing 2 regular-season games before making it to the Super Bowl where he was on the losing side.
In 2019 Anderson signed with the Lions, however, he was released after only 2 games and then retired shortly after the beginning of the 2020 season.
Adrian Peterson- So far for the 2018 free agent running backs, it hasn’t been great reading. The next two players are exceptions. Adrian Peterson had a difficult 2017 after the Vikings decided not to extend his contract so he would join the Saints on a two-year contract but was traded in October of 2017 to the Cardinals. Between the two teams, he played 10 games which hurt his fantasy output.
In 2018, however, Peterson put it right after he joined Washington following being released by Arizona. In 2018 he managed a 1042 yard rushing season as he shot back into fantasy relevance going from a low RB5 to a mid-range RB2.
Doug Martin- Doug Martin started the 2017 season with a suspension thus only played in 11 games. He was then released after the season ended and later signed with the Oakland Raiders on a (1-year contract) who he played a full 16 game season for in 2018. He was resigned for the 2019 season, however, he was placed on IR and a few days later an injury settlement was agreed and he left the team.
Frank Gore- Frank Gore left the Colts at the end of the 2017 season, ending his three years with the team. He finished as the lead rusher at the team and moved onto a timeshare with the Dolphins where he split time with Kenyan Drake.
2019 Top 5 Free Agents (by the annual salary of new contracts)
We will begin the 2019 free agent summary with one of the most discussed situations of the 2018 season (and then into the off-season). Le’Veon Bell was placed on the franchise tag by the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, he refused to sign and ended up sitting out for the entire year. The Steelers chose not to place the tag on him for the 2019 season which then made him a free agent. Bell then signed with the Jets who made him the second-highest-paid RB in the league with a four-year $52million contract. As we can see above we have used Bell’s 2017 statistics to compare with the season after he changed teams.
Even though the ‘Bell experiment’ did not work out as he was released the following year he was still fantasy-relevant following the move to New York he was still a mid-level RB2 although this was still fairly disappointing due to his incredible form while in Pittsburgh.
One player who excelled after changing teams in free agency was Mark Ingram. He moved up two RB levels from being a mid-range RB3 to a mid-range RB1 when moving from New Orleans to Baltimore in a deal worth $15million over 3 years.
In 2018 he played 12 games and had a decent 4.7 yard-per carry average, however, had to share the backfield with Alvin Kamara. The following year Ingram once again found himself in a timeshare, this time with fellow running-back Gus Edwards and a drastic change in QB style from Drew Brees to Lamar Jackson. Jackson did take a lot of touches away from his RB’s but Ingram still managed to have a 1200+ season with an incredible 15 total TDs.
Unfortunately for Ingram, the Ravens chose to draft rookie J K Dobbins in the 2020 draft and he found himself phased out and was a healthy scratch on a few occasions towards the back-end of the season. Ingram briefly found himself as a free agent but was quickly snapped up by the Houston Texans.
If you showed someone the above stats without a name attached they could be forgiven if they thought this player did not change team. The stats are very similar for Murray from his 2018 year with the Vikings to his 2019 year with the Saints following the four-year $14.4million signing. His usage for both teams was very similar with targets being the main difference. Even his fantasy finishes were similar, with RB3 finishes both years (apart from a high RB4 finish in PPR from 2018).
In 2018 Murray found himself behind Dalvin Cook while his move to New Orleans saw him replace the man we have just discussed in Mark Ingram and found himself behind another top running-back, this time by the name of Alvin Kamara.
Tevin Coleman signed a two-year $8.5miliion contract with the San Francisco 49ers after leaving the Atlanta Falcons following the 2018 season. In 2018 he more or less had the backfield in Atlanta after Devonta Freeman’s injury saw the team place him on IR. This left Ito Smith as the only real competition for Coleman in the Falcon’s backfield and this saw Coleman finish the season in the mid RB2 range in all fantasy formats.
In 2019 Coleman moved to the 49ers and into an incredibly crowded running back room. Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Jeff Wilson were all taking touches not only from Coleman but from each other. It did work well for the team. They reached the Super Bowl, losing out to Kansas.
Coleman has recently moved out of San Francisco after becoming an unrestricted free agent and moved to the East coast and to the New York Jets to join their rebuild.
Mike Davis came off his best NFL season performance in 2018 (until 2020) after receiving 146 for the Seahawks. He became fantasy relevant, ending the season in the low RB3 range, and had some standout performances, including a 100+ yard, 2 touchdown game.
He left Seattle and initially signed in Chicago a two-year deal for $6million. However, this did not last long as Davis found himself briefly without a team before being claimed off waivers by the Panthers. Neither team would allow Davis much game time as first he found himself behind Montgomery and Cohen and then behind an inspired McCaffrey in Carolina. In fairness to Davis not even McCaffrey’s backup -Reggie Bonnafon- could get on the field as he could only muster 16 carries from 16 games.
This was a crash to earth following a good 2018 to falling completely off the fantasy radar in 2019. Davis would have an opportunity to take on a lead role in 2020 once Christian McCaffrey’s injury problems and this performance would see him sign for the Falcons in the 2021 off-season.
Other 2019 Free Agent Signings
Kareem Hunt- Hunt was a great weapon for fantasy players in 2017 and for the majority of the 2018 season before Hunt was released from Kansas for off-field issues. He found a new home in Cleveland after he was signed to a one-year contract worth just over $1 million. He would not see the field until the Brown’s 9th game due to the suspension that the league handed him. This would affect his fantasy value for the 2019 season, however, he would bounce back nicely in 2020 as he formed a great partnership with Nick Chubb in the Browns backfield.
T.J Yeldon- Leonard Fournette was dealing with an injury for much of the season which allowed Yeldon to step into the lead role and put together a decent season. This was not enough to stay around in Jacksonville, however, and he would leave the team and find a new home in Buffalo. He would appear in 6 games in 2019 and play behind Devin Singletary and Frank Gore.
Carlos Hyde- Look who is back for another summary in this article. As we discussed above in Hyde’s 2018 season he played for Browns and the Jaguars with the change of teams affecting his fantasy value. In 2019 he was signed by the Chiefs briefly before being traded to Houston and produced a 1000+ yard year to bring him back to being useable in fantasy.
2020 Top 5 Free Agents (by the annual salary of new contracts)
Gordon held out at the beginning of the 2019 season, wanting a contract similar to the highest-paid running backs in the league. Gordon did end up reporting and played 12 games for the Chargers, sharing a backfield with Austin Ekeler, who held down the fort while Gordon was out. In terms of his yards-per-carry it was his poorest return since his rookie season when he had 3.5, in 2019 he managed 3.8.
After becoming a free agent Gordon was signed by the Broncos in March of 2020, signing a 2-year contract worth $16million. He joined a backfield that also boasted Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman but was comfortably the lead back having more carries than both other RBs combined – although Lindsay did only play 11 games-. Many saw Lindsay as the receiving option, however, Gordon was easily the more targeted receiver of the running-back group with 30 more than Lindsay.
Lindsay has now left the team and joined the Texans and Denver has signed Mike Boone since he left Minnesota and it is assumed he will pick up the work Lindsay has left. Either way, it looks as if Gordon should have a similar workload in 2021 in what will be another ‘contract year’.
Jordan Howard played 10 games for the Eagles in 2019, missing the end of the season with a shoulder injury but still had a decent season while sharing the backfield with Miles Sanders and Boston Scott. Despite missing 6 games he only finished with 60 carries back from Sanders who played all 16 games. Howard also had the most rushing TDs for the team.
He was signed by the Dolphins in the off-season on a two-year deal on a contract worth up to $9.75million. He was signed along with Matt Breida in the hope they would both supply Miami with a solid backfield but in reality, it was taken over more by Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed who lead the team at that position. So much so that Howard was waived after playing in 5 games. He was mainly used as the goal-line-back and it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him pick up 1 carry for 1 yard and a touchdown after his 4 scores.
The Eagles re-signed Howard to their practice squad and he was activated for two games. He has recently been re-signed to the roster for the 2021 season.
Coming into the 2019 season there was a lot of talk surrounding Todd Gurley’s knee. The left one to be specific. It was reported that he had arthritis. He still turned out a good statistical season by hitting over 1000 total yards. He also scored double-digit touchdowns for the third year in a row and for the 4th time in 5 years.
Following on from leaving the Rams, Gurley signed a one-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons worth a potential $5.5million. He would share the backfield with Brian Hill and Ito Smith would their fair share away from Gurley, although, Gurley would still end up with more rushing attempts than both combined. 2020 would be the first time in four seasons he wouldn’t score double-digit touchdowns, although he was very close after scoring 9.
It will be interesting to see what is next for Todd Gurley as once again he finds himself as a free agent going into the 2021 season. Will the knee hold up to go and get another shot somewhere else? Time will tell.
Right, this is the last time I swear. We talked about Hyde’s 2019 1000+ total yard year earlier on so we’ll move on to the following year.
In the off-season before the 2020 season Carlos Hyde was signed by the Seahawks on a two-year contract worth up to $2.75million to act as depth to the running-back room with Rashaad Penny still out with a long-term injury (he would return for the final 3 games). Hyde did fairly well when called upon and had the same yards-per-carry as his previous year in Houston.
Fournette was the clear lead running-back in Jacksonville in 2019 where the next RB was Ryquell Armstead who finished with 35 carries. Fournette produced his second 1000+ yard rushing season which was also his highest total to date. The Jaguars declined the 5th option on his contract and after attempting to trade him, no deal was reached and Fournette was waived.
Tampa Bay signed Fournette on a one-year deal worth a potential $2million. He found himself in a timeshare with Ronald Jones and although they split targets evenly, Jones ended up with double the carries of Fournette. Although his yards more than halved from 2019 to 2020 he did manage to collect his highest touchdown return since his debut season to go with his new nicknames and of course a Super Bowl ring. Not a bad change of scene considering what happened to Jacksonville in 2020.
Other 2020 Free Agent Signings
JD McKissic- The 2019 season was spent in Detroit after leaving the Seahawks. He was used sparingly in the running back with 38 attempts from 16 games. He was mainly used in the passing game, receiving 42 targets. He then signed in Washington for the 2020 season and his usage hit the highest level of his career receiving only 3 fewer carries than the other four years of his career combined and also 20 more targets in 2020 than the other year’s total.
Adrian Peterson- Here’s another player that has a repeat appearance in this piece. Peterson went the opposite direction to McKissic and traveled from Washington to Detroit. Washington selected Gibson in the draft and Peterson was released in September of 2020 before signing with the Lions. Peterson would take the majority of the rush attempts early in the season but then Swift would take over in the final 3rd.
Le’Veon Bell- Bell was released from the Jets after playing two games of the 2020 season after a trade partner was not found. He signed with the Chiefs a few days later and would largely be used as a backup to Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Frank Gore- Gore picked up the slack for the Jets once Bell left to join Super Bowl runners-up Kansas. He would finish with his most carries in one year since 2017.
The below table will summarise the fantasy finishes before and after players became free agents and changed teams. For example, the RB grouping they are placed in is for the season immediately before they became a free agent and the font color states whether or not they stayed in the same group, moved up, moved down, or did not play the following year (please see the key underneath the table for more details). Only players who finished in the top 120 each year are included.
Finishes from a ½ PPR format
*As Le’Veon Bell did not play in 2018 his output was taken from his 2017 performance.
Key- The player stayed in the same group in 2020. The player moved up at least one grouping in 2020. The player moved down at least one grouping in 2020. The player did not play in 2020.
2018 Free Agent Key Points-
First of all, as Brandon Bolden was not within the top 120 players in 2017 he was not included in the table (123 finish), however, he did place in the RB8 group in 2018. Apart from Bolden, only 3 other players finished in a higher grouping than their previous year. The change of scene was great for Adrian Peterson who moved up into the RB2 grouping. Two of the 2017 RB2’s were lost from the league for two different reasons. DeMarco Murray called time on his career, while Jerick McKinnon would be out for the next two seasons due to injury. We saw a big fall from Carlos Hyde, who dropped from being a 2017 RB1 to an RB4 after moving teams.
2019 Free Agent Key Points-
Mark Ingram was the big winner in the off-season after jumping from an RB3 to 8th overall and an RB1 finish. Carlos Hyde became a lead back after signing with the Texans and moved from an RB4 to the RB3 grouping. After Kareem Hunt was released from Kansas he dropped multiple groupings after his suspension and signing with the Browns. The top 3 fantasy finishers of this free agency group all dropped in lower groupings in 2019 than where they finished in 2018.
2020 Free Agent Key Points-
Melvin Gordon stayed as an RB2 but moved right to the verge of a 2020 RB1 by finishing 13th. JD McKissic moved 3 levels to finish as a low-end RB2 at 24 in 2020. Kalen Ballage jumped two groupings to finish as an RB5 (55th overall) in 2020. Devontae Booker moved up from finishing in the RB10 group to an RB5 the next season. Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, and Dion Lewis all dropped 1 grouping. Leonard Fournette dropped from an RB1 finish in 2019 to an RB4 in 2020. Frank Gore held on to his RB4 grouping by taking over the Jets backfield. Jeremy McNichols was not in the top 120 in 2019 so did not feature in the table but moved teams to backup Henry in Tennessee and saw his stock rise up to an 82 finish in 2020. Tyler Ervin also went from 130 finish in 2019 to 100 in 2020. Another player to rise back up to 100 (joint with Ervin) was Alex Collins, he was suspended in 2019 but played for the Seahawks in 2020. Alfred Morris only played 1 game in 2019 but was signed in 2020 to cover for Barkley after his injury so found his way back into the top 100 when he finished 81 in 2020.