2017 NFL Free Agency: 5 best running backs available
The NFL offseason is here now, and with free agency coming next month here are the top five running backs currently in line to be available on the open market.
The move toward passing in the NFL in recent years has devalued the running back position overall, while also placing a premium on backs that are versatile. The time where a one-trick pony workhorse is the league’s best running back is gone, and the shelf life for the position is limited anyway.
The 2017 free agent class of running backs could add a big name between now and the first few days of the new league year. The Minnesota Vikings are sure to want Adrian Peterson to take a significant pay cut, and if he’s not amenable to that he will hit the open market.
But with a focus on running backs that are currently in line to be available, here are the top five 2017 free agents at the position.
5. Danny Woodhead
After playing a total of five games over two of the last three seasons (2014 and 2016), Woodhead’s presence on this list says it all about the current free agent class of running backs. That’s not to say he has not been productive, with 81 and 76 receptions in his last two full seasons of action, but coming off a torn ACL at 32 years old does not bring a ton of optimism.
The Chargers reportedly have some interest in re-signing Woodhead, and they may ultimately be his best option.
4. LeGarrette Blount
Blount had a very nice 2016 season for the New England Patriots, finishing eighth in the league in rushing (1,161 yards) with the second-most carries (299) and a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns.
Blount has found a good level of stability playing for the Patriots, in a very specific role as an early-down grinder, clock-killing back and goal line guy. He may re-sign there again this offseason, and with only one other 200-plus carry season in his career Blount is not the typical worn down 30-year old running back.
The Detroit Lions could easily have a lot of interest in Blount as a free agent, with former Patriots’ employee Bob Quinn in place as general manager. That was also the case a year ago, technically, but Blount could find a financial boon somewhere other than New England next month.
3. Eddie Lacy
Coming off the weight and conditioning issues that plagued his 2015 season, Lacy played just five games in 2016 before an ankle issue sidelined him for the season. Lacy averaged 5.1 yards per carry over his 71-carry sample this past season, but he did not find the end zone.
Lacy will turn 27 in June, so he should have some good seasons left in his career before hitting the usual running back wall. His first two NFL seasons (2013 and 2014) reflect what’s capable of when he avoids the fast food drive-thru window, with over 1,100 rushing yards each year, a total of 20 touchdowns on the ground and 77 combined receptions.
Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has said, expectedly perhaps, that he would love to see Lacy re-signed this offseason. It’s unclear if general manager Ted Thompson shares that sentiment at all, but Lacy is sure to come cheaply enough to be on the Packers’ radar in free agency.
If Lacy is fully healthy and in shape, he could re-emerge as one of the better running backs in the league. But he’ll probably have to settle for a one-year deal with little guaranteed money, no matter what team signs him.
2. Latavius Murray
With a glut of other backs competing for snaps and touches for the Oakland Raiders in 2016, Murray had a fairly disappointing 195 carries for 788 yards over 14 games played. But he did finish fifth in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns, and Murray should hit free agency in March with plenty of possible suitors.
Murray has expressed a desire to re-sign with the Raiders and “finish what I started”, and his production (4.2 yards per carry, 20 rushing scores) once he got a chance at the end of the 2014 season could make that interest mutual. If it means anything, head coach Jack Del Rio openly lamented Murray getting just five carries in Oakland’s regular season finale and that may have prompted the team’s offensive coordinator change after the season.
Missing his entire 2013 rookie season, and getting just 82 carries during his second season despite being mostly healthy, makes Murray a “fresher than expected” 27-year old running back. With underrated versatility as well (74 receptions over the last two seasons), Murray should be able to get a very nice multi-year contract this offseason.
1. Le’Veon Bell
After returning from a three-game suspension to start the season, and sitting out a meaningless Week 17 game, Bell still finished fifth in the NFL in rushing (1,268 yards) with 75 receptions (second-most among running backs).
Bell is the modern template for what a running back can be in terms of a legit dual threat. He often lines up as a wide receiver in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense, with the skill set and production to support that kind of deployment.
Bell has played all 16 regular season games just once in four NFL seasons thus far, due in equal part to injuries and suspensions. He may need offseason groin surgery, but that should not be a major concern going forward.
The Steelers want to sign Bell to a long-term deal, obviously, but if that doesn’t happen there’s no better candidate for the franchise tag this offseason. Bell is theoretically slated to become a free agent right now, but it would be a huge upset if he is in anything other than a Steelers’ uniform next season (and probably beyond).