NFL free agency preview: Running backs
This year’s group of running back free agents won’t exactly blow you away (outside of the top unrestricted free agent), but we can accept that, since this year’s running back draft class brings much more excitement. Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey are all expected to be drafted in the first round, so if a needy team doesn’t get their guy in free agency, it can look to fill that hole in late April.
Cream of the Crop: Adrian Peterson
One of the greatest running backs in this generation is on the market after the Vikings decided not to pick up his 2017 option worth nearly $18 million.
Peterson has dealt with injuries and suspension in recent years, and he's only had one 100-yard rushing game in his past eight starts. Is he still the guy who came within a first down of breaking the all-time single-season mark? Of course not. He probably shouldn’t have come back from injury last season, and he’s just one year removed from a 1,400-yard season. He’s turning 32 years old in a few weeks, but there’s no doubt that he’s still the best option in free agency.
Ideal team fit: Cowboys. It’d be an embarrassment of riches in Dallas, but an interesting fit for Peterson. Ezekiel Elliott is so essential to Dallas, but one hit on him and the Cowboys’ offense crumbles. We know Jerry Jones salivated over Peterson a few years ago, and that thirst may still be there even with the best young running back in the game. If not Dallas, then perhaps NFC North rival Green Bay could use Peterson on their run to another Super Bowl.
Bargain Bin: Andre Ellington
The Cardinals have to re-sign almost their entire defense, so dealing with a third running back should be toward the bottom of their priority list.
Ellington struggled with his health over the past two seasons (hip and toe injuries), and that came at a miserable time for him after Arizona drafted David Johnson in 2015. Ellington had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two seasons, so he can make home-run plays out of the backfield running and receiving. But he simply got cut out of the rotation last season and had just 34 rushes for 96 yards.
The running back won’t come cheap (he’s only 28 years old, and those two good seasons aren’t too long ago), but he does come with an injury history that will take his price down.
Ideal team fit: Jaguars. Jacksonville targeted T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory 96 times in the passing game last season. Ellington is better at catching the ball than both of them.
Overpay Alert: Latavius Murray
I don’t particularly want to use the term overrated here, especially for a guy who made the Pro Bowl in 2015, but I have to shoot it straight. In the past two seasons, Murray has averaged just 4 yards per carry, which was tied for 23rd last season. His 12 touchdowns were good for fifth-best in the league, and the Raiders would be wise to re-sign him knowing that he was the beneficiary of one of the league’s best offensive lines and most exciting young quarterbacks.
If Murray hits the market, he may get paid off those 12 touchdowns rather than what he’s actually doing on the ground.
Ideal team fit: Giants. This makes a lot of sense for Murray. Paul Perkins isn’t ready to take over the load, and after cutting Rashad Jennings, New York needs a talented and reliable running back to take some of the pressure off Eli Manning’s arm (and, more importantly, Odell Beckham’s hands).
Teams most in need of running backs: Giants, Panthers, Colts