By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
After covering quarterbacks last week, it’s time to dissect running backs hitting free agency this offseason. The headliner is the least likely to switch teams, Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell. We went through this charade last year and the Steelers ultimately slapped the franchise tag on him. With Bell wanting to be paid like the best running back in the league and a nominal number two wide receiver, it’s likely he’s headed for a second straight franchise tag. Can’t imagine Bell will appreciate that.
But what would happen if Bell did switch teams? Who would line up to sign him? Better yet, who has the requisite cap space to sign him? Let’s start with Cleveland. They have bookoo cap space and play against him twice a year. Think they could lure both Kirk Cousins and Le’Veon Bell to The Land? Maybe LeBron would stick around just for front row seats to that offense. The Jets? Bell had some fun with that thought on Twitter. Imagine Jimmy G(Q) handing the ball off to Bell in San Francisco. Bell will have options, but at the end of the day, I think he stays in Pittsburgh.
RB Dion Lewis resurrected his career in New England after short stints with Philadelphia and Cleveland. He managed an RB15 finish this year and from Weeks 10 through 16, Lewis was RB6. At just 5’8″ and 195 pounds, most would view Lewis as a 3rd down back and not the type of RB who can carry the ball 300 times in a season. But here’s a fun fact: in 2017, only one running back topped 300 carries. Offenses nowadays don’t need a 300 carry RB, they need a 200+ carry, 40+ catch RB. Lewis finished with 180 carries and 32 receptions. Maybe he’s only effective in New England, as many backs who have departed the Patriots have proven, but Lewis should attract some interest with a Lamar Miller like offer — around $6 million a year for 2-3 years. My guess? He stays in New England and gets nowhere close to $6 million a year.
49ers RB Carlos Hyde carries a bug. The injury bug. Only once in four years has Hyde played in all 16 games in a season. The good news? That season happened to be in 2017. GMs tend to remember “what you’ve done for me lately.” Next to Bell, Hyde is arguably the most talented RB on the free agent market. Over the last two seasons, he’s 12th in rushing attempts — and he missed three games in 2016. He proved in 2017 that he can be a threat in the passing game in new head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, tallying 59 receptions. The 49ers haven’t given off the impression they want to bring Hyde back into the fold for 2018 and beyond, so look for Hyde to sign a 4-year deal elsewhere.
Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon finally had the breakout season we though he would have had in 2014 and 2016 when Adrian Peterson missed significant time. When the Vikings lost rookie Dalvin Cook for the season, the burden of carrying the ball for Minnesota fell on free agent acquisition Latavius Murray and McKinnon. McKinnon finished as RB17 with 150 carries, 51 catches, 991 total yards and 5 TDs. Numbers like that tell me he’s nothing more than a change-of-pace back. Even with 150 carries, he averaged less than four yards a carry. The Jets look like the perfect fit for McKinnon (his nickname is “Jet,” after all).
Browns RB Isaiah Crowell is an enigma. He has looked great one year and completely incompetent the next. He’s never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season and his yards per carry dropped from 4.8 in 2016 to 4.1 in 2017. Maybe it’s just because he plays for the Browns. I mean, this is the same team that can’t figure out how to utilize Duke Johnson Jr. properly. The Browns have the most cap space available this summer and have an opportunity to draft Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. That likely signals Crowell signing elsewhere. The Jets, Raiders, 49ers, Dolphins, and Giants are all teams likely in need of a new starting RB who could use Crowell’s services.
Then there are the ageless wonders. Colts RB Frank Gore has been fighting off Father Time for about four years now. He has seven straight years of playing in every game. From ages 28 to 34. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what it is. In the last seven years, he hasn’t had less than 255 carries. In 2017, he fell 39 yards short of his fifth 1,000 yard season over the same time frame. If only the Colts had anything resembling an offensive line. He hasn’t rushed for more than 4.0 yards per carry since arriving, but he’s still got something left. Does Luck’s return convince the Colts to bring him back for one more year? Will anyone want to take a chance on a 35-year old RB?
And how about Darren Sproles? 2017 was supposed to be his swan song, but he suffered an injury early in the season and no one wants to go out like that. Just ask Steve Smith Sr. Does Sproles have a home in Philly after they acquired Jay Ajayi, drafted Donnel Pumphrey last year, and found an absolute steal in undrafted rookie Corey Clement? Even at 35, I wouldn’t bet against Sproles having something left in the tank.
Other notable free agent RBs include Jeremy Hill, Alfred Morris, Orleans Darkwa, LeGarrette Blount, Rex Burkhead, and Terrance West. Who ends up signing where? Will they be effective in 2018? Let the musical chairs begin!