With the 2020 NFL season nearly upon us, what better time than now to dive into the 2021 running back free agent class, which on paper looks stacked. Eight running backs currently ranked in the top 25 based on Dynastyleaguefootball.com August ADP are without contracts in 2021:
With so much talent poised to hit the open market, a handful of landing spots stand out amongst the rest. Take a look at the table below, which outlines the notable running backs currently signed through at least 2021 for each team. Teams highlighted in green are teams I believe are the likeliest to make a splash in the 2021 running back free agent market, with reasoning for each below:
The Falcons have Todd Gurley signed through the 2020 season, but after that? Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison are the only notables signed through 2021, and ‘notables’ is used liberally in this case. If the Falcons don’t address RB in the draft, then free agency will certainly be the choice again in 2021 as it was in 2020. The Falcons have two stalwarts up front in T Jake Matthews and C Alex Mack, and two promising 2019 1st round picks in G Chris Lindstrom and T Kaleb McGary. Neither Lindstrom or McGary impressed in 2019, but both have the pedigree to solidify as plus lineman, and oftentimes lineman take time to find their stride in the NFL. Mack enters free agency following this season at age 35, but if bought back would set this line up to be solid with great consistency entering the 2021 season. Quarterback and wide receiver are both plus position groups as well, meaning the Falcons will be welcoming a running back into a very high scoring offense. The Falcons are over the 175 million projected cap for 2021 by about 30 million, but with some restructuring could manage to bring in one of the top dogs in free agency to complete what projects to be an elite offense.
Best Fit: Kareem Hunt
The Jags roster currently stinks, there’s no way around that. But an offensive line that PFF ranked as 26th in the league in 2019 returns all 5 starters, and there’s reason to believe the unit is ready to take a step in 2020. A combination of youth and injury led to this unit underperforming last year, but some steady development this upcoming season would lay the path for a plus run blocking unit in 2021. Combine that with the potential to ‘earn’ the 1st overall pick in the 2021 draft (Jacksonville currently projected to win the least amount of games by Vegas), and the proposition of a Trevor Lawrence run offense behind a top 15 offensive line is plausible in JAC. In terms of incumbents, the Jags have Devine Ogzibo and Ryquell Armstead both signed through at least 2022. Their progress this season is something to monitor, but neither should be expected to have taken the Jags out of the RB market come March 2021. The Jags also only have 127 million committed to players for the 2021 season, so a splashy running back signing to pair with rookie Trevor Lawrence would be no sweat from a cap space point of view. The Jags won’t have the scoring potential Atlanta should have in 2021, but they do share a dearth of talent at the position.
Best fit: Dalvin Cook/Alvin Kamara
San Francisco 49ers:
The 49ers reached the super bowl last season on the back of an NFC leading run game, second in the league only to the historically productive Baltimore ravens. A feature of Shanahan’s scheme is the ‘plug-and-play’ ability his teams tend to have. SF had three 500-yard rushers last year, and has featured five different running backs over the last three seasons – none of whom being the man they offered a 30 million dollar contract in 2018, Jerick McKinnon. So why would they spend on a big name free agent? Well as I just mentioned, Shanahan showed the propensity to spend big at the position, and with just Raheem Mostert notably signed through 2021 that position group will require bolstering. Any running back that lands in SF will be running behind a stalwart line (PFF’s 8th ranked offensive line for 2020) and in a scheme that has proven hyper efficient over the past decade. Although the 49ers may be up against a shrunken 2021 cap ceiling, they have ample ways of creating room like cutting Garoppolo which would save 24.1 million. A straight cut may be drastic, but restructuring Garoppolo’s deal to ease the 2021 cap hit would be a simple fix if they desire a top of market running back next offseason.
Best fit: Aaron Jones
Washington Football Team:
Washington is undergoing a major overhaul, both culturally and personnel-wise. However, the offensive line managed to finish the 2019 campaign ranked as PFF’s 13th best offensive line. While the unit will require strong play from whoever fills in for Donald Penn at left tackle, and a repeat performance from the other four slots, this line has the potential to enter 2021 as a young up and coming force in the league. With no projected starters over the age of 29, and young pieces like Geron Christian who could take a big development step, this line should be primed for a strong 2021 if they can stay consistent in 2020. In terms of competition, nobody that has taken an NFL snap is signed through 2021. Bryce Love and Antonio Gibson may flash this season, but Washington will almost certainly be looking to add a weapon to this backfield come 2021. Sitting at 152 million committed in 2021, WAS should have enough wiggle room to make a splash signing in the backfield should they choose to do so.
Best fit: Leonard Fournette