By: Jesse Patterson May 11th 2020
Caught up in the midst of post NFL draft rookie fever, you would be excused to admit you had forgotten about some of the remaining veterans available through free agency. This has certainly been a unique offseason in many ways due to the Pandemic, and teams are adjusting and making due while trying to build their rosters for the 2020 season. Free agency has certainly been a challenge as organizations are unable to bring players in for visits or official physical testing at shuttered team facilities. The byproduct of this is a glut of serviceable veteran running backs still available for teams to sign. The market for some of these once highly coveted dynasty assets has been fairly quiet thus far. As dynasty league rookie drafts kick-off, many managers are likely wondering if these players are worth holding on to. Could these roster spots be better utilized on the upside of a rookie or younger player? Will these players sign in a favorable landing spot, and more importantly, do any good landing spots even still exist? Many teams have already filled their needs through the rookie draft, and depth charts are starting to take shape. Which teams could benefit from signing a savvy veteran player, perhaps with the intent to spell a younger exciting workhorse? Today I did a bit of depth chart digging, and have come up with a few scenarios I believe could benefit from the added safety of an established player in their running back rooms.
First up, the wildcard teams, ones in my opinion that could potentially benefit from a grizzled vet but don’t necessarily have a glaring need for one. At this point of the offseason an incentive-laden low cap hit contract will likely fit in for these teams’ salary situations.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have certainly been a story since the 2019 season concluded, acquiring a pair of future Hall of Famers in Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The Bucs are absolutely in a ‘win-now’ window, and while incumbent Ronald Jones has some added backfield competition in third-round rookie (and dynasty rookie draft darling) Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the addition of a well-versed veteran could really help in pass protection situations. Tom Brady also has a propensity to distrust rookies and younger players, so an established asset could be used early in the season as the team works out any kinks in their plan of attack.
When the Buffalo Bills elected not to re-sign ageless wonder Frank Gore, the lion’s share of running back work seemed to be Devin Singletary’s for the taking. The Bills then added third-round rookie Zach Moss in the draft, but have otherwise been quiet at the position. In 2019 Gore actually had more rushing attempts (166) than Singletary (115), though Singletary out targeted the veteran in the passing game 42 - 16. As Buffalo continues to grow and improve as a team under quarterback Josh Allen, will they immediately hand Gore’s workload to a rookie and a sophomore? What if Moss struggles or starts the season off slowly due to a lack of rookie camps and OTAs? Adding a veteran between the tackles player may well be in the Bills’ best interest if they want to compete in a suddenly wide-open AFC East.
Other situations to monitor:
Dallas Cowboys - Lessen the load on Ezekiel Elliot in a high scoring offense with Super Bowl aspirations? Behind impressive Tony Pollard, the team could add some veteran insurance.
Cincinnati Bengals - Will Joe Mixon’s rumored potential contract holdout force the team to add a known commodity to the backfield? It would certainly benefit the team to have a trusted player pass protecting for first overall pick Joe Burrow. Gio Bernard is still in town but has not shown the ability to be an every-down player, while Rodney Anderson red-shirted his rookie season.
Atlanta Falcons - Todd Gurley is back in Georgia, but behind him are a lot of question marks. Ito Smith and Brian Hill surely classify as ‘J.A.G.’ runners and questions about Gurley’s long-term health and ability to withstand a full workload persist from his days with the Rams.
Los Angeles Chargers - The Austin Ekeler show is set to kick off in L.A. Will he hold up to a full season’s worth of punishment now that running mate Melvin Gordon has taken his talents to Denver? Can Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelly handle the change of pace duties? Adding an affordable veteran would certainly solidify this group.
The above scenarios all make some degree of sense, but in reality not adding anybody to these teams is also a viable option. The teams have players on the roster whom they trust or who they have just selected in the rookie draft to presumably get the job done. Teams have immense faith in their own roster building abilities. Next are a group of five teams who have a need for an addition at running back, but could also be a potential great landing spot for dynasty owners who are rostering these veteran free agents in order to maintain some semblance of value.
The great landing spot teams start with a playoff contender and perennial powerhouse running team in the Seattle Seahawks. Chris Carson has been an absolute gift to dynasty owners since entering the league as a seventh round pick in 2017, finishing as the RB12 and RB15 the past two seasons. Seattle is constantly near the top of the league in rushing attempts, finishing third overall in 2019 with 481. Entering the final year of his contract and coming off an injury-shortened 2019 which also saw Carson criticized for fumbling issues, the question in Seattle is can the 25-year-old Carson continue to be the main man? Seattle added the University of Miami’s DeeJay Dallas in the fourth round of the draft, and also have former sixth-rounder Travis Homer under contract. Homer underwhelmed when pressed into action last season with 18 rushes for 114 yards while catching 11 of 13 targets for an additional 56 yards. Coach Pete Carroll has already confirmed Rashaad Penny will begin the season on the P.U.P. list, meaning there is ample opportunity for someone to earn a role in the Seahawks backfield spelling Carson or as a third-down option. Early indications are that Dallas will get the first crack at these duties, but recent comments from veteran Marshawn Lynch seem to indicateSeattle is open to adding a veteran to the mix. An established pro in a run-centric offense would certainly propel one of these veteran free agents into deeper league fantasy relevance.
Do the Philadelphia Eagles really trust Boston Scott and Corey Clement to be their only options behind sophomore Miles Sanders? The team has showna propensity to bring in established talent on the defensive side of the ball, while their recent trade with the 49ers for Marquise Goodwin indicates they aren’t above adding veteran competition at the skill positions either. Last season Jordan Howard showed that there is always room for more than one fantasy viable option on an Eagles team that ranked 7th in rushing attempts in the league with 454. The Eagles have also always shown a propensity to involve their running backs in the passing game dating back to the Brian Westbrook days. Sanders figures to be the lead back in all statistical categories, but having the diminutive Scott as the fallback option has to make Philly fans a bit nervous. The Eagles are always a playoff threat by being high scoring and utilizing a running back favorable scheme. Adding a veteran to this running back group would absolutely pique the interest of fantasy league players.
Christian McCaffrey is, at this point without competition as the number one asset in dynasty football. The man is a living cheat code due to his high volume and amazing production. As a pass-catching option and a between the tackles runner, it is very hard to argue that any current player does both as good or better than ‘Run CMC’. But how long can he maintain this pace? Yes he is only 23 years old, but the sheer volume of touches he receives certainly has to worry both the Carolina Panthers and fantasy owners alike. Behind McCaffrey is currently former undrafted free agent Reggie Bonnafon, he of the career 16 rushes, 116 yards and 1 touchdown. New Panthers coach Matt Rhule has already stated publicly that he doesn't envision using McCaffrey on every snap like in previous years. Does the organization really believe Bonnafon is ready to handle the increased target share? Carolina targeted running back a league-high 155 times in 2019 while also rushing the ball 386 times. Even a fraction of that workload is enough to earn a player fantasy roster consideration. Signing a veteran to a short term deal, even if it’s just for the season almost makes too much sense not to happen. The Panthers have one of the league’s premier assets. They should do what they can to protect him by adding a veteran backup.
The New York Giants have had an offensive line problem for years, and seem to be attempting to rectify the situation by selecting a linemen with three of their first five selections in the draft, including fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas. The Giants boast one of dynasty football’s most coveted assets in running back Saquon Barkley, who finished as the RB1 just two seasons ago before slipping to RB10 this past season while missing three games to injury. Despite having an elite runner, the Giants ranked 29th in the league last season in rushing attempts with 362. They did target the running backs on passes 99 times and added pass-catching specialist Dion Lewis as a free agent, but by shoring up the offensive line, first-year coach Joe Judge is clearly looking to establish the run more often in 2020. Barkley is a stud and an absolute beast, but is Wayne Gallman really the man to back him up? Gallman, the former fourth round pick is entering his fourth season with the Giants and has done nothing to indicate he is more than a replacement-level talent thus far. The Giants showed they felt similarly by giving carries to players like Buck Allen, Eliijaa Penny, and Jon Hillman during Barkley’s injury absence last season. Lewis’s role is pretty clear cut as a passing back specialist, but who will spell Barkley on running plays and what happens if he suffers another injury? A free agent addition, who can fill in between the tackles, in short yardage, and can also keep second year quarterback Daniel Jones protected could be a wise move by the Giants front office.
The one team that makes the most sense to me to sign a veteran back is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Incumbent starter and last season’s surprise RB7 Leonard Fournette recently had his fifth-year optiondeclined by the team.Trade rumors have also dogged Fournette, seemingly since last offseason and all indications point to a divorce either during or following the 2020 season. Jacksonville targeted running backs 129 times last season while rushing 389 times, and the majority of that work fell on Fournette. The team does have former fifth round pick Ryquell Armstead on the roster along with former sixth rounder Devine Ozigbo, and they signed oft-injured pass-catching specialist Chris Thompson from Washington as a free agent. As a dynasty manager, none of those names truly inspire the confidence that a sure-handed well-proven veteran would. The Jaguars continue to build on the defensive side of the ball hoping to win low-scoring, defensive-minded games. Chewing up clock would be a lot easier by bringing in a veteran to help carry the load. Should Fournette be traded in season, an established asset would be able to instantly fill that void and would gain immediate fantasy flex appeal. Despite being healthy in 2019, Fournette also has a lengthy injury history which could crop back up at any time. If one of these aging veterans lands in Jacksonville, he should earn immediate attention on waiver wires and in fantasy leagues.
Who are these veteran runners that I keep mentioning? Some familiar names are still available and still have some worth if they land in the right situation, such as the ones I made my case for above.
Devonta Freeman is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. 28 years old, and completing his sixth season with the Atlanta Falcons, the 5’8 206 lb Freeman is coming off an underwhelming 2019 campaign but still managed to finish as the RB20. Boasting career totals of 3,972 yards and 32 touchdowns on 951 carries, he certainly has less wear than the rest of the players on this list. He has also hauled in 257 of a possible 323 targets for an additional 2,015 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns and a 79.6% catch rate making him a true dual-threat running back.
A lost year due to a preseason injury led the Houston Texans to let Lamar Miller test the market. Thus far there are no takers for the 29-year-old veteran of seven seasons. Miller has career rushing totals of 1,354 attempts, ,5864 yards, and 32 touchdowns as well as catching 209 of his 271 targets for 1,565 yards, and 8 touchdowns. His 77.1% catch rate makes him an attractive option in passing situations, and assuming he is fully recovered from his torn knee ligaments, Miller should be eager to prove he still belongs in the league.
When Miller went down to injury last year the Houston Texans acted quickly, trading for Duke Johnson from Cleveland and then signing veteran Carlos Hyde. Hyde filled in admirably considering it was his fifth team in three seasons, breaking the 1,000 rushing yard plateau for the first time in his six-year career. Now 29 years old, Hyde is best utilized as a between the tackles runner, as his 70.1% career catch rate is much lower than the other backs on this list, though he is a capable pass-catcher with 129 career receptions on 184 targets, 709 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns, to go along with his 1,072 career rushing attempts, 4370 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. Rumoredinterest from the Eagleswould certainly land him in a fantasy viable position and make Hyde worth hanging on to in deeper dynasty leagues.
The elder statesman on this list is potential Hall of Famer LeSean McCoy. After 11 years of service, it is fairly clear that Shady is nearing the end of the line as a 31-year-old with 2,447 career carries. Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that he has 11,071 career yards and 73 career rushing touchdowns to go along with catching 503 of a possible 647 targets, 3,797 yards, and another 16 touchdowns. Truly a fantasy stud for the majority of his career, McCoy earned a Super Bowl ring this past season with Kansas City and his 465 yards and 4 touchdowns on 101 attempts showed that there was still some gas left in the tank. I could certainly envision him signing a one year deal with a contender (Dallas perhaps?) for a retirement tour year chasing one last Championship ring. While he wouldn’t return the same value as the other players listed above, he could still have some end of bench appeal in deep leagues, especially when injuries and bye weeks start to deplete roster depth.
Will any of these grizzled warriors end up getting signed and becoming useful assets in fantasy leagues this season? Or will they be cast aside and forgotten in the twilight of their careers? The season is still months away, but there is certainly a case to be made the opportunity and situations are available if the right teams connect with the right players.