2021 NFL Free Agency - Running Backs
NFL Free Agency is always an interesting time during the football calendar; nearly two months after the Super Bowl teams reassess their roster to see how they can improve. The challenge lies within managing the salary cap while prioritizing the current roster with the pool of free agents with only a few weeks before the draft. Now that free agency market has cooled down and we have had a chance to properly digest all the moves, I will look at the fantasy implications specifically for the running back position. The debate over the importance of the running back position can sometimes show its face in free agency; this is not an article about the debate regarding the concept that “Running backs don’t matter, maybe another time … I am processing the moves purely from the fantasy football perspective and to gauge the fantasy relevance, we will scan the scope of RB free agency with my very creatively and cleverly named tool: “RB Radar”. The louder (and closer) the blip – the bigger the fantasy impact…the softer (and the further) the blip - the smaller the fantasy impact… It is time to navigate with our radar!
Loud Radar Blips:
Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers
As soon as free agency began; looking over the scope of the running back position, all eyes were on Aaron Jones and where he was going to land. He resigned with the Packers on a big money multi-year contract; and deservedly so. This news gave all the Aaron Jones truthers a massive sigh of relief while the AJ Dillon hive of quad gazers began to tilt. Although the tilt wasn’t too bad as the Packers did not retain Jamaal Williams (more on him below) giving Dillon the clear #2 role behind Jones. Dillon looks to be a big-time backup option while Aaron Jones remains an RB1 for 2021 and beyond.
Chris Carson – Seattle Seahawks
Carson signing a 2-year deal with Seattle was the second most fantasy relevant move at the position (behind Aaron Jones being the obvious #1). The fit is perfect for both sides; Seattle can stay competitive and continue with their desired offensive scheme, while Carson remains a solid RB2 option for the 2021 season. The impressive career continues for the former 7th round pick!
Kenyan Drake – Las Vegas Raiders
Drake signing a 2-year deal with Las Vegas sent shockwaves through the landscape for both the Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals. I believe this move has a greater impact for new teammate Josh Jacobs than it does for Drake; and certainly, has bigger implications for the Arizona Cardinals who remain an extremely attractive place for a premier RB option that will likely be added in the draft. Chase Edmonds is the next man up in Arizona; he displayed solid production in the passing game, but I believe he is most useful in a complimentary role. I will have a close eye on what the Cardinals do in the draft and what comes of their RB core. The ever-capable Drake has had a unique NFL career to this point, but this move gives it an even wilder twist. Drake came into the 2020 season as a fringe RB1 and by seasons’ end he left fantasy GMs wanting more. As stated above, Drake joins former and fellow Alabama RB Josh Jacobs who was viewed as a clear cut RB1 option for fantasy in 2020. After a mostly strong season, Jacobs had a bit of an off the field issue which perhaps shook the confidence of the coaches and GM and may have played a role in wanting to sign Drake. Jacobs appears to have become an RB2, and Drake may have RB3 upside depending on the role that is carved out for him. This will be a fascinating situation to monitor!
Leonard Fournette – Tamp Bay Buccaneers
Fresh off the Super Bowl victory against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buccaneers were somehow able to bring back their entire starting lineup in free agency including retaining emergency replacement RB Leonard Fournette. During the unprecedented playoff run; where Tampa Bay won every round of the playoffs on the road and then made it to the Super Bowl which was played (and won) on their home field, Fournette put together a string of impressive productive games when the team needed him the most. I hope he can continue his career redemption story with Tampa Bay, but for fantasy I think the priority is Ronald Jones. Fournette has RB3-Flex appeal for 2021.
Moderate Radar Blips:
Phillip Lindsay – Houston Texans
Denver’s decision to let Lindsay walk was a curious one to me. Lindsay has shown to be a productive player but perhaps they figured financially it was not in their best interest. In Lindsay’s place, Denver signed Mike Boone from the Vikings on a 2-year deal for close to the same amount of money that Lindsay signed for 1 year. Lindsay signed with the Houston Texans on a 1-year deal to compliment the projected starter David Johnson. Prior to this signing, the Texans had signed Mark Ingram on a 1-year deal, who is now officially deemed fantasy irrelevant (which is sad to say as Ingram was a personal favorite of mine). The Texans seem to be a lost franchise at this point but fantasy purposes I still find Lindsay to be an attractive and affordable option. I will be interested to see how his Average Draft Position shapes up come fantasy draft season.
Carlos Hyde – Jacksonville Jaguars
NFL RB journeyman, Carlos Hyde finds himself in his second stint with the Jags on a 2-year deal. Hyde is now on his 6th team change since 2017. The former 2nd round pick (2014) is still a capable player when given the opportunity. He is a solid veteran to backup 2nd year RB James Robinson, who exploded onto the scene as an undrafted free agent rookie. Hyde may get a few short yardage or goal line looks; key word is “may”. Overall, I don’t think this affects the value of James Robinson based on how Robinson produced and how he was implemented in the Jags offense. Hyde becomes an interesting late round or waiver wire option for 2021.
Jamaal Williams – Detroit Lions
I was really anticipating where Jamaal Williams was going to sign because I’m really big fan of the player. Before Seattle decided to resign Carson, I was thinking that Seattle would have been a great fit for Williams. However, I can’t have nice things, and Williams signed with Detroit on a 2-year deal. I think adding Williams was a smart pure football move but not super ideal for fantasy purposes. Williams essentially becomes the Adrian Peterson replacement, as he looks to be featured in a complimentary role alongside 2nd year stud D’Andre Swift. I think Jamaal Williams’ presence has potential to limit Swift’s weekly upside and negatively affect his snap count. I am still confident in Swift’s ability and overall fantasy outlook as he is a firm RB1 for me. Williams is one RB I will be targeting aggressively in the late rounds of drafts in August.
Devontae Booker – New York Giants
Devontae Booker signed with the Giants early into free agency. At first, I completely overlooked this move as a major nothing but then it dawned on me that 2020 season Giants RBs Wayne Gallman and Dion Lewis were also free agents at the time of the signing. Lewis is still a free agent but Gallman has signed with the 49ers (more on him below). Saquon Barkley is one of the leagues’ best athletes and RBs when healthy; he is currently rehabbing from the ACL tear that he sustained during week 2 of the 2020 season. At this moment Booker is the clear cut #2 RB in an offense that is certainly on the rise; Daniel Jones permitting. There is recent precedent that Saquon will be able to return to action within the timeline he is rehabbing with, but with no one other current competition in the backfield Booker is looking like a solid late round or waiver wire target if Saquon shows that he is at less than 100%.
Mike Davis – Atlanta Falcons
Mike Davis finds himself in the ever fantasy friendly Atlanta Falcons offense. As former fantasy darling Todd Gurley and former late round target Brian Hill continue to remain free agents, Davis appears to be in the top spot in the Falcons RB group. Mike Davis enters his 8th season while now on his 6th team. Davis was mostly fantasy relevant in relief duty as CMC missed several weeks with injury. Davis seems to be a Carlos Hyde type, a nice veteran presence for a looming young RB. I believe the Falcons target an RB early in the draft, if I were to guess I’d predict in the early 2nd round. In that case, I believe the rookie RB will become the fantasy priority over Davis. Davis is worth keeping a close eye on as a late round target or waiver wire option for 2021. If Atlanta passes on one of the top rookie RBs, then I could imagine valuing Mike Davis in the RB3 range.
Damien Williams – Chicago Bears
Damien Williams signed with the Chicago Bears after being released by the Chiefs after a season in which he had made the difficult yet noble decision to opt out of the season due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. The last game he played was in the Chiefs Super Bowl 54 winning effort where he was a legitimate MVP candidate, but now one year removed from the game he projects but is not necessarily a guarantee to join a backfield with heavy competition. He may join a group with a rising David Montgomery and swiss army knife Tarik Cohen who returning from injury. He is a solid #3 option for them and would honestly make for a solid #2 option mostly anywhere else. As a big fan of his, I hope he can return to previous Super Bowl 54 form and find himself a secure job in the league.
Malcolm Brown – Miami Dolphins
The longtime Ram RB lands in an attractive football situation but looks to be in a similar role as a good veteran presence for the young and rising duo of Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed. Both Gaskin and Ahmed displayed strong production with ample opportunity in 2020. At this time Brown seems like he would be one to watch on the waiver wire for the 2021 season.
James White – New England Patriots
White is retained by the Patriots on a 1-year deal as he looks to resume his pass-catching specialties after he was shockingly not gauging much interest from the other teams around the league. The fit remains ideal for White which makes him a late round PPR option as he mixes in to compliment the rising star Damien Harris as well as Sony Michel.
Tevin Coleman – New York Jets
The ever tempting yet often a tease for fantasy football, Tevin Coleman lands with the New York Jets on a 1-year deal. The Jets project to be a team on the rise in the next 2-3 years as they seek to land a hopeful franchise QB in the upcoming draft. Coleman likely won’t play a role in the Jets wishful rise. Coleman has potential to be an affordable fantasy asset for 2021, but this will be primarily contingent on three things; 1) Coleman’s health, 2) La’Michal Perine’s year 2 development, and 3) how the Jets handle the RB position in the draft.
Soft Radar Blips:
James Conner – Arizona Cardinals
One of the great NFL feel-good stories continues with James Conner signing with in Arizona. I hope I am wrong here, because Conner is such great person to root for, but this signing doesn’t excite me for fantasy purposes. My pessimism has nothing to do with landing spot; Arizona is a premier landing spot for an incoming RB. However, all along I was under the belief that the Cardinals were going to draft a top RB in this rookie class (ideally in the early 2nd round) to rotate in with Chase Edmonds who is a very solid complimentary RB who I have valued as an RB3 for the 2021 season. At this current moment (one week before the NFL draft) I see Edmonds as the RB who will get the most touches with Conner mixing in to give Edmonds a breather or come in for short yardage and goal-line situations. I’m unsure if this signing deters the Cardinals from targeting one of the top RB prospects, which for me would move the needle more for fantasy purposes. Conner’s value has fallen as of late and becomes a priority free agent for redraft purposes and a hold in dynasty as we anticipate what the Cardinals do in the draft.
Wayne Gallman – San Francisco 49ers
One of last season’s unexpected RB heroes, Wayne Gallman, has signed with the San Francisco 49ers. I have long felt that Gallman was worthy was a starting RB role in the NFL and he proved it last year. He enters a crowded backfield joining the likes of Raheem Mostert, Jeffery Wilson, and Jamycal Hasty. Gallman was the fantasy RB7 from week 7 to week 14, and now in a Kyle Shanahan offense it feels like a dream come true for a Gallman truther like me. Expectations must be tempered since he in part of the San Fran mega-committee.
Giovanni Bernard - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gross. Not Bernard, I love me some Gio, but the landing spot...gross! As I roll my eyes, Bernard joins an already crowded backfield along with Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. For fantasy purposes I had higher hopes for a landing spot but for the 2021 he is a long shot for fantasy relevance.
Marlon Mack – Indianapolis Colts
Marlon Mack is back with the Indianapolis Colts on a 1-year deal after he suffered an early season Achilles tendon tear in the 2020 season. Mack Is now a bit of an afterthought as he rejoins a powerhouse running back group headlined by the mighty Jonathon Taylor and the pass-catching specialist Nyheim Hines. Life in the NFL is not easy, careers can change course all too quickly.
Matt Breida – Buffalo Bills
Breida joins the Buffalo Bills RB group led by the young tandem of Zack Moss and Devin Singletary. Breida doesn’t exactly move the needle for fantasy but it is a smart pure football move for the Bills, as Breida has demonstrated flashes of explosive playmaking ability.
Samaje Perine – Cincinnati Bengals
Perine returns to the Bengals where he will remain in backup duties to Joe Mixon. With Gio Bernard now out of town, Perine could still get some goal-line or short yardage work but he is mostly one for the waiver wire watchlist keeping a close eye on Joe Mixon’s foot.
Theo Riddick – Las Vegas Raiders
Riddick is back with Las Vegas as the pass-catching specialist. But with newly acquired Kenyan Drake in town, Riddick seems like a fantasy afterthought.
Ameer Abdullah – Minnesota Vikings
Abdullah reups with Minnesota on a 1-year deal to further his role as an emergency change of pace player. With Mike Boone now out of the mix; Abdullah has a better but still murky shot at snaps.
Lamar Miller – Washington Football Team
Lamar Miller resigned with the Washington Football team where he projects to be a practice squad player or a training camp cut candidate.
That is the breakdown of who had been signed thus far. However, there are some intriguing players that remain unsigned (as of 3/28/21) including:
Todd Gurley, Duke Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Rex Burkhead, Jerick McKinnon, D’Onta Foreman, Dion Lewis, Brian Hill, T.J. Yeldon, Chris Thompson, DeAndre Washington, Corey Clement, Tyler Ervin, amongst others. I would be remiss to forget to mention a few aging but nevertheless yesteryear fantasy favorites – Alfred Morris, LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, and Adrian Peterson.
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Steve Uetz has over 15 years of experience in fantasy football. He enjoys writing fantasy football content and articles. He is very passionate about Auction Leagues. Other than his own fantasy football teams, Steve is a huge fan of the Philadelphia Eagles & Penn State! Steve (@FantasyLadder on Twitter) is very accessible and involved in the Fantasy Football Twitter community! Reach out to him anytime for questions or advice! His primary goal is to help you win your leagues.