Pre-free agency running back fantasy landscape
The 2017 free agency season is nearly upon us, which means NFL rosters as we know them are about to change. In some cases, the changes will be minor and will have no impact on the fantasy scene in the new season. In other instances, the changes will be major and could change what we’ve come to think and know about situations and players altogether.
As we prep to consume the madness that is free agency — that’s what people are referring to when they say “March Madness,” right? — we wanted to offer a pre-free agency look at the landscape.
What teams are in need of a major overhaul at a certain position? Is a change imminent? If so, what are the fantasy implications? All of the questions will of course be answered after the dust settles on free agency, but we can still take a gander at team needs — and the fantasy potential of those voids — before the true fun begins.
Up first: A look at the pre-free agency landscape for running backs.
High impact potential
These backfields could see some major fantasy-relevant changes via free agency.
New England Patriots — LeGarrette Blount paced all running backs with 18 rushing scores last year, and while he wants to be back with the Patriots, he is 30 years old. He could certainly come back to New England, but if he leaves, the Patriots could fill the void via free agency, and it would immediately become one of the most fantasy-relevant signings. Could Latavius Murray be a fit for the Patriots?
Oakland Raiders — Speaking of Murray, he’s set to hit free agency this year. He underwhelmed as a “lead back” in 2016, and the Raiders operated as a three-headed monster of sorts with Murray, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington. With that said, Murray still scored 12 of the team’s 17 running back scores. If Murray leaves, the Raiders could either opt to lean more on Richard and Washington, or make a splash for a bigger name.
Green Bay Packers — The Packers don’t really need a running back to be a great team — thanks, Aaron Rodgers — but Eddie Lacy could be departing. If the Packers make a move to get a real RB (not Ty Montgomery), the new running back could immediately become fantasy relevant thanks to the high-scoring nature of this Rodgers-led offense.
Minnesota Vikings — Adrian Peterson is all but gone in Minnesota, and Matt Asiata is also a free agent. Even if he does come back, Asiata can hardly be excused for an answer. And despite his athletic potential, Jerick McKinnon has not delivered for the Vikings. Look for them to make a move for a playmaker.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Doug Martin is still under contract, but the on-again, off-again running back was hit with a four-game suspension due to substance abuse, which gave Tampa Bay a clean way out of Martin’s hefty contract. They could opt to move on from Martin. Jacquizz Rodgers is also a free agent, and while he was serviceable for the Buccaneers in 2016, he’s not a 16-game workhorse. This rising offense could add a fresh face to the backfield in 2017.
Indianapolis Colts — Frank Gore just keeps on trucking along, but he’ll be 34 years old next year, and the Colts can’t expect to give him 260-plus rushing attempts again. Robert Turbin, who was second on the team with 47 rushing attempts — but first with seven rushing scores (Gore had four) — is set to hit free agency. Look for the Colts to add a piece via free agency, either as a complement to Gore, or as a full-fledged replacement. This Andrew Luck-led offense finds itself in scoring position often, so the potential for a big, fantasy-relevant move is legitimate here.
Philadelphia Eagles — The Eagles could cut ties with fantasy flirt Ryan Mathews this offseason. While they mostly operated a backfield-by-committee in 2016, Mathews was the primary focus. It didn’t seem like it, but Eagles running backs actually gained 1,632 combined rushing yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns, so this is far from a dead spot for fantasy purposes.
Medium impact potential
These backfields could see some meaningful, but not game-changing, fantasy-relevant changes in free agency.
New York Giants — I don’t expect the Giants to add anyone in free agency, and if that’s the case, it leaves the door wide open for Paul Perkins to shine in 2017. Rashad Jennings has already been released, and Perkins was giving the reins toward the end of the season. Perkins played over 50 percent of New York’s snaps in their final two games last year after playing no more than 40 percent of the snaps from Weeks 1 to 15.
Kansas City Chiefs — It’s sad to type, but Jamaal Charles looks to be on his way out of Kansas City. Spencer Ware is there to handle the bulk of the work in Charles’ absence, but the Chiefs could add a complement back. After all, Kansas City seems to be a breeding ground for fantasy running backs. Could Danny Woodhead find his way to Kansas City?
Buffalo Bills — Mike Gillislee is a restricted free agent, though he is expected to re-sign with the Bills. If he leaves, however, it leaves a void behind LeSean McCoy that would carry some fantasy value.
Los Angeles Rams — Benny Cunningham is set to hit the market, and if he moves on from the Rams, it could be a sneaky-big move for Gurley’s fantasy value in PPR leagues, unless the Rams sign another pass-catching specialist.
Los Angeles Chargers — Melvin Gordon was a first-round pick just two years ago and he shined as a sophomore in 2016. It’s his backfield, but the Chargers could certainly make some cosmetic changes. Danny Woodhead will be a free agent, and if he leaves, the opportunity is there for the Chargers to find a new pass-catching running back via free agency.
Baltimore Ravens — Terrance West is a restricted free agent. He could be back, but he’s unlikely to be a priority for the Ravens. Kenneth Dixon could get a more legitimate chance in 2017. It’s not the most exciting discussion, but a full chance for Dixon would be interesting.
Carolina Panthers — I don’t think it’s going to happen, but the Panthers could find a replacement for Jonathan Stewart in free agency. Panthers GM Dave Gettleman has said the Panthers could look for a running back in the draft. So why not free agency, too? It’s unlikely the Panthers would completely move on from Stewart right away, however, so if they do add a running back in free agency this year, it will likely only be a complementary piece, so the fantasy impact wouldn’t be massive.
New Orleans Saints — Mark Ingram has been solid for the Saints, but he has had to jump through a ton of hoops in terms of playing time — and that’s never fun from a fantasy perspective. Ingram has two years left on his contract, but he never seems to be on solid ground with the coaching staff. Additionally, Tim Hightower will be a free agent. I expect him to land back in New Orleans, but if he moves on, the Saints could find a new player to spell Ingram from time to time. Given that New Orleans never shied away from a committee approach in 2016, any new running back added to the roster will likely need to be considered in fantasy.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Le’Veon Bell isn’t going anywhere, but DeAngelo Williams might. In fact, we say Williams is Pittsburgh’s “must re-sign” player of the offseason. He’s reliable Bell insurance — both in real life, and in fantasy. If Williams leaves town, there’s little doubt the Steelers will work to find a serviceable backup for Bell.
Washington Redskins — Chris Thompson is a restricted free agent, but he’s expected back in Washington. Rob Kelley also came on strong for the Redskins last year, so Washington probably won’t be looking to make a change at the position via free agency. Though if Thompson leaves, the Redskins could look to replace his role — and it’s a role that did have some fantasy relevance in PPR formats.
Jacksonville Jaguars — The Jaguars appear set with T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, but it could be a mirage. Ivory played in just 11 games last year, while Yeldon parlayed 130 carries into a pathetic 465 yards (3.6 YPC). It probably won’t happen, but the Jaguars could surprise us and sign a workhorse to take the load off of Blake Bortles.
Low impact potential
These backfields probably won’t see a fantasy-relevant change as a result of free agency.
Dallas Cowboys — There is reportedly mutual interest between Adrian Peterson and the Dallas Cowboys, because apparently Jerry Jones forgot they have Ezekiel Elliott on the roster. If Peterson does come to Dallas, it will be to back up Elliott.
Miami Dolphins — Jay Ajayi is the guy in Miami. Ajayi’s 1,272 rushing yards were fourth in the NFL. He gained 1,155 of those yards from Week 6 on.
New York Jets — The Jets made their running back splash last year when they acquired Matt Forte, even though he’s already on the downswing. They also have a legitimately good backup in Bilal Powell.
Arizona Cardinals — Andre Ellington, Chris Johnson and Stepfan Taylor are all free agents, so there will be some new names in Arizona’s backfield next year. But none of that will matter in fantasy. It’s the David Johnson show.
San Francisco 49ers — Shaun Draughn is hitting free agency, so Carlos Hyde could end up with a new backup in 2017. But it’s Hyde’s backfield either way, so a backup running back addition via free agency won’t have much of a fantasy impact. Draughn only saw meaningful work last year when Hyde was injured.
Seattle Seahawks — The Seahawks will be fine with Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise.
Denver Broncos — C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker may be underwhelming, but Denver is unlikely to make a move for a running back in free agency this year. If they do, it’s hard to see anything other than an even worse committee approach taking shape.
Chicago Bears — The Bears have found their guy in Jordan Howard. He finished the year as the No. 9 running back in fantasy and he was second in rushing yards with 1,313.
Detroit Lions — No major changes from last year’s hodgepodge group of running backs is expected. Theo Riddick is one of the premier pass-catching running backs in the league. Additionally, Zach Zenner showed promise toward the end of the year. He had 55 touches over the team’s final three games.
Cincinnati Bengals — The Bengals are apparently interested in Leonard Fournette, but we’re talking about free agency here, not the draft. With Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill still in town, there’s not much room for a free agent signing to make noise.
Cleveland Browns — Isaiah Crowell is a restricted free agent, and the Browns have placed a second round tender on him. He’ll probably be back in Cleveland. Crowell was actually good — albeit inconsistent — in 2016. His 0.41 fantasy points per opportunity ranked eight among qualifying running backs last year, tied with David Johnson.
Atlanta Falcons — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are holding down the fort in Atlanta. Both were top-20 fantasy running backs last year.
Houston Texans — The Texans made their move last year by grabbing Lamar Miller in free agency. It paid off, as Miller gained 1,073 yards (10th in the NFL).
Tennessee Titans — This backfield still belongs to DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry — though perhaps we’ll see more Henry in 2017. Henry scored no touchdowns from Weeks 1 to 7 but found the end zone five times from Weeks 8 to 17.