Top 10 running backs set to hit free agency

Which running backs are worth targeting on the NFL free agent market this offseason?

| 4 months ago
Packers RB Eddie Lacy

(Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Top 10 running backs set to hit free agency

While the goal for virtually every NFL team is to build the foundation of their roster through the draft, for many teams, the easiest route to take to pick up a player at a position of need is through free agency. Last offseason, we saw running backs Lamar Miller, Matt Forte and Alfred Morris, among others, sign with a new team. Here we’ll take a look at the top 10 running backs who are, potentially, about to hit the open market.

To see Pro Football Focus’ full NFL free-agent rankings featuring the top 50 players set to hit the market in 2017, click here.

1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers (88.3 overall grade in 2016)

It’s more of a matter of when, not if, Bell is placed under the franchise tag. If he hits the open market, though, not only is he the best free agent RB, he’s the best free agent, period. Bell has finished each of the last two seasons as our highest-graded running back, and finished among the top-10 in each of his first four pro seasons.

2. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers (77.3)

Few players will have more to prove in 2017 than Eddie Lacy. Lacy earned an 86.0 overall grade in 2014, which ranked third-best among RBs that season. Since then, though, he’s dealt with a very public weight battle, and that, compounded with some injuries, have resulted in him barely cracking our top 50 free agents list in 2017. Lacy forced 73 missed tackles on 287 total touches in 2014 (one every 3.9 touches); since the start of the 2015 season, he’s forced only 51 missed tackles on 282 touches (one every 5.5 touches).

3. LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots (68.1)

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Blount led all RBs in 2016 with 18 rushing touchdowns and ranked eighth with 1,161 rushing yards. However, as PFF’s 68.1 overall grade for him would indicate, his production stats weren’t necessarily indicative of his level of play. Of the 12 running backs to eclipse the 1,000-rushing-yard threshold this past season, Blount and Indianapolis’ Frank Gore were the only two to not average at least 4.0 yards per carry. Blount has always been a one-trick pony, and at 30 years old, that’s not changing. If you’re an NFL team who has a passing-down back, though, and is looking for some competence on first and second downs, Blount may be a decent bet.

4. Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders (73.1)

Latavius Murray has been given two years now as Oakland’s starting running back, and the results have been serviceable, but certainly not great. Murray finished this year ranked 21st among RBs with a 73.1 overall grade after putting up a 70.0 overall mark in 2015. Murray isn’t overly elusive with the ball in his hands, as his 31.9 elusive rating (PFF’s elusive rating metric distills the impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him) ranked 33rd among running backs this season He also doesn’t offer much as a receiver.

5. Jacquizz Rodgers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (77.2)

Rodgers was a mere afterthought entering the 2016 season, but injuries to both Doug Martin and Charles Sims thrust him into a starting role for a chunk of the season, and he really took advantage of that opportunity. Rodgers’ 76.5 rushing grade—the highest of his career—ranked eighth among qualified RBs this past season, and he’s traditionally graded well as both a receiver and pass blocker. It’s unlikely that Rodgers ever turns into a top-tier three-down back, but he’s proven that he can fill a large role over short spurts; if you’re a team looking for backfield depth, or looking to add a competent third-down back with some upside, Rodgers makes for an intriguing option.

6. Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals (63.6)

Ellington is a bit of a wildcard free agent this offseason. The 28-year-old running back exploded onto the scene in his rookie season back in 2013, when he finished the year with the sixth-highest overall grade among all RBs, at 81.1. He followed that up with a disappointing 2014 season, and has since been completely overshadowed by David Johnson in Arizona’s backfield. Ellington presents an interesting case to prospective teams, because he’s still under 30 years old and has fewer than 1,500 NFL snaps to his name. He has an outstanding season under his belt that he can point to, and it’s relatively unknown which had more of an impact on his decline in snaps, his own poor play or the emergence of Johnson?

7. DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers (72.9)

Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) runs the ball  in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

What Williams has been able to do into his mid-30s is pretty remarkable. In the 2015 season—at age 32—Williams earned a 78.9 overall grade over the course of 715 snaps, which ranked eighth among RBs. Williams had a much more limited role in 2016—his snap total dropped to 336—but he still produced, finishing the season with a 72.9 overall grade, 23rd-best among qualified running backs.

8. Rex Burkhead, Cincinnati Bengals (74.5)

Burkhead has received a very limited number of snaps over his three-year NFL career, but he enjoyed his most expanded role last season, and he thrived within it. Burkhead averaged 3.03 yards after contact per attempt in 2016, which ranked 12th among all RBs receiving at least 50 carries, forcing 15 missed tackles on 91 total touches.

9. Danny Woodhead, Los Angeles Chargers (55.0)

The biggest question the 32-year-old Woodhead this offseason is how he recovers from a torn ACL that cost him virtually all of the 2016 season. When healthy, Woodhead has proven that he’s capable of being one of the premier pass-catching threats out of the backfield. Woodhead led all running backs with 755 receiving yards in the 2015 season, and his 1.91 yards per route run mark ranked fourth among all RBs who received at least 50 targets in 2015.

10. Rashad Jennings, New York Giants (58.0)

Jennings graded positively as a runner in 2015; in fact, his 71.7 running grade that season ranked 23rd among all RBs. His performance in that department fell off a cliff in 2016, however, as his 55.3 running grade from this past season ranked 53rd out of 55 qualifying RBs. Jennings can bring a veteran presence to a backfield, though, and still does one thing extraordinarily well: pass protect. Jennings ranked first among all qualifying running backs this past season with a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 98.3, as he allowed just one total QB pressure on 60 pass-blocking snaps in 2016. (PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric is a weighted formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many snaps a running back stays in to pass protect.) Jennings has allowed just seven total QB pressures on 160 pass-blocking snaps since the start of 2014.

  • Rolo Tomassi

    Eddie Lacy # 2 ????

    • crosseyedlemon

      I’d probably have Blount at #2. Williams, Woodhead & Jennings are all over 30 so at age 26 Lacy should rank higher than them.

      • Nelson Cobb

        Again, a RB who averaged 3.9 ypc over a guy averaging 5.1 ypc?? Look at Lacy at his best in 2014, and then look at Blount at his best over his career. It’s not even comparable. Lacy is much much better and more talented than Blount.

        • Justin Potts

          Blount had 18 Rushing TDS last year. Lacy has Had 23 In his career. Lacy also hasn’t had as many carries or yards in the past 2 years as Blount did this year alone. Lacy also has weight issues reportedly. I’d definitely rank Blount higher.

          • Nelson Cobb

            You can point to the recent numbers all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that Eddie Lacy is the better RB. He’s better carrying the ball on 1st and 2nd down, and offers 3 down ability to as a pass catcher and blocker. Blount, he offers nothing on 3rd down. He’s strictly a 1st and 2nd down guy, and only getting 3.9 ypc on those downs. Lacy is better, younger and more versatile, and when both are healthy, Blount doesn’t have anything on Eddie Lacy. All you gotta do is watch the highlight video’s of both to see how much more gifted a RB Eddie Lacy is, and that’s why he’s #2 on this list.

    • GBPFan12

      He was averaging +5 YPC til that linebacker landed on his ankle.
      He played thru an ankle injury in 2015, back when defenses were daring the Packers to throw it (They were down to James Jones as their no.1 wr)…

      If the Packers are dumb enough to quit on him, he’ll wind up being a huge steal for another team (like Casey Hayward).

      • Nelson Cobb

        100% agree. He had his issues last year, but he appeared to get everything back in line this year, and was looking like the guy we drafted in 2013 and 2014 over the 1st 5 games. Hell, even as much hate as he gets for 2015, it wasn’t that horrible. It wasn’t what we seen from him, or near what was expected out of him, but 187 carries, 758 yards, 4.1 ypc is respectable numbers. Then in the playoffs that year averaged 6.3 ypc. He dealt with some injuries, and some immaturity with that other rookie RB they added and had to get rid of, and it also seemed McCarthy was a little extra hard on him, but he did appear to be beyond all that this year. There’s no doubt they should bring him back and give him a 1 year deal. With Lacy healthy in 2014, our offense ran as good as it’s run in a long time, and Rodgers won his 2nd MVP, and really only had 2 reliable passing option, Jordy and Cobb. The presence of Lacy had that big of an impact though that we didn’t need more than 2 guys. Bring Lacy back, he stays healthy with Jordy, Cobb, Adams and Allison, Cook at TE, Rodgers could very well get MVP #3.

    • moochee22

      Rolo Tomassi is that you?

  • crosseyedlemon

    Christine Micheal was actually more productive for the Packer than Lacy but whether or not he can step up to the next level and be consistent remains a big question.

    • Nelson Cobb

      What??? That’s wrong, very wrong. WTH were you watching?? Michael sucked. He broke off 1 nice run vs Chicago, but outside of that, he absolutely sucked. Dude averaged 3.7 ypc when he did touch the ball, and made multiple bonehead mistakes. Eddie Lacy to start the season was 100 times better, averaging almost a full yard and a half better per carry, 5.1 ypc to 3.7 ypc. Even at his worst last year, Eddie Lacy was better than Michael was this year. Christine Michael has all the raw talent and ability to be great, but he lacks the brains. He tries to make everything an amazing run. Always trying to look like Barry Sanders with nowhere near the ability to do it. Dude just doesn’t have what it takes up stairs to be a quality RB, and wasn’t half the player for us that Eddie Lacy was this year or ever.

    • Trevor Rasmussen

      Look, I wanted Michael to work out, a LOT, but the guy did nothing. He didn’t get a lot of chances either but when he did, he was just another guy.

  • Phong Ta

    I can see the Pats going after Lacy. The guy is a big, powerful RB similar to Blount when properly motivated, and we all know how Belichick loves a challenge in that department. He also has far more to offer as a receiver, which would be a nice bonus for New England. If Lacy is willing to settle for a 1 or 2 year deal to rehab his stock, similar to Bennett this year, I think Belichick pounces

    • Malachi

      make sense for both sides

    • crosseyedlemon

      As hard as I try I can’t get a visual of Belichick pouncing that isn’t comical. Maybe it’s the hoodie or the fact he isn’t quite as nimble as Spiderman and other superheroes.