Dynasty and Keeper Leagues: Looking at Potential Free Agent Running Backs
Every year, NFL players change teams after their respective contracts expire. The player movement creates an opportunity for NFL players and fantasy owners alike. This series of articles will look at the players whose contracts are up after the 2016 season and could change teams next offseason. This is the second installment of the series and will examine the running backs who could hit free agency next spring. Our goal is to identify the beneficiaries of the player movement. Free agency impacts fantasy football and those fantasy owners who anticipate correctly the situations usually come out on top.
LeVeon Bell – We once thought it inconceivable that the Steelers let Bell walk, and his assertion that he wants $15 million annually on his next contract inserted a little doubt into the equation. Bell will be the marquee back on the market next spring. While this demand seems outrageous, we do expect the stellar runner to garner close to $10 million with the first two years guaranteed with a healthy 2016. The key will not be the annual amount but the guarantee. If he and DeAngelo Williams both leave, Pittsburgh could be in a pickle at the position. Williams is a free agent, too, but could be a short-term stop-gap in case Bell exits. In that case, he would be paired with an incoming rookie out of the talented 2017 class.
Eddie Lacy – Lacy has battled the bulge since arriving in the NFL. With free agency looming, this is a huge (pun intended) year for the power back. Unless he has an outstanding season, it is unlikely the Packers bring him back. So, Lacy is playing for his next deal, for his next team. There are several teams which he would be a great fit (Indianapolis, chief among them) but Lacy needs to put the weight concerns behind in order to get $4-5 million per season instead of backup money, roughly half that amount. Just like with Pittsburgh above, we expect Green Bay to draft a tailback from the loaded 2017 draft class instead of paying for an expensive veteran at a low-value position.
Latavius Murray – Murray needs a strong campaign to keep rookie DeAndre Washington at bay. The Oakland starter is a big, fast back who is a good receiver but lacks the vision and quickness to make the most of his athletic ability. Unless he has a pitiful season, which is entirely possible, we expect Murray to re-sign with Oakland for near the veteran minimum. He has no elite parts of his game and all-purpose starting ball carriers are not expensive. The Murray-Washington combination will be great for Oakland given the cost, and the team needs the spare resources at other positions.
Ronnie Hillman – Hillman has yet to prove he is anything more than a middling change-of-pace back. He is a good receiver yet struggles as a runner. Hillman looks to bounce most runs outside and the opposing defense is aware of this tendency. We expect few opportunities for him as Anderson and Booker dominate snaps and touches.
Danny Woodhead – Woodhead is much older than many realize. He turned 31 years of age this past January. But, we need to recognize Woodhead for his surprising durability given his size (5’8”, 200 pounds) and solid inside running ability. Woodhead is a great receiver out of the backfield and a great weapon for the San Diego offense. The Chargers were very savvy in signing the veteran to a cheap, two-year contract. He will be a 32-year old free agent with a minimal market. San Diego really needs sophomore Melvin Gordon to break out given Woodhead’s impending free agency and reserve Branden Oliver is a Restricted Free Agent as well.
LeGarrette Blount – Blount has served the Patriots well as the power runner to compliment Dion Lewis and James White. He has not enjoyed much of a market for his services the few times Blount has been a free agent. We do not expect this to change. New England will find another power back after the season and just toss Blount aside.
Shaun Draughn – Draughn is a limited player in terms of talent and athletic ability, but will have a sizable role this season in San Francisco playing behind the far-from-durable Carlos Hyde. His receiving ability will give Draughn playing time in the up-tempo Chip Kelly offense. Unless he plays at a higher level than we have seen so far, Draughn could drift off into oblivion, scratching just to make the end of a roster in 2017. If we look at Kelly’s time in Philadelphia as an example of his preferences, the coach will look for plenty of depth at the running back position. Draughn will have to fight to make the final roster.
Theo Riddick – Riddick is far from a household name for NFL fans, but he is highly valued in PPR fantasy leagues. We fully expect the Lions to target him often as a receiver once again in 2016. The pass-catching back would not be easy to replace. Riddick will have a market for his services. He would be dynamic in either Indianapolis or Pittsburgh or another high-octane offense. However, Riddick leaving Detroit would leave a huge void for an offense that lost Calvin Johnson this season. Another back would need to be acquired through free agency or the NFL Draft.
Tim Hightower – While many discount the 30-year old because he was out of football for a while, his performance to close out the 2015 season was far from a fluke. We expect the veteran to remain in New Orleans as long as Coach Payton will keep him. Hightower only commands the veteran minimum and may be able to sign a multi-year contract in the spring if he has another strong year backing up Mark Ingram.
Khiry Robinson – Robinson will need a Matt Forte injury in order to get a chance to cash in next offseason. Given Forte’s age, it remains in the realm of possibilities. Robinson has not been durable throughout his career and is likely best suited as an early-down back in a situation like Carolina or Pittsburgh if Bell exits.
Darren Sproles – Sproles has made a nice career as a return specialist and change-of-pace back. Several on this list hope to have the longevity of the veteran. He may be able to sign a one-year deal after the season, but expectations should be low. Sproles turned 33 years of age in June and no team will want to offer more than a one-year deal at the league minimum. Possibly, Sproles’ former coach, Chip Kelly, will bring him to San Francisco. The fantasy implications are greater for the void his leaving will create in Philadelphia. We have the suspicion that this was the reason Smallwood was drafted in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Other backs to watch
Christine Michael – he may not even make the final roster in Seattle this season. So much potential and so little production for the gifted Michael.
Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson – After the emergence of David Johnson, these two runners are competing for scraps in the Cardinals offense. Neither has a strong chance of landing big money elsewhere. Ellington has been injury-prone while Johnson looks to have lost a step. We expect Ellington to exit and Johnson to be brought back to the desert on a veteran-minimum contract.
Darren McFadden – Yes, the veteran had a very strong 2015 campaign, but the Dallas brass still does not give McFadden the credit. Ezekiel Elliott was drafted and Alfred Morris signed. Quickly McFadden has become an after-thought. He could have one more contract left in his aging legs.
Two Restricted Free Agents to Watch
Chris Thompson – Thompson will get the first crack being the passing-down back in Washington. He has struggled with injuries since his time at Florida State. A good season could allow Thompson to cash in, whether with the team that drafted him or another organization.
Isaiah Crowell – Crowell is in a great situation to get the football a lot in 2016. The Browns need to run the ball often to keep the pressure off a weak quarterback position. However, his social media mistake may cost him. Which team (other than Dallas) would sign a public relations disaster to a contract? Of the two, Thompson has the better shot at leaving for more money after the season.
We would like to recognize Overthecap.com for the Free Agents listed above. It is a good site for salary cap status for the NFL.
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