Every year has a free agent or two waiting to sign someplace and can completely change the outlook of the team they sign with. This year is no different, especially when it comes to the running back position. There are several big named running backs that are free agents right now that, when they sign someplace, will end up being key contributors for their new teams.
There is a risk to acquiring these kinds of players, as you don’t know what team they will end up on and are unsure as to what their role will ultimately be. There’s always a risk when it comes to fantasy football, though, and these players come with high rewards if they hit.
Leonard Fournette is possibly the most underappreciated running backs in the league. He has finished as an RB1 in four out of the six years he has been in the league, including last year when he finished as RB12 on the year. One of the reasons Fournette doesn’t garner the same amount of respect is that he has only eclipsed a thousand yards twice in his career, which gives the impression that he is not as productive as he could be. However, Fournette is a three-down back and is also highly efficient in the passing game.
In three of the six seasons he has been in the league, he has managed to eclipse 60 catches. Ironically, last season was the first season he broke into the RB1 range without breaking that 60-catch mark and was supported by his rushing capabilities.
Another reason that Fournette appears to have received the angst of fantasy managers is because of the thought that Rachaad White was going to come onto the scene to usurp the bell cow back. There was an argument around the snap count at the end of the year which shows that the Buccaneers were planning on moving on from Fournette.
The two both averaged around a 43% snap count for the last eight games of the season as the team attempted to find out what they had in White. This is taking out the one game where Fournette sat out entirely in week 12 against the Browns with a hip injury, where Rachaad White was the lead back for the week.
During the other seven weeks, they both totaled roughly the same number of points. White had 89.9 points, whereas Fournette had 83.2, and that is including Week 12, where Fournette didn’t touch the field. In other words, while they maintained the same snap count, Fournette averaged more points per game (PPG) than White did.
Tampa decided to move on from Fournette in favor of White, but that appears to be more about getting younger and being cheaper than it does about what Fournette is capable of. There is a team out there that will get a solid back that they can rely on in any situation in the backfield.
Another perennial RB1 that is a free agent this year is Ezekiel Elliott. Much like the situation with Fournette and the Buccaneers, Elliot and the Cowboys parted ways so that they could get younger and cut costs. However, in their scenario, the Cowboys are moving on from Elliott, who finished as a low-end RB2, to Tony Pollard, who finished as RB8 on the season.
With Elliott having just turned 27, he is the youngest free agent discussed in this article. Despite still being in his prime years, however, one of the things that Elliott has going against him is that there is a lot of wear and tear on those tires. He has averaged 269 touches each year and leads the league in total touches with 1,881 throughout his career. This last year’s dip is one of the biggest concerns, as he ended the season with his lowest finish as RB22. However, he also had his lowest attempts, with Pollard becoming more prevalent in the offense.
Elliott has been a workhorse ever since he entered the league, finishing as an RB1 every year except for two of them. During this time, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry for a total of 8,262 yards. These are impressive stats throughout his career, especially when looking at his touchdowns. According to PlayerProfiler, Elliott has 344 total red zone touches.
He was highly efficient turning those touches into 68 touchdowns, the second most out of all active running backs. While the dip is concerning, he still maintained solid numbers last season to serve at least as a flex on your team, averaging 12.4 PPG. Elliott might not be the force he once was, but he should continue being a solid addition to your fantasy leagues.
Finally, there is Dalvin Cook. He might be one of the most intriguing free agent prospects, especially because of all the trade talks that surrounded him before he was eventually released by the Minnesota Vikings, ultimately for the same reason that Fournette and Elliott were: youth and money. Still, Cook didn’t have the competition the previous year as the other two backs did. He was the bell cow back for the Vikings and finished the year as RB11. In fact, on Donkey Teeth’s Top 100 Running Backs, he came in as RB25 despite not being on a team yet, which shows that expectations are high for the veteran free agent.
Dalvin has been consistent as a top-tier running back, finishing as an RB1 in three out of the last four seasons. He broke a thousand yards rushing each of those four years and averaged 55 targets through the air, as well. This is the kind of consistency that anyone would hope to have out of their running back, and there are rumors galore of where he might end up.
My personal favorite landing spot is still with the Miami Dolphins with Mike McDaniel’s offense, which would benefit from a reliable runner like Cook. Regardless of where he goes, though, he will be a key part of that offense and can be expected to be a key contributor to your fantasy teams.
Which One to Target?
All three of these running backs should be solid contributors to their teams, but the question remains about which one should you prioritize over the others. All three are proven three down backs and all three are relatively the same age. Given the wear and tear on Elliot and the more one-dimensional path to touches through the run game, I have him below the other two. Both Cook and Fournette are solid both in the passing game, as well as in the run game. However, my money is on the former fourth-overall pick, Leonard Fournette.
Playoff Lenny has a way of being a contributor regardless of what team he’s on, as he has shown playing for the Jaguars and the Buccaneers. Also, he is the cheaper option out of the three, which means you won’t have to gamble much to get him on your team. Regardless of which of the three free-agent running backs you target, you should try to acquire them before they find a new team and while their value is still low.