Last summer NFL teams were dishing out new contracts to running backs like the United States government giving away free money to the indispensable, too-big-to-fail, cruise lines. The year after Zeke hit the Jerrypot with a 7 bajillion dollar contract, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook each received upwards of 10 Bitcoin. Unfortunately, there were a couple stud backs whose team’s treated them more like the government has treated failing small businesses. Will these hard luck incumbents return or will they be in search of another source of crypto this off season? And if the incumbents are voted out of their backfields, what should we expect from the new regime? I’m glad you ask, here’s the top free agent running backs for 2021 fantasy football:
Aaron Jones – There’s few guarantees in this modern world filled with angry mobs, murder hornets and NFL games on Nickelodeon. Speaking of Nickelodeon, I can’t believe I watched that entire game without getting to see one player or coach actually get slimed with real slime. A fail of epic proportions! But the writing seems to be on the wall up in Green Bay with the Packers ponying up a 2nd round draft pick last year for my crush, A.J. Dillon. My guess is the Cheeseheads dip into the bargain bin to resign Jamaal Williams and his sweet dance moves while letting the pricey Jones walk away. In that case look for a strong Dillon/Williams committee out of the gates in Green Bay in 2021, I’ll likely be interested in drafting both.
Chris Carson – Coming into the season Carson was publicly vocal about his goal to play a full season in his contract year. Unfortunately his foot had other plans, causing him to miss four games midseason with a sprain. I hate when my feet make their own plans! Fourth round rookie DeeJay Dallas showed some flashes in his two starts with Carson sidelined, but I’m not sure the Seahawks see any sort of bellcow potential in the kid. They also spent a 2018 first round pick on Rashaad Penny who missed almost all of 2020 after suffering a torn ACL. Needless to say, Penny still has a lot to prove. This year’s primary backup, Carlos Hyde, is a free agent this off season as well. All this to say, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Carson resign in Seattle if the price is right, but I’d be equally unsurprised if they choose to roll into 2021 with a committee of Penny and Dallas along with a 2021 draftee, or a cheaper free agent acquisition.
Kenyan Drake – I don’t have a good feel for the direction of the Arizona backfield this offseason. I mean, they already have a star running back in Kyler Murray, do they really need to pay up for another RB? I kid. Kind of. There was rampant speculation that Chase Edmonds might overtake Drake as the go to Cardinal RB at some point in 2020, but that never came to fruition. The Drake is good, but bringing in an affordable youngster through the draft to pair with Edmonds and Kyler might be best.
James Conner – My guess is that Conner’s days in the Steel City are numbered. Over the past three years the amount of draft capital this franchise has pumped into Benny Snell (2019 4th rounder), Anthony McFarland (2020 4th rounder) and Jaylen Samuels (2018 5th rounder) isn’t absurd, but the organization has consistently been investing in the future of the backfield. Conner has also missed 3-6 games in each of the last three seasons, not exactly what you’d consider a ‘safe’ investment. Unless Conner comes at a steep discount (always possible with the current flooded running back market) I expect the Steelers to roll with the tandem of Snell and McFarland. I’ll have my eye on Snell if it all plays out this way.
Leonard Fournette – Will Leo be back in Tampa next year? I don’t see it. Arians and Company’s actions have spoken loudly regarding where they stand on Ronald Jones and Fournette, and I don’t even think a dominant playoff version of Fournette would change that. But a dominant playoff version of Fournette might yield a nice short term contract for the 26 year old who still seems to have a bit left in the tank. Wherever he does land, there’s a decent chance I’ll be looking to buy-low. And keep a close eye on Ke’Shawn Vaughn as the RoJo backup to own in 2021.
Jeff Wilson Jr. – Never in a million years would I have expected Jeff Wilson Jr. to make my list of top free agent running backs. Fortunately for Jeff, the year 2020 felt like it lasted around a million years, and here we are. We talked about this with Rudy Gamble on the most recent episode of the Razzball Fantasy Football Podcast: the 49ers backfield and Kyle Shanahan are tougher to read than the Russian version of War and Peace–which is slightly easier to read than Bill Belichick. Raheem Mostert has at least one year left in Frisco but he’s been far from a picture of health. Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon vanished like Jack Ma in the the second half of the season and now seem destined for unemployment. Undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty looked legit for a minute, but got banged up himself. Since we know Shanahan needs a minimum of five running back options and we know he has a thing for Wilson, I’m expecting Jeff Junior back mining for San Fran gold in 2021. This is still a backfield I won’t be looking to get heavily invested in next season.
Phillip Lindsay (RFA) – The Broncos back is a restricted free agent which means Denver will almost certainly make Lindsay a qualifying offer. Lindsay is then welcome to test the free agency waters, but there’s a catch to restricted free agency: if another team makes a better offer then Denver gets the chance to either match that offer or receive draft pick compensation if they choose to let Lindsay walk. This is a pretty lofty contract barrier, especially considering the current running back market, so expect to see the Tasmanian Devil back in Mile High for the 2021 season in a continued committee with Melvin Gordon.