• Ian Evans

The 2021 Free Agent Running Back Class is LOADED

Ian Evans

Co-Founder, ISM

There are many lingering questions and uncertainties regarding the 2020-2021 NFL season due to the coronavirus. Some players want to play while others believe is best for the NFL to cancel the upcoming season. Through all of the uncertainty, one aspect remains clear. This is a critical year for running backs who want major contracts, franchise tags, and boost their market price if they feel inclined to test the free agency market after the season concludes. Some of these teams are looking to reallocate money to make room for these running backs to return, while others are patiently waiting to see what numbers other backs will put up and where they stand in comparison to other backs in the league. The running backs on this list are potential free agents for the next offseason:

1. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Photo Courtesy: Yahoo Sports

Fournette, entering his 4th year in the NFL, has a big year ahead of him. The 6 foot, 228 pound running back from LSU has proven he can be the franchise running back that the Jaguars need. However, he had an interesting year playing for Jacksonville who put up a 6-10 record, last in the AFC South, and it is no secret that his numbers need to improve in order to get a contract even remotely close to Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliot, or Christian McCaffrey. In 2019, Fournette was 7th in yards (1152), 11th in yards per game (80.4), and only put up 3 rushing touchdowns. He has battled some injuries throughout his career and even missed the 2019 season finale against the Colts with a cervical neck strain. Fournette plays on a team that struggles offensively seeing that Jacksonville was 27th in points per game and 20th in yards per game. Fournette is currently on a 4yr, $27million dollar contract with the Jaguars and is entering his last year on his rookie deal. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Jaguars did not pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. Leonard Fournette’s 2021 will be a critical year for his free agency market value.

2. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings)

Photo Courtesy: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Dalvin Cook was drafted in 2017 by the Minnesota Vikings out of Florida State University. As a rookie, he was on track to potentially win Rookie of the Year until he suffered a torn ACL which kept him out for the remainder of the 2017-2018 season. Fast forward to 2019 and Cook has bounced back miraculously. In 2019, Cook was 10th in rushing yards (1135), 7th in yards per game (81.1), and was 4th in rushing touchdowns (13). Cook, like Fournette is entering his last year on his rookie deal, meaning that 2021 is a crucial year for him as well. He is currently on a 4yr, $6.3million dollar contract with $3.5million guaranteed. The Vikings lost a major offensive weapon in Stefon Diggs meaning he may have more responsibility on the offensive end. If he plays like he did last year and improves his numbers, he has an opportunity to earn himself a big payday in 2021.

3. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)

Photo Courtesy: WTOP News

Aaron Jones was drafted in the 5th round in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers and was definitely a hidden gem in his draft class. Jones has significantly improved year after year and is one of the most consistent running backs in the NFL. Jones also believed he was snubbed of a Pro Bowl nod last year as well, and for good reason. He had a breakout year with Green Bay, ranking 12th in rushing yards (1084) and tied 1st in rushing touchdowns (16). He also caught 3 touchdowns and put up 474 receiving yards. Jones is currently on a 4yr, $2.6million dollar contract is also entering his last year on his rookie deal, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2021. One of Green Bay’s priorities is finding a way to extend Jones as he is a major component to their offensive attack.

4. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints)

Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports

Kamara, also entering the final year of his rookie contract has been an essential component to the New Orleans Saints high-powered offense. He has also been a Pro-Bowler every year since he was drafted in 2017. However last year, he battled two injuries: an ankle sprain followed by a knee PCL sprain which forced him to miss 2 games last year. Kamara put up decent numbers in 2019, rushing for 797 yards and 5 touchdowns, but compared to 2018 he could do significantly better. Kamara is an elusive back and has proved to be a dangerous weapon in New Orleans’ offensive scheme. From breaking tackles and his elusiveness to proving himself as a catching back, Kamara is a lethal threat and could be looking at a big payday as well. He is currently on a 4yr, $3.8million dollar contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

5. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals)

Photo Courtesy: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Joe Mixon and AJ Green were probably the most ecstatic players in the Bengals franchise on draft night when they drafted Joe Burrow with the number one overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. They later drafted star wide receiver Tee Higgins from Clemson. This is because Bengals were one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL, struggling for team identity and battling inconsistencies at the quarterback position. The Bengals ranked 30th in points per game (17.7) and 25th in the rushing attack with 1517 rushing yards. Even with a subpar offensive line, Mixon put up 1137 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. Andy Dalton is now a Dallas Cowboy meaning that Mixon has a big year ahead of him. With Joe Burrow entering his rookie year, Burrow will look to Mixon in the backfield to lead the rushing attack and will be a go to in checkdowns as well. He is also entering the last year of his rookie contract on a 4yr, $5.45million dollar contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

6. Marlon Mack (Indianapolis Colts)

Photo Courtesy: Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Marlon Mack ranked 11th in rushing yards (1091) and 9th in yards per game (77.9) and recorded 8 touchdowns in 2019. What he needs to do next year and in the future as a young running back is establish himself as a catching back. He put up just 82 receiving yards with no passing touchdowns in the 2019 season. No disrespect to Jacoby Brissett, but Mack could record significantly better numbers with a veteran quarterback. Cue the signing of Phillip Rivers. This might be the most important season of Marlon Mack’s career. He could improve his numbers significantly with Rivers under the helm and could be looking at a contract extension at the end of the year. He is currently on a 4yr, $2.89million dollar contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. This is the year Mack needs to establish himself as the franchise running back for Indianapolis.

7. Todd Gurley (Atlanta Falcons)

Photo Courtesy: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

On March 19, 2020, Todd Gurley was released from the Los Angeles Rams. Gurley was once the highest paid running back in the league when he signed a 4yr, $60million dollar deal with the Rams in 2018. To say that the contract did not work out is an understatement. Gurley, who was once deemed the franchise running back for the Rams is now an Atlanta Falcon after Atlanta released Devonta Freeman last year. His 2019 with the Rams was decent, especially when he dealt with a leg quad strain in 2019. He rushed for 857 yards and tied 5th for rushing touchdowns (12) with another player who received a monster contract: Ezekiel Elliot. Gurley signed a 1yr, $5.5million dollar contract with Atlanta after being released from the Rams. This year he has the opportunity to prove that his past injuries do not define him and that he is still one of the best running backs in the league for a reason.

8. Kenyan Drake (Arizona Cardinals)

Photo Courtesy: Yahoo Sports

Kenyan Drake was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. With that trade, Drake went from rushing for 0 touchdowns and 174 yards with a struggling offensive team in Miami (24th in points per game) to rushing for 8 touchdowns and 643 yards with Arizona. Drake proved that he can be 1st string running back that can do damage in the run and passing game. Arizona this offseason added DeAndre Hopkins and already resigned highly respected veteran wide out Larry Fitzgerald to a one year deal in January. What was major for Arizona and Kenyan Drake in the trade for DeAndre Hopkins was that they also shipped out David Johnson, making Drake the team’s number one back indefinitely. Drake will get the majority of the carries for Arizona this upcoming season and could boost his numbers significantly. Drake is currently on a 1yr, $8.4million dollar contract but could see a profitable contract extension in the future.

9. Phillip Lindsay (Denver Broncos)

Photo Courtesy: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Lindsay went undrafted in the 2018 NFL draft which is mindboggling to think about. The 5 foot 8 running back from Colorado was often overlooked for his small stature, after having an outstanding collegiate career. The Denver Broncos decided to take a chance on him, and it worked out for both Lindsay and Denver tremendously. Lindsay in his two years with the Broncos has rushed for over 2000 yards and 16 touchdowns which is outstanding. He can establish himself some more as a catching back as well but can catch out of the backfield. He is currently on a 3yr, $1.7million dollar contract but a contract extension with Denver is definitely in his future. The Broncos are also 12th in cap space meaning they do have money to extend him as well. Lindsay could be the template for other undrafted running backs to look to as a success story and someone that proved his worth and that he truly belongs in the league for years to come.

10. Chris Carson (Seattle Seahawks)

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

Chris Carson runs with a vengeance, plays power football, can catch out the backfield and has a decent amount of speed running a 4.58 40-yard dash. Sadly, Carson fractured his hip against the Arizona Cardinals on December 22nd, 2019. Although he avoided surgery, the hip is a major factor that Seattle will take into account when deciding how much he is truly worth and how much they should extend him for during the 2021 offseason. Seattle, who have roughly $17million in cap space have to spend their money wisely with Carson, especially after trading for Pro-Bowl safety Jamal Adams. Carson had an incredible season before his injury, putting up 1230 rushing yards (5th among running backs), 82 rushing yards per game (6th among running backs) and 7 rushing touchdowns. Carson is currently on a 4yr, $2.46million dollar contract and is eyeing a big payday in 2021 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

11. Adrian Peterson (Washington Football Team)

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

With all of the drama, speculation, and absurdity that is the Washington Football team, there are some positives that can be mentioned in regards to the team’s future. The team did sign head coach Ron Rivera and drafted Ohio State stud edge tackle Chase Young in the 2020 NFL Draft. Adrian Peterson is another positive for the franchise, who is one of the best running backs to ever play the game. Entering his 3rd year with Washington, Peterson has proved that he can still run with power and provide a powerful rushing attack, even at 35 years old. Peterson last year still rushed for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns on a team that put a dismal 3-13 record. The only question with extending Peterson is age. How many years does he have left? Do you keep signing him to 1-year extention, or do you take a shot at a 2 or even 3-year contract extension? Peterson, currently on a 2yr, $5million dollar contract, will get his extension but it could possibly come from another team as well, which is another aspect to keep a close eye on.

For these running backs, this upcoming season is crucial. The numbers they post this season could lead to franchise tags, multiple contract discussions regarding how or what their market price could be once free agency comes in 2021. If the 2020-2021 NFL season does end up happening, these 12 running backs must either prove their worth or make the most of their opportunities to get the paydays they are aiming for.

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