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NFL Free Agents: Running Back (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Shane Manila | @ShaneIsTheWorst | Featured Writer
Jan 14, 2020

Derrick Henry is a top-tier free agent running back.

The free-agent running back market will be a robust one this year. Be wary of overspending on any of these players because the 2020 running back draft class will be stacked as well. The NFL Draft will introduce players such as D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, Travis Etienne, Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor, Eno Benjamin, and Kylin Hill, among many others. With the influx of talented competition, many of these free-agent running backs will be hard-pressed to find teams as conducive to fantasy success as their current situations. Unless someone is willing to sell at a discount, it’s generally wise this offseason to hold off on buying running backs. One note, unrestricted free agents are labeled as UFA below and restricted free agents as RFA.

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Top Tier:

Derrick Henry (TEN): Unrestricted Free Agent
The 2019 season saw Derrick Henry continue the assault on the NFL  and fantasy opponents that he began in the final four weeks of the 2018 season. After exceeding double-digit scoring in fantasy just three of the first 11 weeks of the season, Henry scored no fewer than 11.6 points in each of the final five games of the 2018 season. In Week 14, Henry destroyed the Jacksonville defense putting up 238 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on his way to scoring 47.8. He ran for another 170 yards and two more touchdowns the following week while scoring 30.2 fantasy points. After dragging many a fantasy roster to championship week, Henry scored a modest (in comparison) 16.2 in Week 16 of the 2018 season. 

Henry’s assault and battery on run defenses started earlier in 2019 than it did in 2018. Out of the gate, he rushed for 84 yards and a rushing touchdown while adding a receiving touchdown. He had his most consistent season in 2018, scoring at least 11.6 fantasy points in 12 of 15 games, finishing as the RB9 or better on nine occasions, including six weeks as the RB4 or better. With 102.7 yards rushing per game average, Henry was the only running back to average at least 100 yards per game last season.

The biggest knocks against Henry are his limited receiving work and his high rate of touchdowns. Though you should fear some regression in touchdown scoring, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. Henry ranked ninth with 25 attempts from within the 10-yard line. He ranked 12th in rushing attempts from within the five-yard line and scored eight of his 16 touchdowns from within the five-yard line. Being 6’3,” and 247 lbs. means Henry is a human battering ram, and no matter where he plays next season, he will still see a large number of goal-line attempts. Henry will never be confused for Christian McCaffrey, but he did set career highs in targets (24), receptions (18) receiving yards (206) during the 2019 season.

Henry is the lone running back from this free-agent crop that I’m willing to pay up for. The Titans have built their offense around Henry, and if he remains in Tennessee, there’s no reason anything about his usage or production will change. If he does end up anywhere else, it’s going to be on the type of contract that dictates he will be the focal point of that offense.

Austin Ekeler (LAC): Restricted Free Agent
Ekeler is the best available restricted free agent. It’s almost impossible to see a scenario where the Chargers don’t re-sign him. He’s shown that he is the best complimentary back in the league when paired with Melvin Gordon and has also proved to be one of the best running backs in the league whenever Gordon wasn’t around. Ekeler has finished as the RB28 and the RB6 in the past two seasons. The Chargers coaching staff has shown that even if they sometimes forget how good of a runner Ekeler is that he is never forgotten as a receiving weapon. In 12 of 16 games 2019, he saw five more targets, including seven games with at least seven targets. He finished second in running back targets, receptions, and receiving yards in 2019. Because of his diminutive stature and the fact that he was an undrafted free agent, many fantasy players still doubt Ekeler, despite him finishing as the RB6 in 2019. I am not one of those players, and Ekeler is a strong buy from me.

Kareem Hunt (CLE): Restricted Free Agent
After serving his eight-game suspension, Hunt turned in six straight games with double-digit scoring for the Cleveland Browns. In what could be a bad omen for 2020, his worst two weeks came in the final two weeks of the season. He failed to exceed 8.1 fantasy points either week, and his running back opportunities (rushing attempts + targets) of six in Week 16 and seven in Week 17 were the fewest of the season. Hunt is still one of the most talented backs in the league, but his future is filled with nothing but doubt. Cleveland can choose to keep Hunt, which will limit his role to a high-end flex, assuming the new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski mimics Hunt’s usage from 2019. Hunt could also be allowed to leave and end up as the lead back on another roster, in which case he’s an RB1. If you have extra 2020 first-round rookie draft picks, I’d suggest parting with it to acquire Hunt.

Kenyan Drake (ARI): Unrestricted Free Agent
After years of waiting for a breakout, anyone that owned Kenyan Drake in dynasty leagues was finally rewarded in 2019. Though Drake’s per game receiving yards dipped slightly from 29 yards per game with Miami to 21 with Arizona, the Cardinals let Drake loose as a runner. Below are Drake’s averages in six games with Miami and eight games with Arizona last year.

Team  Rushing Attempts Per Game Rushing Yards Per Game Fantasy Points Per Game
Miami 7.8 29 9.1
Arizona 15.3 80.3 19.9

Provided nearly twice the number of rushing attempts per game, he more than doubled his fantasy scoring per game. He provided three boom weeks scoring 28.2 fantasy points in Week 9 and 39.6 and 33.4 in weeks. Drake also provided consistent scoring with six weeks, where he scored at 10.1 fantasy points. Able to play on all three downs, Drake is my second most coveted unrestricted free agent. Drake would best serve re-signing with Arizona. David Johnson is still a Cardinal but was wholly phased out due to injury, and being severely out-played by Drake (and Chase Edmonds).

Middle Tier 

Melvin Gordon (LAC): Unrestricted Free Agent
After his holdout failed to gain him a new contract, Gordon crawled back to the Chargers in Week 4. After scoring fewer than 8.9 fantasy points in each of his first three weeks, he went on to score at least 11.4 fantasy points in eight of the final nine weeks. He exceeded 20 points in four weeks and just fell short, with 19.4 in another week. While the fantasy scoring was there, the efficiency was not. His 3.8 yards per attempt was the second-worst of his career and ranked 38th in the league. For comparison, running behind the same line, Austin Ekeler averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. Gordon’s 0.85 yards created per attempt ranked 45th. Running behind the 13th ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards helped Gordon produce despite being exceedingly average.

Despite playing in just 12 games, Gordon exceeded 40 receptions for the fourth season in a row. While that’s impressive at first glance, his yards per reception (7.0.) and his yards per target (5.4), were both the second-worst of his career.

Gordon brings to mind Le’Veon Bell from the last offseason. His current employer no longer wants him, and it’s unlikely he’ll find a landing spot that will allow him to produce as he has in the past. His efficiency numbers have declined, and he has a ton of wear on his surgically repaired knees with the fourth-most rushing attempts since entering the league in 2015. Unless someone is willing to discount his price, Gordon is a running back I’m passing on in trades.

Matt Breida (SF): Restricted Free Agent
Opportunity is king when it comes to running backs. If Breida can find a less crowded backfield, one where he’s in a two-person committee vs. the three/four-person committee, he often found himself in San Francisco, he could provide plenty of value. Over the past two seasons, Breida has had at least 10 running back opportunities on 18 occasions. Below are his averages in those 18 games.

Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Targets Receptions Touchdowns Fantasy Points Per Game
12.9 68 2.4 2.1 0.30 12.6

The biggest issue with Breida is his durability. He’s missed five games over the past two seasons and had to leave multiple games early due to injury. Once the rookie draft season is in full swing and rookie fever has bloomed, you should be able to acquire Breida for a third-round rookie pick or late in startup drafts. Regardless of where he signs, he should still be able to provide value as a complementary back and spot starter.

Jordan Howard (PHI): Unrestricted Free Agent
Lost in Miles Sanders breakout during the second half of the 2019 season is that Jordan Howard was out playing Sanders before suffering a neck stinger and missing six games. Howard looked noticeably slimmer and more elusive in 2019 compared to previous seasons, and the statistics support that. After ranking outside the top 50 in yards created per attempt in 2018, Howard ranked 27th in 2019 with 1.22, his 25.6% juke rate was good enough for 19th, and his yards per rushing attempt of 4.4 was the highest since his rookie season.

Before that injury, there was chatter about Howard returning to the Eagles in 2020 and maintaining a split backfield with Sanders. Sander’s performance in the second half of the season ended all of that talk, but that doesn’t mean Howard can’t find a role somewhere else. In every full season he’s played, Howard has had at least 26 receptions and 250 rushing attempts. He’s a great low-risk high reward player for an NFL team as well your fantasy rosters.

Low Tier

This tier is filled with players that all could find roles in 2020 and beyond in some cases, but everything will need to break right for them to return any real value.

Lamar Miller (HOU): Unrestricted Free Agent
His efficiency has declined the past few seasons, he has over 1,500 touches in his career and turns 29 soon. Nothing to see here.

Frank Gore (BUF): Unrestricted Free Agent
Gore is a player-coach at this point in his career.

Carlos Hyde (HOU): Unrestricted Free Agent
Broke the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career in his age 29 season. He’s worth acquiring at the very end of startup drafts (with deep rosters) or as a throw-in as part of a larger trade.

Adrian Peterson (WAS): Unrestricted Free Agent
Peterson just ran for 898 yards with a 4.2 yards per carry in his age 34 season. Though that’s amazing, he offers little in the passing game and only produced in 2019 because Washington head coach Bill Callahan believed in running no matter what the game script may have dictated.

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Shane Manila is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Shane, check out his archive and follow him @DFF_Shane.