Running backs aren’t nearly as crucial as they used to be, and yet a strong running game can ease pressure on basically every other part of a football team. Elite backs in their prime very rarely get to free agency these days, with teams locking up their stars early. This year is different though, there is one headliner in the running back class who is probably the best free agent available this season full stop.
Behind him though is a whole mix of good backs that could dominate in the right situation or fall flat on their face. Which backs should teams be looking at if they are in need of an upgrade at the position this offseason?
Bell is the obvious star of this free agent class, regardless of position. He comes into free agency averaging 129 yards from scrimmage per game in his five-year career with the Steelers.
While the most likely scenario is that the Steelers re-sign him to a long-term deal, he is good enough that a cap-rich team could throw a huge offer in his lap, and the prospect of him joining Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco is enough to get fans salivating.
Pittsburgh need to clear a lot of cap space to make room for even an average long-term deal, and if his head is swayed by a record-breaking deal then he is likely to end up moving teams this offseason.
Crowell was hard done by in Cleveland, but what’s new. After a remarkable 4.8 yards per carry in 2016 with the team, some bad mismanagement from Hue Jackson and an offensive line that fell apart lead to a season with just two touchdowns and 4.1 yards per carry.
At 25 there is no reason to think that Crowell cannot be a feature back for a successful team though. He has averaged nearly 200 carries a year for the last three seasons and has been a reasonably effective part of the receiving game, even if he isn’t going to dominate linebackers in coverage like Le’Veon Bell.
While Bell will dominate discussions and end up with a contract in the $9 million per year range, Crowell is likely to be a good deal cheaper than that but also stay a positive piece of the puzzle for a team.
Lewis was plucked from the scrapheap by the New England Patriots, and he rewarded them with three years of solid to strong production.
Mostly thought of as a receiving back or a change of pace player, in 2015 when Lewis joined the Patriots he was effective on the ground before tearing his ACL and then having a setback in rehab. In 2017 he returned to form though, taking up a feature back role and averaging a massive 5.0 yards per carry while also being a threat catching the ball.
The question heading into free agency is if Lewis’ production is just another creation of the Patriots system or if he can replicate his success when defenses aren’t having to worry about Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski? I think he can. He is positive and quick between the tackles when running the ball and has a good feel for the blocks in front of him. You can run a full offense with him in the backfield and his elusiveness shows as he spins off linebackers on inside runs.
If you want Le’Veon Bell but don’t want to pay All-Pro prices then Lewis would be a terrific signing.
Hyde is an underrated back. Arriving in San Francisco as the 49ers started their downward spiral, he has been somewhat forgotten, but under Kyle Shanahan he had something of a career-year in 2017.
While his yards per carry dipped to 3.9 last season, thanks mostly to a poor offensive line and no passing threat for the majority of the season, he racked up a ridiculous 88 targets and 59 catches, which gave him the best yards from scrimmage total (1,288) of his career.
By displaying a dual threat, even if he wasn’t setting defenses on fire, Hyde will have increased interest when free agency opens. One suspects that the 49ers would like to keep him, but with a high draft pick and plenty of cap space their options are nearly unlimited.
There is a bit of a drop off after the first four names. While the likes of LeGarrette Blount are available he is one-dimensional and older. Vereen, however, is still a potent player in his prime.
His move to the Giants from New England was not a success as they seemed to have no plan for how best to use his talents, but as a receiving back there are few more deadly players in the league. With the likes of the Chiefs and Rams showing how to exploit defenses with the running back in space this season I expect teams to be more interested in Shane Vereen than they were last time he hit the open market. If the Steelers can’t afford Bell, then Vereen paired with a rookie would make sense, and a return to New England isn’t out of the question either.
He still has a lot to offer, but the offense needs to be right for him.
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