Fantasy Free Agents: Running Backs

In this series, I‘m going to take a look at each offensive position’s free agent class and break them down for potential fantasy production going forward. As disappointing as the free agent quarterbacks were, this group of running backs may present some surprising values. However, one thing I noticed was that there are quite a few teams in need of help at the running back position. With several members of this free agent group approaching 30 years old by the time their next contract ends, teams may be inclined to opt for younger rookie backs on team-friendly rookie contracts instead. With a few excellent fantasy landing spots, this group is worth keeping an eye on.

Tier 1:

Le’Veon Bell. Kareem Hunt was also in my top tier, but his signing by the Browns leaves Bell all alone in this tier. It remains to be seen if he’ll get the contract he desires, but he’ll be playing football somewhere outside of Pittsburgh in 2019 and beyond. However, the possibility of the Steelers using the transition tag on Bell would dramatically limit his option and allow the Steelers to dictate where he plays via trade. Some believe Bell to be a product of the Steelers system and the performance of the James Connor and Jaylen Samuels duo did nothing to put that argument to rest. We’ll all find out in 2019 if Bell is the player we saw in Pittsburgh over the last few seasons.

Fantasy Impact: The landing spots most frequently linked to Bell have been the Jets and the Texans. I’m not a fan of the Jets landing spot, as I think Bell would have problems from day one meshing with new head coach Adam Gase. The Texans have a need at the position, they have cap space and, with Deshaun Watson, they could form a potent 1-2 punch on offense behind the line of scrimmage to go along with a strong receiving corps. A third attractive landing spot would be the Colts. They could meet Bell’s monetary demands, having the most salary cap space while also featuring one of the NFL’s top offensive line units, but they seem happy with their current running back situation. Once we know where Bell lands, he’ll likely see his current ADP of 1.09 rise. I’m going to steer clear at those prices as he enters his age 27 season, with 1541 touches and a year away from the game, but his RB1 upside remains a possibility with the right team.

Tier 2:

Mark Ingram. After a lackluster start to his career for a few years, Ingram has proven to be a reliable fantasy asset for the last five years. It’s likely that he remains in New Orleans, but he may test the market. What exactly the market will look like for a 29-year old remains to be seen, but he should be able to make an impact for another season or two.

Fantasy Impact: If he remains with the Saints, he’ll likely maintain his RB2 status. If he goes elsewhere as a lead back, he could flirt with a low-end RB1 finish. In another system with a timeshare, he may be looking at an RB3 finish. Given his age, he may be acquirable on the cheap this off-season. Given his upside on a team like the Ravens, he’s worth kicking the tires for another season or two.

Tevin Coleman. Coming off of his best season as a runner, the general feeling among most Coleman owners was that he had a down year. With Devonta Freeman missing significant time, Coleman had a chance to impress in his contract year, and he probably did just enough to get himself a nice lil contract as he turns 26 years old. A few teams are in need of a lead back, so depending on how many teams get into the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes, Coleman might be a nice consolation prize.

Fantasy Impact: Houston? The Jets? Miami? The Raiders? Philly? Coleman could literally end up anywhere. If he winds up in a spot where a team is looking to make him their feature back, he can be an upside RB2. But until the draft wraps up and we know what team covets Coleman’s skill set, it’s hard to know what his fantasy potential can be.

Jay Ajayi. Full disclosure: I’m a big Ajayi guy. His injury issues are concerning, but I liked him coming out of Boise State, and his back-to-back 200 yard games in 2016 did nothing to make me pump my brakes. He has flashed tremendous upside when healthy, and if he signs a short term deal, it will be his last chance to cash in as he turns 26 this summer.

Fantasy Impact: Much like Coleman, it’s hard to gauge what his value will be. However, if a team takes a risk on Ajayi and he can stay healthy, there is low-end RB1 potential like we saw back in 2016. He should be available late in drafts or very cheap via trade as he is only four months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL and won’t be ready to play until October at the earliest.

Latavius Murray. The 29-year-old ball carrier has played well when given his opportunities. He’s been an effective rusher and an underrated receiver and still has some fantasy value going forward.

Fantasy Impact: The dream scenario for Murray would be if Mark Ingram left the Saints. I could see Murray filling the vacated Ingram role in that offense and becoming an immediate Fantasy RB2. I’d love to see that landing spot if things played out that way. He could also be the thunder to a change-of-pace back’s lightning on several rosters giving him sneaky value between the 20s as a 2-down thumper and goal-line back.

Tier 3:

This tier features a group of players who have flashed potential in limited roles in the past and have an opportunity to be fantasy assets if they land somewhere that gives them greater role than we have seen in the past.

T.J. Yeldon. After a strong rookie campaign back in 2015, Yeldon was slowly replaced in Jacksonville by Chris Ivory and then Leonard Fournette. Although the narrative on Yeldon is that he is more of a change of pace back, he has averaged more than nine carries per game. Depending on where the upper tier backs fall, Yeldon might be a sneaky consolation prize.

Fantasy Impact: If teams miss out on the top (and more expensive) free agent running backs, the 6’1”, 223-pound, 25-year-old Yeldon might find himself in a nice spot. A theoretical landing spot would be Houston if they miss out on Bell and want to move on from an underwhelming Lamar Miller. If he can secure a contract with a team that will give him at least a 50/50 timeshare, Yeldon may be a low-end RB2 going forward.

C.J. Anderson. We saw flashes of Anderson’s abilities during his time in Denver only to see him vanish into thin air as a member of the Carolina Panthers last year, before a late-season resurgence with the Rams after Todd Gurley was banged up. At only 28 years old, Anderson still has something left in his tank and may be an affordable option for teams that need a running back but might be a little bit cash strapped.

Fantasy Impact: Both the Eagles and Dolphins are teams that look to be in the market for a running back, and both are currently in salary cap hell. If they don’t like any members of the incoming rookie class, Anderson can come in and be an improvement over what they currently have as an RB2/RB3 for fantasy.

Spencer Ware. After sustaining an injury in 2017 and opening the door for Kareem Hunt, Ware got a chance after Hunt’s 2018 suspension to flash his skills for potential 2019 suitors. Ware had a strong 2016 as the Chiefs lead back, finishing as RB14 on the season with just under 200 fantasy points, and may be able to get close to that number again in a dream situation.

Fantasy Impact: It’s all about the landing spot with Ware. There is a chance the Chiefs bring him back, which would be the best case scenario for him. If that is the case, he could sniff the 200 fantasy point mark once again. If he stays within the Reid coaching tree, maybe Pilly can use him appropriately as well. On those two teams, he has a shot at returning to his RB2 glory days. Outside of that, we’re probably looking at a low-end RB3, with upside in best ball leagues.

Tier 4:

Old guys that may be able to come in as role players and pop for a few big games during the season: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, LeGarrette Blount, and Darren Sproles. I’m not excited about any of these names, although Sproles’ ability as a pass catcher, even entering his age 36 season, might be worth monitoring in PPR leagues if he returns in 2019. They are all late round fliers on draft day in redraft and have little to no value in dynasty at this point.

Behind Bell, the top options at running back may end up being decent fantasy players as the season wears on. In general, these are names to watch throughout the off-season- especially if you’re looking to apply a zero-RB strategy in your 2019 redrafts or looking to add players on the cheap via trades in dynasty. As we see year after year, a few unheralded backs fall into incredible roles towards the fantasy playoffs and are key players on championship fantasy rosters.

 

jdibari

Chicagoan living in Las Vegas. Fantasy Football writer & Director of In-Season Analysis for Dynasty Football Factory, blogger for USFantasy and contributor to TheFakeHockey. Member FSWA.

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