With all the discussions over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the last week and the subsequent delay to the vote on the issue, there is a lot of uncertainty around the NFL right now. One thing is for certain, however, and that is that the 2020 NFL league year will begin on March 18th. When it does, there will be swathes of players looking for new homes as a result of NFL free agency. Last week, we looked at the top quarterbacks that would potentially be available, and this week I examine the top running backs in free agency 2020.
The running back position is one that has seen serious question marks raised about its value. There is a consensus that running backs can be picked up on the cheap during the NFL Draft and discarded after their rookie contract, replaced by the next wave of talent.
In recent years the likes of Le’Veon Bell and more recently, Melvin Gordon, have withheld their services to secure what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Interestingly, Gordon’s teammate at the Los Angeles Chargers, Austin Ekeler, will be one of those running backs that could potentially hit the open market in 2020.
He is one of many. The likes of Lamar Miller, Kenyan Drake, Carlos Hyde, and even Super Bowl winner Damien Williams are set to be NFL free agents.
So, who should teams target at the running back position? Once again, I’ve used a combination of our Offensive Share Metric (OSM) and NFL Next Gen Stats to compile the top running backs in free agency 2020.
1. Derrick Henry – OSM grade: 21.27
When you’re scheduled for contract negotiations at the end of the season, it helps to have a monster campaign to help swing those talks in your direction. That is what Derrick Henry did during the 2019 season. Not only did Henry lead the league in rushing yards with 1540, but the success of the Tennessee Titans reaching the AFC Championship game is also largely attributed to him.
When you break down the OSM grades from the 2019 season, it’s easy to see why Henry will be at the top of the running backs in the 2020 free agency.
He was our top overall graded running back and was our RB1 in five different weeks. The best of those games came in the Week 14 win against the Oakland Raiders. He received an OSM grade of 35.83 on his way to 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
As per Next Gen Stats, Henry was a top-five running back in yards per carry (5.1), and running back efficiency (3.45), despite facing an eight-man box on 35.31% of his snaps.
Put simply, he could not be stopped.
Henry is aware of his worth, and after seeing Ezekiel Elliott become the highest-paid running back in the NFL, he wants to follow in his shoes. Despite being adamant that quotes intimating that “Elliott’s contract was the floor” for his negotiations were taken out of context, Henry is not going to come for cheap.
Ironically, Elliott is the benchmark given that the Titans find themselves in a similar position to the Dallas Cowboys. They both need to pay players at key positions.
Will running back prove to be a key position to the Titans? Or will Henry be the top target when teams can officially approach players on March 16th?
2. Frank Gore – OSM grade: 20.55
If the league no longer values running backs once they’ve received their pound of flesh, then Frank Gore is the outlier, the exception to the rule. The ageless wonder keeps on grinding out the yards, and during the 2019 season, surpassed Barry Sanders to go third in the list of players with the most career rushing yards.
Gore is no stranger to the NFL free agency process. He signed a one year deal with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent before the 2019 season and is likely to find himself in a similar position again. With 2019 rookie running back Devin Singletary pounding out 5.1 yards per carry for 775 rushing yards, there’s the potential that Gore will be surplus to requirements.
Why then does he make our list of top running backs in free agency 2020?
Well, Gore was twice our OSM RB1 during 2019 and was our second overall graded running back with an OSM grade of 20.55.
Despite “only” picking up 599 yards at 3.6 yards per carry, he had to gain those yards in the most brutal way. Gore faced the third most eight-man box defenses in 2019, with 37.35% of his snaps seeing him face a stacked box. He carried the ball 166 carries, more than some of the other running backs on this list. Not bad for an “old man.”
Gore isn’t going to come into a team and reinvigorating their ground game. However, put him behind a solid offensive line, and he will still churn out yards and help to move the chains for a team with aspirations of a sustained run to the Super Bowl.
3. Gus Edwards – OSM grade: 18.83
The Baltimore Ravens had one of the fiercest rushing attacks in the NFL during the 2019 season. However, one component of that running back rotation could be set to hit the open market when the 2020 NFL league year begins.
Edwards might not be a name that immediately springs to mind when you think of the top running backs in free agency 2020, but he has been consistently a top 20 back by OSM when he’s had the ball in his hands. I say this because, after a strong year in 2018, Edwards was expected to be the feature back for the 2019 Baltimore Ravens. However, the Ravens signed Mark Ingram as a free agent in 2019 free agency, and he shouldered the load in 2019, with 202 carries and 1018.
Despite this, Edwards was graded higher than Ingram by OSM, with Edwards being our eighth overall running back (18.38 grade) and Ingram a few spots behind in 16th (16.78). The appearance of both backs in the top 20 overall running back grades shows the potency of the Ravens run game in 2019.
Why should teams take a chance on him if they get it?
Well, Edwards was second in the league in yards per carry (5.3) and was the most efficient running back in the NFL in 2019, traveling 2.93 yards to pick up a yard on average.
The “if they get” is the keywording here. As an exclusive rights free agent, the Ravens hold all the cards.
They’d be well advised to play them.
4. Matt Breida – OSM grade: 17.31
Although the Baltimore Ravens had by far the best run game in 2019, the San Francisco 49ers were the second best, and arguably had a better running back stable with a trio of top-15 running backs as per OSM.
The lowest graded of them was Matt Breida.
Breida led the team in rushing yards in 2018 and had a strong start to 2019 with an OSM grade of 30.02 in the Week 2 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite this, he found that he was getting less of the workload as Raheem Mostert emerged late in the season.
Although he was the lowest graded of the 49ers running back room, Breida was still our 13th overall graded running back with an overall grade of 17.31 to make him one of the top running backs available in free agency 2020.
He was the sixth-ranked running back by yards per carry despite facing 30.08% of his snaps against an eight-man box, the 11th most in the NFL.
Breida also showcased his turn of speed, leading the NFL when he reached 22.3mph on an 83-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career.
With Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert under contract for 2020, there is a strong chance that Breida hits the open market, although much will depend on Jerick McKinnon, who is under contract but hasn’t seen the field in two years.
5. Jordan Howard – OSM grade: 13.71
After posting back to back 1000+ yard seasons as a fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, Jordan Howard has seen his production in the NFL decline over the last two years. The Bears felt comfortable enough in what they had in Tarik Cohen to offload him to the Philadelphia Eagles before they were forced into a decision of whether to pay him or not.
Now, that decision rests with the Eagles.
It’s a complicated decision and part of the reason that the Eagles ended up with Howard in the first place. It’s a microcosm of the running back situation league-wide. In trading for Howard, still under his rookie contract last year, the Eagles didn’t have to pay out for a free agent.
They also have their running back of the future in house with Miles Sanders, who accounted for 818 yards, at 4.6 yards per carry during the 2019 season.
However, Howard actually graded higher than Sanders in OSM. He was our 25th ranked running back with an overall grade of 13.71 compared to Sanders, who had an overall of 10.64. Contrary to popular belief, Howard was more critical to the success of the Eagles offense than his rookie teammate.
When you look past the total yardage, and factor in things like Howard having his highest yards per carry since his rookie campaign, then he becomes a more attractive proposition on the free-agent market.
Is he Derrick Henry? Clearly not, but he is still one of the top running backs in free agency 2020.