Welcome to Part II of JML’s Free Agency Stock Market Corner. Today we will be focusing on running backs, and I will discuss which players I think are most likely to gain or lose value as a result of movement in the upcoming offseason in order to identify who to target on the waiver wire and in trades.
Potential Landing Spots:
Before we look at the players themselves, let’s take a look at the likely market for RBs in 2017 and what roles specific teams are looking to fill. The free agency market for RBs is very different this season than the free agency market for WRs- since the upcoming draft is one of the deepest at RB in recent memory, replacement-level backs that lack elite individual attributes are in less demand than usual.
Green Bay Packers: It doesn’t seem unlikely that the Packers are done with Eddie Lacy and his weight and injury problems, and they got abysmal production this season from a motley backup crew of Starks, Montgomery, and even the hype conductor himself, C-Mike. Green Bay will be looking to upgrade at the RB position in the offseason, and may do so through free agency. Given the presence of Aaron Rodgers and the offense he generates, any free agent RB who lands here will receive a healthy share of red zone touches and will likely see their value go up, making Green Bay a favorable destination (if one with a limited ceiling due to the pass-centric offense).
Baltimore Ravens: While yours truly and many others have been extremely encouraged by Kenneth Dixon’s success lately, his durability concerns and the fact that his counterpart Terrance West is headed into free agency will likely cause the Ravens to seek to bolster their RB depth. The Ravens have a solid but unspectacular offense and a promising young ascending playmaker in Dixon, so Baltimore would not be considered a particularly friendly landing spot for a free agent, if not the worst one in the world.
Miami Dolphins: Presumably the Dolphins are thrilled with the emergence of Jay Ajayi, who has come on as one of the better young backs in football over the past few months. Concerns about his long-term health linger, however, and prospects behind him are thin, so Miami may be on the lookout for RB help in the offseason. Ajayi appears to be the real thing so don’t expect them to spend too big, but a proven handcuff-level back or a youngster with upside could see a contract offer from the Dolphins come their way. Regardless, with Ajayi fairly cemented as the RB1 Miami does not represent much value as a landing spot for free agent RBs.
New York Giants: Paul Perkins has looked decent at times, but the Giants have been settling for average running backs for years now and may look to change that in the upcoming offseason. With a solid offense led by Eli Manning and a potent passing attack featuring young weapons in OBJ and Sterling Shepard, a solid downhill running back could see lots of chances at the end zone for many years to come, making the Giants an extremely favorable landing spot for any free agent RB.
Philadelphia Eagles: Ryan Mathews has been a solid starter for the Eagles when healthy, but he will be approaching the wrong side of 30 at the start of next season and can’t seem to shake the injury bug. Behind him is Darren Sproles, a similarly aging change-of-pace back, and Wendell Smallwood, who doesn’t appear to be anything special. The Eagles should go after an RB in the offseason to supplement their aging core, and Philadelphia represents a solid destination and a marginal boost in value for any free agent that lands there.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts somehow managed to ride the ageless wonder Frank Gore almost all of the way through the 2016 season, but presumably the man will hang up his cleats before long (and promptly tear his ACL slipping in the shower on the first day of retirement). There is little to no significant talent behind Gore, so Indy will be on the lookout for a new running back this offseason. At first blush the RB spot in an Andrew Luck offense seems like a dream, and Gore has managed to put up decent numbers this year, but the benefits are partially offset by an extremely weak offensive line that the Colts will also be trying to address this offseason. Overall, Indianapolis still represents a favorable destination and a value boost for any free agent that lands there.
Free Agents (in ascending order by age at the start of the 2017 season):
Now on to the players. These are the ten running backs I believe are the most likely to see a significant change in value due to 2017 offseason activity.
Note: Buy/Sell pick values are based on the author’s own relatively shallow league (10 teams 9 starters), so they may not sync with reasonable value in deeper leagues (but player values relative to one another should still be accurate).
Isaiah Crowell (24)
History: Crowell has steadily increased his production for the Browns since signing in 2014 and is having his best season yet in a contract year, reaching 1000+ all-purpose yards by Week 14 and averaging 4.6 YPC.
Speculation: Crowell is a restricted free agent at the end of this season and has produced enough that he will likely demand to be paid, and with cheaper options coming in the draft the Browns may opt not to keep him. Crowell is young and talented and almost any destination would be better than Cleveland, so he could only stand to gain from such a hypothetical scenario.
Buy if: you think the Browns will let him walk and his value will increase as a talented back in a superior offense, or if the owner will sell for the 14th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think he will remain in Cleveland but will not feature as heavily in the offense moving forward, or if you can get the 4th pick or higher.
Hold if: you think he will remain at least a consistent RB2 or if you think he has unrealized upside if he moves to a new team.
LeVeon Bell (25)
History: This section seems a bit unnecessary- if you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Bell, you’re probably on the wrong sub. He is arguably the most talented RB in the NFL today and will only be 25 years old at the start of next season, making him a supremely valuable dynasty asset.
Speculation: Speculation when it comes to LeVeon is also a bit unnecessary, as it would be completely unheard of for a team to let a player of his talent walk in his prime. The only reason I included him in this list is because his disciplinary issues make him unpredictable and while it would certainly be shocking, it wouldn’t be entirely crazy if currently unforeseen circumstances forced Bell out of Pittsburgh.
Buy if: you have extra assets you can afford to lose and are looking to contend for the title next year, or if the owner will sell for two early firsts or less.
Sell if: you are in complete rebuild mode and have little depth and need to sell an expensive player for an overpay package, or if you can get three early first round picks or more.
Hold if: you need an RB that can be a cornerstone of a championship roster.
Terrance West (26)
History: As a rookie in 2014 West put up 737 rushing/receiving yards and 5 TDs, then struggled with injuries and passed through several teams during a disappointing 2015, only to roughly match his 2014 numbers this year while in a timeshare with Kenneth Dixon.
Speculation: Dixon looks like the more promising talent in Baltimore and the upcoming draft is loaded with talent, so Baltimore may opt not to pay up for West. That being the case he is still talented enough to find a role somewhere, but the extent of that role could depend on his destination, making him a risky proposition to own.
Buy if: you think the Ravens will re-sign him and keep him in a 1A/1B timeshare with Dixon that allows him to maintain as a flex starter, or if you think he will gain value from landing in an offense that utilizes him efficiently, or if the owner will sell for the 24th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think his value will continue to trend downward either as Dixon surges or as he lands in an unfriendly offensive situation, or if you can get the 18th pick or better
Hold if: you have Dixon and think the timeshare could persist and/or that West could have potential value as a handcuff
Eddie Lacy (27)
History: Lacy had an explosive start to his career, surpassing 1,100 yards and 11 TDs in each of his first two seasons as a Packer. Since 2015, however, Lacy has struggled with weight problems and injury problems and ended this season ignominiously stuck on IR.
Speculation: There is clearly talent beneath the flab, as evidenced by his two consecutive RB1 seasons. The Packers may be finished with Lacy, however, so it will become a question of if he can pull himself together and perform wherever he ends up playing. If he can recommit to football and happens to land in an RB-friendly locale Lacy could be a candidate for CPOTY in 2017, but he could just as easily fail to overcome his issues and finish his descent into irrelevance.
Buy if: you believe in Lacy’s talent and think a change of scenery will give him focus and allow him to return to form, or if the owner will sell for a 12th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think that Lacy is in the twilight of a career that will be defined by weight problems he never quite beat, or if you can get the 8th pick or better.
Hold if: you need a relatively affordable RB project that could pay huge dividends but also could end up being worth nothing.
Jacquizz Rodgers (27)
History: Rodgers has spent most of his career to this point in Atlanta, where he operated primarily as a backup and change-of-pace back putting up 400-700 yard seasons with a few touchdowns here and there. He was signed as a backup who was never intended to see the field much, but when forced into the starting role due to injury he stepped up and averaged 123 rushing and receiving yards over a three-week span.
Speculation: Rodgers’ brief role as the starter may have done wonders for his free agency stock, as it allowed him to demonstrate that he is a competent replacement-level back who can perform as a starter if necessary. Teams who don’t need a home run at RB but could use depth (think Miami, Baltimore) could be in the market for Rodgers this offseason, and if he landed somewhere that gave him a generous portion of a timeshare he would be worth considerably more than he would in Tampa Bay.
Buy if: you think that Rodgers will get a significant portion of a timeshare somewhere and increase in value correspondingly, or if the owner will sell for a 24th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think that Rodgers will stay a perennial backup regardless of where he lands, or if you can get an 18th pick or better.
Hold if: you think that Rodgers will get a significant portion of a timeshare somewhere and increase in value correspondingly.
Latavius Murray (27)
History: In his first year as starter last season, Murray put up significant numbers (1,200 yards rushing/receiving and 6 TDs) but did so receiving unsustainable volume of over 300 touches. Murray’s usage decreased this year but he continued to perform well within the powerful Oakland offense, racking up over 1,000 all-purpose yard and 12 TDs despite missing two games.
Speculation: Murray’s contract is up in 2017 and due to a combination of Jalen Richard in the wings, a likely hefty price tag attached to Murray, and a very deep RB draft class, he may not be playing in Oakland next year. He has proven himself to be a well-above-average if not elite talent, and so he will likely go as his situation goes. If he finds a good landing spot, he will do continue to do well; if he goes to a decent landing spot, he’ll be decent; if he ends up in a bad situation, he will struggle.
Buy if: you think he will land in a situation comparable enough to Oakland that he will produce comparable numbers, or if the owner will sell for the 12th pick or less.
Sell if: you think he was a product of volume and the Oakland offense and is currently at his highest value, or if you can get the 6th pick or better.
Hold if: you think Oakland will re-sign him, or if you believe his talent is great enough for him to excel in a less explosive offense.
Mike Gillislee (27)
History: Gillislee was drafted by the Dolphins in 2013 but hardly saw the field, and has gotten his first extensive action this year as a backup and change-of-pace guy (and often touchdown vulture) for LeSean McCoy. He has looked solid but unspectacular when pressed into action but appears to have a nose for the endzone, scoring 7 TDs in the last 12 games of the season.
Speculation: With McCoy getting up there in years and Gillislee having proved his competence, the Bills will likely want to hold on to him. They will have to pay him decent money to do so, and a good contract could lock him in as McCoy’s handcuff and temporary heir-apparent, which would give him a slight boost from his current value.
Buy if: you have LeSean McCoy and you don’t own him already, or if the owner will sell for a 20th pick or less.
Sell if: you think McCoy has more years left in him than suspected, or if you can get the 12th pick or better.
Hold if: you own LeSean McCoy, or if you build your roster “anti-fragile” style and hoard handcuff RBs.
Andre Ellington (28)
History: Ellington surpassed 1000 rushing/receiving yards in both 2013 and 2014 as a Cardinal, but in 2015 he struggled with injury and then was completely left in the dust by the phenom that is David Johnson, settling into a borderline irrelevant backup role.
Speculation: Ellington’s contract is up in 2017 and he’s still a very talented running back, arguably too talented to be languishing as DJ’s handcuff. Because of his age and two consecutive unproductive seasons he would likely be relatively inexpensive for a player of his talent, so he could end up going to a team that needs an RB but prioritizes other positions in the draft and doesn’t have a ton of cap space.
Buy if: you think he will land on a team that gives him 50%+ of the carries and makes him flex-playable, or if the owner will sell for a 24th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think he is past his prime or won’t sign to a good situation because of the depth of the RB position in the draft, or if you can get an 18th pick or better.
Hold if: you’re a David Johnson owner and you think the Cardinals will re-sign Ellington, or if you think he will land on a team that gives him 50%+ of the carries and makes him flex-playable
LeGarrette Blount (30)
History: Blount was a solid RB2 last year as the Patriot’s power back, but exploded this year for over 1,100 rushing yards and a league-leading 18 rushing TDs in only 13 games. He is not a transcendent individual talent, but he makes very efficient use of what he is given and is a solid all-around back who can clearly excel in the right system.
Speculation: The following two things are true: players who lead the league in rushing TDs demand to get paid big money, and the Patriots don’t much like to pay big money to people who aren’t named Brady. In 2017 these two facts will collide and result in Blount being shown the door. Despite his league-high rushing TDs, Blount’s value will be negatively impacted both by his age and by the depth of the RB draft class. A good landing spot for him would be somewhere with a fairly established offense that needs running back help immediately, like the Packers or the Giants.
Buy if: his 18 TDs will entice someone else to make him their RB1 and you will be able to take advantage of the “Patriot RB discount”, or if the owner will sell for a 18th pick or lower
Sell if: you think that he was a product of the New England system and is entering the twilight of his career and only has declining value to look forward to, or if you can get a 12th pick or better
Hold if: you think his 14 TDs will entice someone else to make him their RB1
Danny Woodhead (32)
History: At 32 years of age heading into next season, ancient by NFL RB standards, Woodhead was one of the original prototypes for the modern pass-catching back. All the way up until his injury this season Woodhead was a model of consistency catching passes from Rivers out of the backfield, and was showing no signs of slowing down until he got hurt.
Speculation: The emergence of Melvin Gordon certainly affects Woodhead’s stock, but given their differing roles there is room in the offense for both to produce. If he gets a significant offer elsewhere the Chargers may opt to move on to a younger option, but in PPR leagues Woodhead still represents a viable flex play with RB2 upside almost wherever he goes.
Buy if: you think Woodhead will move on to a new team and become a featured pass-catching back, or if the owner will sell for a 24th pick or lower.
Sell if: you think the injury represented the end of the fantasy-relevant portion of Woodhead’s career and that he will be out of the league entirely within a season or two, or if you can get an 18th pick or better.
Hold if: you think Woodhead will move on to a new team and become a featured pass-catching back.
That’s it for the running backs, folks! Post below and let me know if I should add any likely RB destinations or relevant free agent RBs, and discuss your own valuations of the players on my list.