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NFL free agency running back preview: Aaron Jones clearly the name to follow

Matt Harmon
·6 min read
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If you don’t love free agency and the rumors, speculation and unbridled hope that comes out of it, are you even really a football fan? It’s one of my favorite times in the football calendar.

With the new league year set to kick off next week, we’ll spend the next few days previewing the skill position players set to hit the market starting here with running backs. At first glance, this isn’t a great group. However, running back depth charts churn so often and rotations are the norm these days, so being familiar with all the possible names that are going to be in the mix is always necessary.

Let's break the group into five classifications, starting with a tier of one.

Would change the course of a backfield

Aaron Jones

The gap from Aaron Jones to the next available running back is massive. Jones is capable of being the centerpiece of a strong backfield. No one else on the market can come close to making that case.

Jones’ resume over the past two seasons as Green Bay’s top back is as good as any rusher out there. He has averaged over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored an absurd 30 total touchdowns.

Playing alongside Aaron Rodgers makes life easy for a back but make no mistake, Jones is a baller.

He isn’t just putting up numbers. Jones’ 2.95 average yards after contact per attempt ranked second among all backs with 100-plus carries last season. While the Packers don’t use him as a receiver to the level of the Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara tier, he has shown good chops there. We’ve seen Jones rip up linebackers in man coverage when Matt LaFleur deploys him in that manner. You have to wonder if another team would ask Jones to run more than the 17.4 routes per game he went out for in 2020.

The only real question for Jones is what type of salary he’ll command. Even as we have this grand conversation about running back value all the time, the best guys at the position keep getting paid top dollar. Anything can happen on the open market but even if Jones struggles to crack the $15 million-plus per year price of the Kamara and McCaffrey deals, he’s a lock to clear the $12.5 million range of Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook.

The Packers could still franchise tag Jones given that the salary is relatively affordable but they’re cap-strapped and shouldn’t make that luxury move with A.J. Dillon waiting in the wings. When/if Jones signs with another team, he’ll still be an extremely attractive fantasy pick. The drop-off from leaving the NFL’s most efficient offense might be relaxed just a bit by going to a team that wants to feed him plenty of volume to justify his contract.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 24: Aaron Jones #33 of the Green Bay Packers runs with the ball in the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field on January 24, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Aaron Jones will be an attractive fantasy pick no matter where he lands next season, because he's likely to see an uptick in volume if he goes to a new team. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Potential 1a backs in a committee

Chris Carson

Kenyan Drake

Leonard Fournette

All three of these guys have had outstanding stretches of play as a team’s top back. But “stretches” is the keyword. For one reason or another, they haven’t sustained that level of play.

Chris Carson easily has the best and most consistent resume of this cohort. He’s developed into an excellent power back for Seattle and even showed strong chops as a receiver in 2020. Even though he has a rugged “old man” style of play, he won’t turn 27 until September. If he landed with the right team (a strong offense on a contending squad), he’d still be a good bet to be undervalued in fantasy football. I may have slighted him by putting him in this group.

Kenyan Drake embodies the “stretches” concept. He was electric after Arizona traded for him midway through 2019 but is coming off a mediocre second season with the team. At this point, it’s probably best to give up any hope of Drake ever being a full-time, clear-cut RB1. He just hasn’t been able to find success as that player with two NFL teams and was never asked to be that guy back in college at Alabama. I’d bet he’s more likely to muck up the clarity of his next team’s rotation than become an awesome fantasy selection.

Leonard Fournette is going to get a ton of press and possibly big-time interest from other teams after a strong postseason run with the Super Bowl champs. I’d be wary about some team handing him a feature back role but he can be a valuable cog in a rotation. He probably doesn’t want to leave Tampa but they’ve got bigger free-agent fish to fry. Landing spot is going to be everything with Fournette.

Strictly committee members

Mike Davis

Duke Johnson

James White

Jamaal Williams

Carlos Hyde

Wayne Gallman

Frank Gore

None of these backs should be starters, but they could be high-quality backups and/or change of pace players.

James White needs to call up his good pal Tom and find a way to get down there to Tampa. The Bucs got some good run out of Fournette as a receiver, but White would be a much more natural fit in that role. It feels almost too logical for it to actually happen.

Jamaal Williams is a quality second-fiddle. Don’t rule out the Packers opting to retain him on a much cheaper deal if Aaron Jones does fly the nest. He would be a solid changeup to the powerhouse style A.J. Dillon will bring to the table.

The hype on Duke Johnson has always been greater than the actual product. I’d have been more willing to keep the candle lit for one last round of hopeful excitement if he didn’t flop in most of his chances to be the lead back last year when David Johnson was hurt.

Frank Gore will live forever.

“Where do we go from here?”

Le’Veon Bell

Todd Gurley

Mark Ingram

James Conner

The players above, especially the first two backs listed, perfectly encapsulate how quickly things change at the running back position. Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley were the best players at the position just two to three years ago. Now, it’s worth asking whether they’ll even find new homes.

The Ravens already have internal options to replace Mark Ingram, who they essentially phased out to end last year. The Steelers wish they could say the same. They’ll be moving on from James Conner and desperately looking for an upgrade in the NFL draft.

Possible hidden gem

Marlon Mack

It felt like Marlon Mack was on his way to a solid season before tearing his Achilles in Week 1. Based on the extremely brief glimpse we got, the Colts might not have been lying about using Jonathan Taylor just to spell Mack at first. While recovery from that particular injury is a long road, Mack is a former 1,000-yard rusher who has shown plenty of juice before. I’d at least keep an eye on where he lands and his offseason progress. He’s probably the best chance we have of a sleeper difference-maker emerging in this uninspiring free-agent class.

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