We are five weeks from the start of free agency in the NFL. While a lot will change between now and then, with franchise and transition tags applied, restricted free agent tenders extended, re-signings, and cut players, we still can get a fairly good idea of who could be available on the open market when the new league year begins.
We started this series a couple of days ago with a look at the soon-to-be free agent quarterbacks. We continue that today with a look at the running backs who could be on the market, with an eye towards who the Miami Dolphins could target.
I believe free agency for a proven running back is the way to go for the Dolphins. They have the cap space, they will (likely) have a rookie quarterback on a restricted wage scale contract for the next five seasons, and they need to have a player who can protect the rookie quarterback with blocking and with being a threat carrying the ball. Pay now to get someone who immediately steps in as the starter, then look toward using a draft pick on a rookie running back if there is one you really like and can develop behind the veteran.
The running game may not be the focal point of offenses around the league, but having a strong running game opens up the passing game. Miami needs a running game.
The running back group of soon-to-be free agents is headlined by 2019 rushing leader Derrick Henry. The Tennessee Titans could look to lock him up before free agency, potentially using a tag on him, to keep the offense, along with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, that took them to the AFC Championship game this year, so he may or may not become available in March.
After Henry, there are several names that could be intriguing, though they are getting older. The over 30 group includes Darren Sproles (37, retired), Marshawn Lynch (34), Bilal Powell (32), Anthony Sherman (32), Taiwan Jones (32), LeSean McCoy (32), Robert Turbin (31), Kenjon Barner (31), and Chris Thompson (30). Maybe they have something left to give Miami a good year, but the 2019 season seemed to peg most of them as backups or situational running backs.
One name not included in that list is the 37-year-old Frank Gore - simply because the man does not actually age. He spent 2019 with the Buffalo Bills after playing for the Dolphins in 2018. He could be a player Miami targets to provide a veteran presence in the locker room, using him as a situational runner or as part of a platoon with a rookie.
The Los Angeles running backs will be interesting to watch. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, 27, is scheduled to hit free agency and is probably the best back on the market other than Henry - or maybe you will argue he is actually ahead of Henry. He could be a stud brought in to stabilize the position for a couple of years before handing it off to a younger back - pretty much what is happening now as Austin Ekeler assumes the top spot for the Chargers.
The other LA team, the Rams, are in need of cap space this offseason, which has led to speculation they could look to trade Todd Gurley. While technically not a free agent, Gurley being available - even if it is for draft picks along with money - does add another dimension to the free agency market. Could the Rams have to throw in a high draft pick - with Spotrac speculating it could be as high as second round choice - in an effort to get someone to take Gurley’s contract? Would Miami - who have used camp space to add picks before (Aqib Talib) - consider that move?
The Arizona Cardinals have a couple of decisions to make, including with former Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, who is scheduled to be a free agent. It is likely the Cardinals re-sign Drake, who played well for them in the second-half of the 2019 season after being traded from Miami, and it does not seem likely Miami would be in the market to bring him back after trading him away during the 2019 campaign. They also have David Johnson, who fell off this season. He averaged 16.1 carries per game in 2018, then dropped to just 7.2 this year, only gaining 26.5 yards per game this season, the lowest averages of his career (not counting the 23 yards he gained in one game played in 2017). There is speculation the Cardinals could release Johnson, though it would cost them money, so he could become a free agent.
Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller is also slated to be a free agent this year, putting another veteran, and another former Dolphins rusher, on the market. He has a lot of carries under his belt, but he was still effective in 2018, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 15 carries in 14 games played, just missing a 1,000-yard season by 27 yards. His 2019 season was ended in the preseason when he tore his ACL, so there will be concerns about his health that have to be answered as well.
Other options include Peyton Barber, who carried the ball 154 times for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite not being the starting running back, and restricted free agents Kareem Hunt and Matt Breida.
Potential Dolphins targets: Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley (trade), Lamar Miller