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Ranking the best RBs and sleeper values in free agency

Aaron Jones headlines the 2021 class of free-agent running backs that looks to reverse the downward trend at the position.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While free agency presents complications at every position, running backs have proven especially challenging for teams in need of help at the position. Few of the recent contracts handed out to veterans have proven worthy of the investment and rarely have NFL decision-makers not come to regret the deals handed out to running backs from other teams.

Just two years ago, All-Pro Le’Veon Bell left the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the New York Jets on a lucrative long-term contract. Despite the hoopla surrounding his acquisition, Bell failed to last two seasons in New York. Meanwhile, many of the free-agent running backs that re-signed instead of testing the market — namely Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson — have struggled to match their earlier level of play.

The 2021 free-agent market contains multiple talented running backs, some of which have multiple highly productive seasons under their belts. Whether or not they can reverse the trend for the position remains unclear.

Top 5

Aaron Jones

The Green Bay Packers might not have signed Aaron Jones to a multi-year extension even without the pandemic crippling the salary cap, but they might have more seriously considered the franchise tag. Now, one of the NFL’s most electric and productive running backs will hit the market as the top player at his position. Jones’ ability to tilt the field as a receiver and runner should widen his appeal and land him a deal not too far from the ones signed by fellow 2017 draft classmates Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara.

Chris Carson

While the Seattle Seahawks openly expressed their desire for a more run-focused offensive attack in 2021, they will likely have to strike that balance without their top tailback. Chris Carson ran efficiently and productively for most of his time in Seattle and still appears to have some tread on his tires. While his injury history might limit his market to some degree, he will likely find an offer in free agency the Seahawks cannot afford to match.

Marlon Mack

If not for the arrival of 2020 second-round running back Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack’s Week 1 season-ending injury might have derailed the Indianapolis Colts’ playoff hopes. Mack had proved himself as a highly efficient rusher during the previous two seasons with the team and could have garnered a significant offer on the free-agent market with another solid individual campaign. Instead, Mack might have to settle for a short-term deal to re-establish his worth. Still, his upside remains high and his age (he turned 25 in March) also works in his favor.

James Conner

Injuries derailed a promising start to James Conner’s career, and now the cap-strapped Pittsburgh Steelers will most likely watch him depart for a new team. Conner probably cannot hold up for an entire season, but he has shown the ability to take advantage of defenses when healthy.

Kenyan Drake

A transition tag recipient an offseason ago, Kenyan Drake now arrives in free agency having answered some questions about his play while raising others. In 2020, Drake produced double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career while also producing more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. However, the veteran back averaged less than 4 yards per carry and saw his role in the passing game diminish. Some teams might overlook the efficiency shortcomings as symptomatic of the Arizona Cardinals rather than Drake himself.


Kalen Ballage

After nearly falling out of the league entirely, Kalen Ballage found a home with the Los Angeles Chargers last season. Some injuries and a porous offensive line hurt his efficiency, but Ballage demonstrated some burst and vision that the Chargers lacked during Austin Ekeler’s absence.

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams lacks the profile of his Packers running mate, but he improved as a receiver every year in the NFL and comes off his best season as a rusher as well. Williams merits consideration as a lead back in a rotation.

Full list of free-agent running backs

2021 Free Agents: Running Backs

Pos. First Last 2020 Team 2021 Team
Pos. First Last 2020 Team 2021 Team
RB Kenyan Drake Cardinals
RB D.J. Foster Cardinals
RB Todd Gurley Falcons
RB Brian Hill Falcons
RB Gus Edwards* Ravens
RB T.J. Yeldon Bills
RB Taiwan Jones Bills
RB Samaje Perine Bengals
RB Phillip Lindsay* Broncos
RB Adrian Peterson Lions
RB Aaron Jones Packers
RB Jamaal Williams Packers
RB Tyler Ervin Packers
RB Buddy Howell* Texans
RB Dontrell Hilliard* Texans
RB Marlon Mack Colts
RB Chris Thompson Jaguars
RB Darrel Williams* Chiefs
RB Le'Veon Bell Chiefs
RB Anthony Sherman Chiefs
RB Devontae Booker Raiders
RB Theo Riddick Raiders
RB Kalen Ballage* Chargers
RB Malcolm Brown Rams
RB Matt Breida Dolphins
RB DeAndre Washington Dolphins
RB Ameer Abdullah Vikings
RB Mike Boone* Vikings
RB James White Patriots
RB Rex Burkhead Patriots
RB Ty Montgomery Saints
RB Dwayne Washington Saints
RB Wayne Gallman Giants
RB Dion Lewis Giants
RB Alfred Morris Giants
RB Frank Gore Jets
RB Josh Adams* Jets
RB Corey Clement Eagles
RB James Conner Steelers
RB Jeff Wilson* 49ers
RB Tevin Coleman 49ers
RB Chris Carson Seahawks
RB Carlos Hyde Seahawks
RB Leonard Fournette Buccaneers
RB LeSean McCoy Buccaneers
RB Kenjon Barner Buccaneers
RB T.J. Logan Buccaneers
RB D'Onta Foreman* Titans
RB Senorise Perry Titans
RB Lamar Miller Washington