In recent years, NFL rushing offenses have changed. We've seen fewer bell-cow running backs and more committees featured. As a result, tailbacks may find it difficult to land lucrative deals on the free-agent market.
Furthermore, well-compensated running backs had underwhelming 2019 seasons. Sixteen ball-carriers eclipsed 1,000 yards. Only one of the top-five (annually) highest-paid backs, Ezekiel Elliott, belongs in that group. The other four, Todd Gurley II, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman, averaged fewer than 3.9 yards per carry.
If notable playmakers at the top of the wage market struggled to produce while averaging $8.25 million or more on their deals, teams may be hesitant to pay the next crop of free-agent tailbacks big money, especially with low-cost players clearing 1,000 rushing yards.
Nonetheless, free agency rewards production. Multiple players deserve pay raises, but we're unlikely to see someone reset the market, topping Elliott's six-year, $90 million contract. Still, veterans can make their cases to cash in.
Based on past production, let's take a look at eight of the best impending free-agent running backs, unrestricted and restricted. We'll match each player with a new team and provide a contract projection.
Barring an extension, Derrick Henry would go into free agency as the most coveted running back on the market when the new league year begins March 18. He earned the 2019 rushing title with 1,540 yards on 303 carries.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill deserves credit for elevating the Tennessee Titans offense with his arm, but Henry averaged 149.1 yards per game between Week 10 and the AFC Championship Game.
As Henry saw an increase in rushing attempts through each of his four seasons, he upped his production. The Titans should feel comfortable handing the ball off to him 16-20 times per contest going forward.
Henry, arguably the best pure ball-carrier in the 2020 free-agent crop, comes up short in one aspect when compared to the top modern-day running backs. He doesn't provide much in the passing game. The 26-year-old veteran had fewer than 19 catches in each of his campaigns.
The Titans can use Henry's low reception numbers as a reason not to pay him $52-plus million like Elliott, Gurley and Bell, who all have multiple seasons with 50 or more receptions.
Because running back is one of the more replaceable positions, the Titans shouldn't bend over backward to sign Henry. Nevertheless, he deserves a substantial raise.
Tennessee will pay Henry, but he won't break the $50 million threshold in total contract value.
Prediction: Henry signs four-year, $48 million deal with the Titans
Melvin Gordon III
Melvin Gordon III's contract standoff with the Los Angeles Chargers started last offseason. He didn't report to training camp and missed the first four weeks of the 2019 campaign. The organization won the financial tug-of-war, but the two-time Pro Bowler hopes to remain with the club, per Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk.
"Hopefully, I'm here," Gordon said. "Hopefully, I don't have to wait til [the new league year in] March to know where I’m gonna be playing."
On the other hand, Gordon understands the Chargers' plan may not involve him.
"When it comes to business, you have to take your emotions out of it," he said. "It's not about if you deserve to be here or not. I’ve talked to Tom [Telesco] plenty of times, he tells me 'you deserve to get paid,' but sometimes it just might not be the right situation."
In Gordon's absence, Austin Ekeler, who's going to be a restricted free agent, flashed in the lead role. He's every bit of a complete running back, logging 1,550 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage during the 2019 campaign.
The Chargers are unlikely to keep both tailbacks on new deals. Don't be surprised if they choose Ekeler, who's two years younger and may be cheaper because of his restricted label.
Gordon's demand for a new contract and his five-year history of taking on the featured position will probably lead him elsewhere. At 26 years old, he's still in his prime and can produce with a high volume of touches.
The Miami Dolphins don't have an established running back. None of their tailbacks has started more than eight games in a season. In 2019, Kalen Ballage led the team with 74 rushing attempts and recorded 135 yards and three touchdowns.
According to Spotrac, the Dolphins are projected to open the offseason with $93.7 million in cap space, the most in the NFL. Gordon's contract wouldn't put a huge dent in their financial resources, and the backfield would have a proven commodity to elevate the ground attack.
Prediction: Gordon signs four-year, $42 million deal with the Dolphins
General manager Tom Telesco can allow Gordon to walk in free agency because of Ekeler's breakout 2019 campaign. More importantly, Ekeler is more of a quick-twitch athlete. As NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah illustrated, the shifty running back can shake cornerbacks out of their cleats with crisp route running.
This past season, Ekeler finished 10th in receptions (92) and had an impressive 85.2 percent catch rate. He not only has one of the best sets of hands in the league, but he's also a decent ball-carrier, averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt for his career.
If the Chargers let Gordon sign elsewhere, Ekeler would more than likely return for his fourth season in Los Angeles.
Keep in mind, Ekeler's restricted free-agent tag allows the Chargers to match offers for him on the open market. L.A. could also sign him to an early extension, which would indicate the team is moving on from Gordon.
Spotrac estimates Ekeler would be worth $11.9 million on the open market compared to $11.7 million for Gordon.
While splitting hairs between two similar talents, the Chargers will choose to lock up Ekeler on a long-term deal and hope to see him build on his 2019 numbers in a full-time starting position.
Prediction: Ekeler signs four-year, $43 million deal with the Chargers
The Arizona Cardinals acquired Kenyan Drake from the Dolphins before the October trade deadline. In his first game with the club, he appeared to fit seamlessly in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's system, logging 162 yards from scrimmage, including 110 on the ground.
Over eight games, Drake totaled a team-best 814 yards from scrimmage. General manager Steve Keim talked about retaining the 26-year-old tailback for the long term.
"As far as waiting until after the season [to re-sign Drake], that's not necessarily the thing either," he said, per Darren Urban of the team's official website. "I would certainly love to have Kenyan Drake back. I think he fits in this offense, and he really has given us a spark in many ways."
Keim's words sound like trouble for David Johnson, who produced 715 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage in 2019. He hasn't been able to match his 2016 All-Pro campaign in which he led the league in both of those categories.
Because the Cardinals would owe Johnson $16.2 million in dead cap if they release him, Keim is more likely to attempt a trade rather than cut the five-year veteran. If Arizona can find a trade partner for Johnson, the dead money would drop to $6 million, and the team would save $8.25 million, per Over the Cap.
Regardless of Johnson's short-term status, Keim could retain his most productive running back from this past season on a modest deal. Spotrac projects Drake would cost $5.5 million annually. Arizona could extend him and ride out Johnson's costly contract for another term.
Prediction: Drake signs three-year, $17 million deal with the Cardinals
Over the last two years, Carlos Hyde bounced around among four teams. He split the 2018 campaign between the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. Last offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs signed him and then traded him to the Houston Texans for offensive lineman Martinas Rankin.
Fortunately for Hyde, the trade worked in his favor. He logged a career-high 1,070 rushing yards and six touchdowns as an integral component to the Texans ground attack. Of course, the six-year veteran wants to stay with the AFC South club.
"Yes, I definitely want to be back here," Hyde said, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "I don't want to go to another team and start all over again. I felt like Houston was home. I think I handled my part. I've just got to let things play out in the offseason and see what happens."
The Texans also acquired left tackle Laremy Tunsil and running back Duke Johnson in separate deals. With head coach Bill O'Brien officially taking over general manager duties, he could retain or reward those players with new contracts.
"I think any move we make, we try to think about the long term," O'Brien told Wilson in January, praising the team's new acquisitions in 2019 for their contributions.
If Hyde wants to be back in Houston, expect him to suit for the Texans through the next season or two.
Prediction: Texans re-sign Hyde to two-year, $6.5 million deal
Since Jordan Howard came into the league as a fifth-round pick in 2016, his rushing yard totals and receptions have trended in the wrong direction.
He has gone from a rookie Pro Bowler, notching 1,313 rushing yards with the Chicago Bears, to an afterthought, partially because of an injury in Philadelphia this past season.
Howard also shared the backfield with rookie second-rounder Miles Sanders in 2019. Still, the four-year veteran held a sizable role, averaging 11.9 carries per contest. But he suffered a stinger in Week 9, missed the following six games and played one offensive snap in the season finale.
Sanders has taken over the backfield, which explains why Howard will likely suit up elsewhere in 2020. At 25 years old, he can be a serviceable asset between the tackles within a committee or as the No. 2 option.
In addition to Howard's modest receiving numbers, declining production will significantly drop his value.
The Las Vegas Raiders selected Josh Jacobs in the first round of last year's draft. He handled the majority workload (242 carries) but missed three games down the stretch because of a shoulder injury. The Silver and Black need someone to share rushing attempts with him going forward.
The Raiders re-signed running back Jalen Richard in April, but his carries have been on the decline every year since he entered the league in 2016. He's more effective as a pass-catcher, recording 160 receptions for 1,380 yards and three touchdowns in four seasons. DeAndre Washington is set to hit the free-agent market.
Las Vegas can pick up Howard to spell Jacobs. Head coach Jon Gruden's rushing attack would feature a power duo that can flourish behind a stout offensive line that tied for fifth in run-blocking adjusted line yards (4.63) last season, per Football Outsiders.
Prediction: Howard signs two-year, $6 million deal with the Raiders
Kareem Hunt possesses the talent to earn a lucrative deal on the open market, but his actions away from the field create question marks.
In March, the league suspended him eight games for shoving and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel and for a separate altercation in which he allegedly punched a man at an Ohio resort. In January, the Rocky River Police Department pulled him over because of a traffic violation and found "small amounts" of marijuana during a vehicle search, per Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal. Hunt was not charged with possession.
The 24-year-old acknowledged that he would've failed a drug test at the time of the traffic infraction, which drew the ire of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, per Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com.
"It's not good. Kareem knows he's got to do better. Kevin and Andrew have talked to him about it and I'll just leave it at that. What he did is not acceptable; he's got to do better. [...] We want guys who are going to be smart, tough and accountable both on and off the field. Kareem understands that, and we're looking forward to him meshing with our culture moving forward."
It seems as though the Browns are willing to take another chance on Hunt after he appeared in eight games during the 2019 campaign. Yet, with the three-year pro under management's microscope, don't expect him to sign a lucrative long-term deal.
As a backup, Hunt recorded 25 first downs as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher. He's arguably the best No. 2 tailback in the league, but it's hard to trust him on a multiyear deal because of his past decisions away from the gridiron.
The Browns will sign Hunt to another prove-it deal under strict guidelines.
Prediction: Hunt signs one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Browns
If a running back misses a year of action, he's out of sight, out of mind, which doesn't bode well for players nearing 30 years old.
Lamar Miller had a solid seven-year run with the Dolphins and Texans. During the 2019 preseason, he tore his ACL and MCL, putting an end to his campaign before it began. Houston moved on with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, who combined for 1,480 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
The Texans have to make a decision on Hyde's expiring contract. Miller, who's going into his age-29 term, seems like a long shot to return. In Houston, when healthy, he provided solid production out of the backfield, including 92 receptions for 678 yards and five touchdowns as a pass-catcher.
On the flip side, he scored 13 rushing touchdowns over the last three years and no more than five in each of those seasons.
Assuming the Texans are skeptical about re-signing Miller at his age following surgery to repair multiple tears in his knee, he'll need to latch on with a new team.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't swing for a top free-agent running back, general manager Jason Licht can find Peyton Barber's replacement in the bargain bin.
Under head coach Bruce Arians, the Bucs field a pass-heavy offense, which ranked fourth in attempts this past season. The coaching staff could lean on Ronald Jones II in his third term along with an experienced low-cost veteran.
In a committee with Jones and Dare Ogunbowale, Miller could come along slowly and adequately fill the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Prediction: Miller signs one-year, $3 million deal with the Buccaneers
Player contract details provided by Spotrac.com.