Analysis  

 

Ten running backs worth pursuing in free agency/2019 NFL Draft

Print

Over the next several months, the rosters of all 32 teams will begin to take shape for the 2019 season. In this series, NFL.com writers and analysts look at the best players available in the 2019 NFL Draft, free agency or via trade (limited to players who are reportedly available or open to being dealt) at the following positions: quarterback, running back, defensive back, pass rusher and receiver. Today, Gennaro Filice looks at the top 10 running backs worth pursuing.

1) Le'Veon Bell, free agent: A no-brainer No. 1 on this list, Bell earned first-team All-Pro honors when we last saw him on the field of play. He also led the NFL in carries (321) and touches (406) during that 2017 campaign, though he's now had more than a year to recover from that career-high workload, having sat out the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell, who just turned 27, is the prototypical modern running back: The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder can pound the rock as a traditional rusher, but also brings savvy pass-catching skills that go way beyond dump-offs and screens -- Bell can line up wide and run pristine receiver-quality routes. It's only natural to wonder what kind of rust Bell could possess when he returns to action in the fall, given his 2018 sabbatical, but he's still young enough to engender confidence. The biggest concern might be how his unique running style -- which takes patience to a level that'd get most backs in trouble -- will play in a foreign scheme with unfamiliar blockers.

2) Josh Jacobs, draft prospect: While this RB draft class doesn't feature the kind of chart-topping superstar that we've become accustomed to of late (SEE: Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, etc.), Jacobs has established himself as the belle of this ball, and for good reason. In an Alabama backfield teeming with NFL talent, Jacobs emerged as top dog down the back stretch of last season. The 5-10, 216-pounder is a true three-down back, as a punishing runner, dynamic pass catcher and tenacious pass blocker. He even returned kicks for the Tide, averaging a whopping 30.6 yards a pop last season. With his well-rounded game, stocky build and stellar vision, Jacobs has drawn comparisons to Frank Gore. While some might raise an eyebrow at Jacobs' limited collegiate workload -- just 251 carries over three seasons, a byproduct of Alabama's time-share backfield and an injury-riddled sophomore season -- the optimistic draftnik loves all the tread left on these tires.

3) Darrell Henderson, draft prospect: At this point in the pre-draft process, Jacobs is the only back consistently receiving first-round buzz. So, what does the RB prospect landscape look like after him? Well, the talent doesn't drop off, but the groupthink does. A number of names could fill this slot, but I'm going with the home-run hitter out of Memphis. This past season, Henderson gained 1,321 yards after first contact. Yup, according to Pro Football Focus, this 5-9, 200-pounder averaged a mind-bending 6.17 yards per attempt after contact. That's how you average 8.9 yards per carry ... for the second consecutive season! I know, I know: Some will question the level of competition Henderson faced in the American Athletic Conference. But he displays the kind of contact balance and lateral quickness that'll play on any field. His pass-catching role was limited at Memphis, and pass protection is an area where improvement's needed. But in an NFL that's more fond of committee backfields than ever before, Henderson's explosive running skills have Day 2 draft steal written all over them.

4) Mark Ingram, free agent: The two-time Pro Bowler will turn 30 during the coming season, an age milestone that traditionally serves as a scarlet letter number for running backs. That shouldn't be the case for Ingram, though, as his workload has always been restricted by Sean Payton's committee approach in New Orleans. And the skill set remains quite enticing: a beefy bruiser who has eclipsed 4.5 yards per carry in each of the past four seasons, while simultaneously serving as a weapon in the passing game. Ingram's work has been overshadowed by the transcendent play of Alvin Kamara over the past two seasons, but the former Heisman Trophy winner should garner plenty of interest on the open market (if the Saints don't re-up him), due to his well-rounded, blue-collar game.

5) Tevin Coleman, free agent: After flashing talent as a versatile, change-of-pace back behind Devonta Freeman during his first three NFL seasons, Coleman spent most of 2018 as Atlanta's RB1, due to Freeman's injury-abbreviated campaign. The results? Mixed. While Coleman averaged a career-high 4.8 yards per carry and notched five receiving touchdowns (in addition to his four rushing scores), he ranked as just the No. 47 running back by PFF's grading. Always known for his blazing speed, Coleman doesn't break many tackles; thus, there's a boom-or-bust quality to his game. The chunk plays are exhilarating, the negative plays frustrating. Still just 25 years old, could the 6-1, 210-pounder even out his play and carry a backfield? Or does he max out as a complementary big-play threat?

6) Damien Harris, draft prospect: As a former five-star recruit who led Alabama in rushing during each of the past three seasons, Harris would seem to have the kind of resume scouts would salivate over. But he's not an elite athlete, lacks long speed and has limited production in the passing game. That said, there are still tools to work with in this 5-11, 215-pound frame. Harris is a physical, no-nonsense runner with fine vision who gets upfield in a hurry and always falls forward. And this isn't a young player who'll find his way into the doghouse for poor ball security: Harris never lost a fumble in four years at Alabama -- and didn't put the ball on the turf at all in his final two seasons. The other players on this list have more jump-off-the-screen ability, but Harris is the kind of disciplined, steady rusher who can grind out success on Sundays.

7) Devin Singletary, draft prospect: Nicknamed "Motor," Singletary churned out three straight 1,000-yard rushing campaigns at FAU before entering the 2019 NFL Draft. Of course, his spectacular production in Boca Raton could work against him, in the sense that NFL execs will wonder what kind of toll an immense college workload took on the 5-9, 200-pounder. As mentioned above, Josh Jacobs logged 251 carries over three years at Alabama. Singletary eclipsed that total in each of the last two seasons, closing out his three-year career with a hefty 714 totes. Another issue: Limited receiving production, including just six total catches this past season. A highly elusive runner with fun college tape, Singletary's combine testing will help evaluators get a better feel for how his athletic traits could fit into the next level.

8) David Montgomery, draft prospect: Like Singletary, Montgomery took on a massive workload at the college level, clearing 250 carries in each of the past two seasons. Unlike Singletary, Montgomery has a bulky, NFL-sized frame -- and he threw it around to great effect during his time at Iowa State. What Montgomery lacks in burst and long speed, he makes up for in contact balance and tackle-breaking ability. He's also a capable pass catcher, as evidenced by his 71 catches in 37 career games. His athletic testing at the combine isn't going to blow anyone away, but this guy doesn't lack in the heart department. (Unfortunately, they don't have a test for that in Indy.)

9) Jay Ajayi, free agent: We've entered the injury-uncertainty portion of the list. Ajayi's 2018 season ended in Week 5, when he tore his ACL. The good news? Ajayi said it was a "clean" ACL tear, and he'll be 11 months removed from the injury when the 2019 season kicks off. The bad news? This wasn't his first health woe, as Ajayi's injury history is well-documented, going back to his time at Boise State. Truth is, Ajayi's violent running style isn't just hard on defenders -- his own body takes a beating, too. Ajayi's still just 25, though, and he's enjoyed some stretches of dominant play, logging three 200-yard rushing games during the 2016 season and playing a key role in the Eagles' Super Bowl title run in 2017.

10) Rodney Anderson, draft prospect: A healthy Rodney Anderson would sit near the tippy top of this list. Unfortunately, that's only a hypothetical, as Anderson's 2018 season ended in September with a knee injury. That wasn't an isolated incident, either: Three of Anderson's four years at Oklahoma featured season-ending injuries, including a broken leg and a fractured vertebra. So, how does a guy with such a laundry list of serious health issues make this kind of list at all? Well, he's immensely talented. And big. And explosive. And versatile. College football fans will remember Anderson's performance against Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl (a College Football Playoff semifinal game), when he shredded a loaded Dawgs D for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. The medical concerns could push Anderson to Day 3 of the draft, but if he's right, he could be a steal as a high-impact rookie.

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop