Examining the Value of the FREE AGENT Running Back signings

Last week we took a look at the biggest five quarterback signings of the 2020 offseason to examine which provided the best value. This week we turn our attentions to the running back position. However, the free agent contracts handed out to the running back position this offseason have generally been short term deals, making it hard to rank them in terms of value. Of the four deals we will touch on in this article, just one was longer than a two-year deal, and that was actually a re-signing as opposed to free agency.

Austin Ekeler | 4-years $24.5 million

Following the remainder of the free agent period, Ekeler’s contract ranks ninth in the league among running backs when it comes to average value. On the surface of it that make seem a lot for a player with just 443 touches in his career so far. However, when Ekeler has been involved, his impact was impressive. 2019 saw Ekeler rank number one among qualified backs when it came to yards per touch at 6.9. Among backs to have 200 or more touches he was the only one to average over six yards per touch.

In terms of touchdowns he was also extremely productive. He ranked eighth in the league in combined rushing and receiving touchdowns, and among players with over 200 touches, only Todd Gurley and Mark Ingram were more productive on a touchdown per touch basis. To emphasise just how difficult he was to stop last year, is that Ekeler led the entire league in broken tackles, while finishing second in yards after catch per reception at 10.2, behind only Dalvin Cook.

His impact on a rushing basis was closer to league average than this contract would suggest. However, what Ekeler brings to the table is extremely valuable. We have seen these multi-use running backs be valuable in the past in the right system. Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and James White have all excelled in this hybrid role with the New England Patriots, and the Los Angeles Chargers run a similar system. 

Ekeler offers the ability to cause opponents problems both out of the backfield or lining up in the slot. Given that hybrid role, this contract could prove to be an incredible value for a very versatile player who could prove to be a matchup nightmare once again for opponents in 2020 and beyond.

Melvin Gordon | 2 years $16 million

Gordon’s new contract with the Denver Broncos makes him the sixth highest paid running back in the league in terms of average yearly value. The value of Gordon can be looked at in two different ways. On one hand, he has 47 touchdowns, 36 rushing, in the last four years and has topped 1000 yards from scrimmage in three of those four years. He is also a contributor in the passing game, which is extremely valuable in the current climate of the NFL. 

However, the downside is that he has only played a full season once in his career, and his per touch numbers have been mediocre for four of his five year career. In those four season he has averaged under five yards per touch, with the anomaly being the 6.1 in 2018. One final concern is that Gordon has fumbled 14 times in his five years career, four of which came last season.

Committing a guaranteed $13.5 million to a player has its risks, especially one who has only played a full season once in his career. However, at just 3.5% of the cap this year and around 4% of the cap in 2021, the risk is relatively low for a player with a proven record of finding the end zone.

This contract has the chance to look somewhat ugly in 2021 if Gordon struggles or suffers more injuries in 2020. Even in that situation at least the Broncos are only committed for one more year, and could move on to save $2.5 million in 2021. Ultimately, this contract does not represent great value, but it is certainly not a disaster either.

Jordan Howard | 2 years $9.75 million

free agent running back

This contract is a low-risk deal for the Dolphins and it has the potential to offer reasonably high rewards. Howard’s production during his career has never reached the heights of his rookie season with the Chicago Bears. After averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 5.7 yards per touch that season, he has never averaged over 4.4 yards per carry or 4.6 yards per touch in the three years since.

Much like Gordon, he is a solid contributor when it comes to finding the end zone, having scored a total of 32 touchdowns in his four year career. The biggest downside comes in his value in the passing game, where his targets declined year on year. 

The match between the Dolphins and Howard has the chance to be perfect for both sides. The Dolphins are looking for someone to be a feature back, possibly as soon as 2021, and Howard needs to jump start his career. Best case scenario, Howard gives the Dolphins two years of good production, allowing the Dolphins to lean on him, and then Howard can chase a big contract at age 28.

However, if things do not go to plan in 2020, then the Dolphins can move on prior to the 2021 season with no dead cap. This is a very clever deal for the Dolphins, while also offering Howard the chance to save his career.

Todd Gurley | 1 year $5.5 million

The struggles for Gurley last season are well-documented, which led to him being cut this offseason. The Atlanta Falcons did not hesitate to bring the former Georgia Bulldog back to the state on a fully guaranteed deal.

The Falcons moved on from their highly-paid back in Devonta Freeman earlier this offseason, meaning they were looking for a feature back. That opportunity fell in their lap with Gurley, who has 54 touchdowns in his last 44 games. 2019 was a down season, but a large portion of blame could also be placed on the offensive line of the Rams for their 2019 performance.

The Falcons have a very talented offensive line, and now they have a very talented back behind that line. If Gurley can find his 2017 and 2018 form, then the Falcons offense could be one of the most balanced and potent attacks in the league. 

Ben Rolfe

Head of NFL Content



Image credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports & Eagles Wire USA Today