Set your alarms, my friends. Free agency opens March 9th and there are going to be some exciting deals that could mean fantasy gold for 2016 owners. I’ve already broken down the Free Agent Wide Receivers here, so let’s turn our attention to the running backs that will fill up those gaping offensive holes across the NFL. We don’t know for sure where they will end up at this point, but here are 5 free agents that stand to make a difference on any roster this season. This is my ranked order of the top 5.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
He is my favorite of this bunch, since I see so much potential and talent in him but have watched it squandered in Miami thus far. Perhaps you disagree or think a guy like Forte should be #1, but I’m thinking I can change your mind, or he will himself this season. Miller finished the 2015 season as #6 fantasy running back in both standard and PPR, yet he had nine games with under 10 fantasy points (standard scoring). I believe this to be indicative of his lack of usage in Miami, as he received 15+ touches in only eight games during the 2015 season. In those games, Miller averaged 4.25 YPC, (and 8.2 yards per reception), 107.9 all-purpose yards, .875 touchdowns (7/10 of his TDs came in these games), and just under 16 fantasy points (standard scoring). Basically, when he’s given the rock, he makes the most of it. No wonder Lamar pushes in the media that he wants to be a “featured” back (read article here)–it’s because he’s proven that when given the opportunity, he succeeds. Miller’s future with Miami is uncertain, with the Dolphins voicing their intention to retain him if possible and Lamar’s expectations for the next step in his career. There certainly are teams that would benefit from a guy like Miller’s skill set, most intriguing for me would be Dallas, but also Houston. Miami’s new head coach hire, Adam Gase (former Bears offensive coordinator) could mean changes for Miller if he stays, but there’s no guarantee of that. Looking at Gase’s record for RBs with pass-catching abilities, we can look to Forte and Langford’s usage last year and to CJ Anderson/Hillman’s usage in 2014 with Broncos (Gase was offensive coordinator for both). Forte ended the 2015 season as #12th in targets among running backs and had 389 receiving yards while Langford received 42 targets good for 279 yards. As an offensive coordinator in Denver during 2013-14 season, Gase’s RBs Hillman/Anderson ended the season with 34 and 44 targets, respectively. Given this, it looks like Gase could know how to use Miller effectively, but there’s also second year back Jay Ajayi ready and waiting to be given an increased role in the offense. Ajayi finished with 56 touches for 241 yards and began seeing between 4-6 carries after week 9 of the 2015 season. The Dolphins could allow Miller to leave and still have decent prospects while Miller is a top free agent, 24 years old, and not much “wear on the tires” due to under usage. Both sides could see some exciting twists in the upcoming months and I’d like to see Miller put Miami in his rearview.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
Bears vocalized their plan to part ways with Forte, which confirms that fans everywhere can begin to drool thinking of the possibilities. I have Miller ranked higher for me here (especially in dynasty) due to Forte most likely having limited full seasons ahead of him and Chicago’s heavy use of the 30-year-old back the past eight seasons. That said, many are making the mistake of discounting him and his impact on a new team for 2016. Forte finished 2015 as the #9 fantasy RB overall (standard scoring, #7 in PPR) with 898 yards rushing, 389 yards receiving, and 7 TDs. He finished in the top 5 fantasy RBs in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, has five 1000+ rushing yard seasons in his career, and averages 514.5 receiving yards per season which is tied with Brandon LaFell’s total receiving yardage for 2015 season, and more than Cecil Shorts, DeVante Adams, and Devin Funchess’s totals. Does this sound like a guy we should discount? Exactly. It could come down to his placement, but I see Forte continuing to produce top 15 fantasy RB numbers this season.
Forte told media that it is not about the money for him, but about the SuperBowl (see here) which shouldn’t be surprising to folks. He knows as well as anyone the decline in running back production past a certain age and that his next move most likely could be his last. Forte’s fit will be with a team already contending to return to playoffs and vie for a the coveted Super Bowl spotlight in this 2016 season. Off the top, New England, Dallas, or Indianapolis might be contenders but also perhaps a team like the Giants. Giants could pair well with the QB-WR dream team that is OBJ/Manning and round out their offense (with a little help at WR2) but could see him contributing significantly on any of these squads. If Forte cares more for the win and fit than the money (he would most likely will take a pay cut from his $7 million salary last year), teams could get this guy for a steal and stay under their salary caps.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Bucs
There was a considerable amount of speculation at the beginning of the 2015 season about which Martin we would get: the talented rookie or the ineffective RB that burned many owners for two seasons in a row. Well, we got the latter and I feel good about naming Martin undervalued and an “underdog” last August( link to article Smith’s Underdogs if possible). Martin ended the fantasy season as the #3 fantasy RB (standard scoring, #5 in PPR), with 1673 all-purpose yards, avg of 4.9 YPC, and 7 TDs. He had more ball security issues than any previous season, giving up 5 fumbles total. Before this season, Martin fumbled a total of 2 times in his NFL career. Early rumors and expectations were that Martin would stay in Tampa Bay, under former offensive coordinator and new head coach Dirk Koetter (backed/invested in Martin since coming on last season). However, the winds have turned since it now seems unlikely that TB will place the franchise tag on Martin and he is asking for a similar deal to Demarco Murray last season (5 year, 42 million). The updates from the media go back and forth, as Bucs GM is set to meet with Martin soon; however, this (just like the media updates) could be up/down negotiations as Martin tries to cash in while Bucs try to weigh their options. Charlies Sims waits in the wings, ending the season at 4.9 YPC, with 561 receiving yards and 529 rushing yards. He quietly ended the season ranked #21 fantasy RB and #4 RB in receiving yards. Head Coach, though also emphasizing their desire to keep Martin, also quoted as stating Sims can be an “every-down back, if need be”. Given his inconsistency, Charles Sims nipping at his heels, and the variety of RB talent in the market (for cheaper), the Bucs may opt to let Martin step into the open market. I know Dallas jumps to mind, but Martin may end up somewhere like the Washington Redskins or Texans. Martin earned respect with what he did this season, but may have been motivated by free agency and TB declining to sign his 5th-year option before season. I’m rooting for him, but can’t say I don’t have similar concerns about his inconsistency. Going into his 5th season, Martin has the opportunity to make a mark and shake off these criticisms if he remains consistent and successful. Where will that be? Stay tuned.
Chris Ivory, New York Jets
Ivory’s injuries ding him a bit for me, although I love his talent and toughness. 2015 represented a career year for Ivory, racking up his first 1000+ rushing yard season, an additional 217 receiving yards and 8 TDs. He started the season off hot, running for two 100+ yard games and scoring 4 TDs in his first four games, but then his hot streak sizzled and nagging injuries seemed to hamper his production as the season progressed. Bilal Powell, also a notable free-agent, turned up the heat in the final stretch by being heavily involved in the passing game out of the backfield which took 5-8 touches away from Ivory during the second half of the season. Ivory has explosion when healthy and will be looking to capitalize on his free agency at age 27, so the Jets may chose to let him walk and use Powell, the cheaper option, (or pick up another free agent) for next season. Ivory is a solid talent and a great complement in a RBBC situation. Media reported that New England may be interested in Ivory, which could be fun to watch paired with the fantastic Dion Lewis. Ivory’s YPC has never fallen below a 4.1, his skills in the receiving game have grown during his time with the Jets, and he runs with power. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Ivory, especially if he can stay healthy. I see him moving on from the Jets, in search of a better fit and/or better pay. New England would be fun, or maybe Tennessee? They could use a more experienced back to help the young backfield struggling to find its way. Tennessee’s main focus will be on other positions (offensive line), so snagging a decently priced free agent RB could be a smart move.
CJ Anderson, Denver Broncos
Anderson falls to five for me because I saw many a fantasy owner ride that roller coaster, and it wasn’t pretty. He finished off the year strong; however, and may have done enough to convince Denver to resign him and allow the starter role be his to lose. The Denver running game struggled to get its footing for most of the season, due to multiple reasons but particularly the poor blocking by their offensive line. Add a time share into that mix and you’ve got a fantasy nightmare at running back. Anderson ranked #31 fantasy RB in 2015, and Hillman finished at #25. Most owners gave up, but then the Broncos began to rely on their running game towards the end of the season. Anderson averaged over 6 YPC in the final five games of the regular season and led his team to a SuperBowl victory with 90 yards and a TD. Sources currently seem confident that Denver will resign Anderson and possibly even Hillman (also a free agent), though CJ’s end of season run may win him the “lead” spot in the backfield. Both are fairly cheap (Hillman actually making about 250 grand more than Anderson), so Denver may look to secure this RBBC into the 2016 season.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans (age 29) Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos (age 24) Bilal Powell, New York Jets (age 27) Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins (age 27) Follow @FF_Female920