A look at the best bargain running backs on the free agent market

 

The NFL offseason is filled with exciting storylines like Kirk Cousins and Richard Sherman changing teams, but this series intends to do the opposite: focus on the lower-profile free agents who may have some value to teams.

There are a few “big names” like Carlos Hyde, Jerick McKinnon, Dion Lewis, Isaiah Crowell, and Orleans Darkwa that may be in line for healthy paydays and starting roles, so let’s skip them and move to a tier below them for potential bargain buys.

Rex Burkhead, New England

bargain running backs
Rex Burkhead can give teams an excellent bang for their buck.

Rex Burkhead may be stretching the “99 cent store” concept to the breaking point because he made $3 million on a one-year deal last year and may be in line for a similar salary again.

But that said, I still believe he represents a value signing. Quite simply, Rex Burkhead can “do it all.” He’s a fluid receiver (catching 30 of his 36 targets last year) and a strong special teams player. But ironically enough, the one area that runner Rex Burkhead may be most underrated in is: running. He showcases some vision, speed, and power. He’s averaged 4.4 yards per carry over the last two seasons.

There’s a perception that Burkhead can’t be a starting runner because we pigeonhole him in that “little white 3rd down back” role like Danny Woodhead, but maybe we should see if he can do it before writing him off. He’s 5’10” and 210 — not too shabby of a frame for a runner. He also carried it 284 times for Nebraska in 2011, showcasing some workhorse potential. At the very least, Burkhead deserves more than the 60-70 carries he gets. In fact, that may make him even more appealing. At age 27, Burkhead only has 151 total carries in the NFL, giving him a lot of tread on his tires.

Possible fits 

OAK. Even if Marshawn Lynch returns to Oakland, he doesn’t appear to be the “answer.” Adding a more two-balanced RB like Burkhead may be in Jon Gruden’s best interest with or without Lynch on board. Backups Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington have some of those same qualities, but Burkhead seems like a better overall player to me.

TB. With Doug Martin on his way out the door, Dirk Koetter and the Bucs are going to need someone to take those reins. Burkhead’s abilities in the receiving game would help juice Jameis Winston‘s efficiency by giving him some easy check-down throws.

DET. Ameer Abdullah‘s time in Detroit may be short-lived. If there’s anything New England coaches like Matt Patricia hate, it’s fumbling, and small-hands Abdullah makes that an art form. I would expect the Lions draft a power runner at some point (LSU’s Derrius Guice appears to be a good fit) but if they don’t, Burkhead may be a good consolation prize. He’d thrive on a team that is pass-first like this one. That said, he’d really only make sense here as a starter, because Theo Riddick is an exceptional pass catcher himself.

Corey Grant, Jacksonville

For a team that had three known commodities at RB (Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, and Chris Ivory), unheralded 4th runner Corey Grant may have looked like the most explosive of the bunch in the playoffs this year.

It’s easy to understand how this diamond in the rough may have been lost in the shuffle. A heralded high school prospect, Grant never secured a starting role back at Auburn (despite averaging 7.7 yards per carry) and got undrafted as a result.

However, there’s always been buzz about Grant behind the scenes. Allegedly (and I say allegedly because I never believe “unofficial” times), Grant ran a 4.20 in the 40 at his school’s pro day. He’s demonstrated that type of speed in the NFL so far (6.1 yards per carry) to go along with strong receiving skills. At age 26, Grant has only 68 NFL carries so far, and less than 150 total in college as well, meaning there’s all sorts of life left in those legs. We’re talking about major “upside” here.

That said, Grant is a restricted free agent, which limits his freedom of movement. The Jags must know they have a potential gem here and will try to match any reasonable offer for him. For this “99 cent store” free agent, you may have to pay above the sticker price.

Possible fits

JAX. Given his restricted status, the most likely scenario is Grant returning to the Jags to back up Leonard Fournette. It’s a fit that makes sense; he has a different skill set than Fournette and may be best used in a “change of pace” role anyway.

TB. I always had high hopes for Charles Sims as a 3rd down back, but he’s struggled to stay healthy so far in Tampa. Grant may give the team more explosive ability at the position than they’ve had in a while.

TEN. Derrick Henry will finally be taking the reins in Tennessee, but the team still needs a change of pace back behind him. I can’t think of many better options than Grant.

Branden Oliver, L.A. Chargers

Okay, now we come to a true 99 cent store player, Branden Oliver. After flashing some promise as a fill-in in 2014 (582 rushing yards, 271 receiving), Oliver’s career has been in a tailspin ever spin. A nasty Achilles injury slowed him down and may leave him on the fringes of the NFL.

But if I ran a team, I’d like to see if Oliver has recovered from that enough to contribute to a team. Back in that rookie season, the 5’8″ 210 little plugger looked like a strong backup, with power to the hole and some receiving skills. He only averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2014, but that was a Chargers team that really struggled in the run game, averaging 3.4 yards as a team.

Of course, the big question with Oliver is: can be get back into form after injury? He looked stuck in the mud last season, and saw backup Austin Ekeler breeze past him on the depth chart. But now Oliver will be one more year removed from that injury and hopefully will get back to the form that made him intriguing.

Possible fits

IND. The Colts will have to think long and hard about Saquon Barkley at # 3 in the draft. If they pass, they may go into the season with Marlon Mack as the starter. I like Mack’s big-play ability a lot, but he’d need another runner to help him last the season. If he’s healthy, Oliver can mimic some of Frank Gore‘s game from last year.

LAR. Todd Gurley handles the vast majority of the workload with the Rams, but there are some question marks on the roster behind him. Malcolm Brown (a FA himself) is okay, but Oliver may be better if he’s at full strength.

NYJ. Even with Matt Forte retiring, the Jets have two solid runners in Bilal Powell and Eli McGuire. That said, neither have a great history of being workhorses. Having Oliver as a third option isn’t a bad insurance policy.

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