Typically, “free agent” and “bargain” aren’t two words that go together. For the Buffalo Bills, they’ve managed to find quite a few of those in the last few years, though (see Jordan Poyer and Quinton Spain for reference). At running back, though, the bargain bin starts to look pretty good.
With analytics changing the way running backs are compensated, big free-agent contracts for many are long gone, replaced by top-heavy deals for a select few while other veteran backs are forced to accept mid-level contracts for platoon work. With Buffalo having signed at least one running back in free agency every offseason since Sean McDermott became head coach, it’s quite possible that the team will once again address the position in this manner.
Excluding players who will receive that huge deal (Derrick Henry, for sure, and perhaps even a player like Melvin Gordon), there are still plenty of strong options available if the Bills are unwilling to break the bank on a running back. Since the team is merely searching for a complement to Devin Singletary in replacing Frank Gore, it’s highly unlikely that they will pursue a player looking for big cash and a large playing time share.
Here are some players we think would fit the Bills quite nicely in 2020 and perhaps beyond. Estimated 2020 restricted free agent tender values were found at OvertheCap.com.
The San Francisco 49ers already have $23.4 million in cap space committed to running backs and fullbacks in 2020, which leads the league. They do have some cap flexibility (Tevin Coleman, for example, could be released at a savings of nearly $5 million with no dead-cap charge, and the team could decline the $6.7 million club option on Kyle Juszczyk), but they also could choose to allow Breida to walk. As a restricted free agent who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, an original-round tender would cost San Francisco $2.1 million, but would net them zero guaranteed draft-pick compensation if he chose to sign with someone else. Without making one of the two moves mentioned above, it’s unlikely that the 49ers will offer Breida a second-round tender ($3.278 million) or a first-round tender ($4.667 million). As a part-time player over the last three seasons, Breida has shown himself to be explosive as both a runner and a receiver, averaging at least five yards per touch over the course of his career. Depending upon the tender amount for him, Breida would be a perfect complement for Singletary.
Buffalo loves veteran running backs, and Hyde is a veteran coming off his best professional season. For the first time in his career, he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and, at age 29, he still has a good year or two left in him. Hyde has never carried the ball more than he did this season, toting the rock for 245 carries at an average of 4.4 yards per rush. At 6’ tall and nearly 230 lbs, he’d bring a bigger-bodied back dimension to the mix, serving as the thunder to Singletary’s lightning. While he may be coming off his best year, the market for soon-to-be 30-year-old running backs isn’t a lucrative one, so he could probably be had at a reasonable rate.
If you’re a fantasy football player, Barber has probably frustrated you or someone in your league multiple times over the last four season. He has been a remarkably inefficient runner since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2016, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry on his 551 career rushes. He hasn’t shown a ton of ability as a receiver, managing only 57 catches for 349 yards so far, but he has flashed some sound ability as a runner on a team that has not run the ball well at all over the last four years. As a team, the Bucs haven’t averaged four yards per rush since the 2015 season, so it hasn’t been all Barber. Perhaps a change of scenery would bring out the best in the 5’11” 225-lb back, who turns 26 in February.
Would there be a more Billsy signing than adding a future Hall of Fame rusher who is closer to earning an AARP card than he is his college days (not literally, but you know what I mean). Peterson would fit the profile of the kind of free-agent runner Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have sought in the past—bruising, bigger backs who are veterans with great track records of character and/or success. I say “or” because Peterson lost an entire year as a result of a child-abuse scandal where he was found to have beaten his son with a switch, resulting in cuts not only on the four year-old’s behind, but on his scrotum, as well. Washington has a club option for Peterson that they’ll have to decide on, but if they let him go, he’ll be an intriguing option for someone next year. I’d pass on Peterson, as the Bills can do better at this position in more ways than one.
Another buy-low candidate, Howard’s career started with a bang as a rookie with the Chicago Bears in 2016, but it’s been all downhill from there. He made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year, rushing 252 times for 1,313 and six touchdowns, adding 29 receptions for 298 yards and a touchdown. After seeing his yardage total decline in the next two seasons (1,122 in 2017 and 935 in 2018) as well as his average-yards-per-carry number (4.1 in 2017 and 3.7 in 2018), Howard was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a sixth-round pick. He was having a nice bounce-back year for the Eagles, as he averaged 4.4 yards per rush and scored six touchdowns through ten games, but a shoulder injury kept him out for the back end of the season. At 6’ and 224 lbs, Howard is another guy who could add some pop to Buffalo’s backfield. He won’t turn 26 until November.
While he’s probably the best player on this list (at least at this point in his career), there is almost no chance that the Bills look to pursue him given his legal troubles. After the Kansas City Chiefs selected Hunt in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Hunt became the starting running back as a rookie when veteran Spencer Ware tore his PCL in the preseason. Hunt responded by combining for 1,782 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. His second season was just as successful on the field, as he had 1,202 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns through 11 games. However, video surface of a domestic incident where Hunt physically assaulted a woman in a hotel room, and he was released. This year, he resurfaced with the Cleveland Browns, and he showed plenty of ability in limited action. The Browns are likely to place at least an original-round tender on the restricted free agent, meaning that any team would have to give up a third-round pick in order to secure his services. Arguably, Hunt is talented enough to warrant the first-round tender of $4.667 million; however, given his troubling past, that tag may not be necessary. If the Bills are willing to put their morals aside, Hunt would be a great addition from a football perspective. Personally, I’d pass.
The former Miami Dolphins runner did what a few players did in 2019—they escaped Adam Gase and flourished. Drake was receiving little time in Miami with new head coach Brian Flores, earning only 47 carries for 174 yards through six games. Once he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals, however, he had a tremendous end to the season. Drake carried 123 times for 643 yards and eight touchdowns in Arizona, winning plenty of people some fantasy championships this year. Given his excellent performance, it would make sense if the Cardinals didn’t want him to go, but they really don’t have much of a choice given the financial commitments they already have at the position. David Johnson has a $14,156,250 cap number, and Arizona would be on the hook for a dead-cap charge of $16.2 million if they were to trade or release him. Even if the team wants Drake to head their backfield over Johnson, they’d have to commit an absurd amount of money to the position to make it happen, and Drake has all the leverage given his success this season. Of the players on this list, Drake will probably command the biggest contract, as the big-bodied back (6’1” and 211 lbs) will only be 26 heading into the season. Spotrac projects a four-year contract totaling just over $22 million. That won’t break the bank, but paying a running back that kind of money over a long-term deal isn’t something the Bills’ current brain trust has shown themselves to be willing to do. Drake may be the best fit for the Bills’ needs, but it will all come down to the price.
Which free agent RB should the Bills sign to replace Frank Gore?
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- All-22 review shows Frank Gore was better than his YPC average might indicate
- Contract projection for 37-year-old Frank Gore looks familiar
- In-house replacement options for Frank Gore
- Free agent options at running back are plentiful
- 2020 NFL Draft has power-back options
- Opinion: Gore brings more than just 3.6 yards per carry
- State of the Bills Roster: RBs Motor-ing toward 2020