The Buffalo Bills have a big decision coming up regarding one of their most-talented and most-recognizable players. Running back LeSean McCoy, who is sixth in franchise history with 3,814 rushing yards as a member of the Bills, is due to make $9.625 million in 2019. When the regular season begins, he will be 31 years old—and coming off the worst season of his NFL career. McCoy set career-lows in rushing yards (514) and yards-per-attempt (3.2). He had his lowest touchdown output (3) since 2012. The veteran struggled mightily in 2018.
During the National Championship Game, McCoy openly opined for a better offensive line, potentially indicating that he feels his struggles were not caused by his own shortcomings. Part of this very well may be true, as the Bills’ offensive line was awful during the 2018 season. However, even when McCoy seemed to have lanes, he struggled to gain yards consistently. Plays that he turned into long runs last year were two-yard gains this year—or worse, they were instead losses. Also, all three of Buffalo’s other running backs (Chris Ivory, Marcus Murphy, and Keith Ford) averaged more yards per rush this season than McCoy did, all while playing behind the same poor offensive line.
If the Bills were to cut McCoy, it would presumably be to ensure that the team has younger, less-expensive talent with greater upside than a 31-year old McCoy gives them. While the free-agent market is rarely the place to acquire less-expensive talent, a crowded free-agent market at the halfback position gives hope that the team can do just that. There are multiple players who offer a skill set that could help the Bills, and most of those players could be had at far less money per year than McCoy.
For a complete list of free agent running backs, visit Spotrac. I’ve narrowed the list down to the running backs that I’d most like to see the Bills pursue; however, if you see another name on the linked list, feel free to make the case for that player in the comments section below.
The former Jacksonville Jaguars running back, who doesn’t turn 26 until October, seemed entirely disinterested in the regular-season finale, prompting team executive vice president Tom Coughlin to scold him publicly in the game’s immediate aftermath. While that might not seem to be a glowing endorsement, Yeldon was quite productive this season filling in for Leonard Fournette. Yeldon rushed for 414 yards and one touchdown, and caught 55 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged four yards per rush this year, and he has averaged 4.4 yards per tote over the last two seasons combined; Fournette, on the other hand, has averaged 3.7 yards per carry in the same span. Yeldon has struggled to stay healthy in the past, but if he is used as part of a backfield-by-committee, he has the speed, the receiving ability, and the rushing ability to serve as an immediate upgrade over the 2018 version of McCoy.
If Buffalo wants to make a slightly bigger splash, they can splurge a bit on Coleman, who has been the lightning in the Atlanta Falcons backfield to Devonta Freeman’s thunder over the past few seasons. Coleman is also 25 (he turns 26 in April), and he had a very good year serving as the starter while Freeman was injured. Coleman set career highs in carries (167), yards (800), yards per carry (4.8), receptions (32), and receiving touchdowns (f); he also ran for four touchdowns and totaled 276 receiving yards. Spotrac pins his approximate yearly value at $5 million per season, and if you factor in the $2.625 million McCoy will count against the cap if he’s cut, the total cap number for both players is still less than McCoy’s individual cap number for the 2019 season if he remains. Coleman is an ultra-talented player who has never had the chance to be “the guy” in an offensive backfield. Buffalo could give him that chance next season, and it would be an upgrade over McCoy.
I know what you’re thinking—if part of the reason Buffalo should move on from a soon-to-be-31-year old McCoy is his age, why would they sign a running back in free agency who turns 30 next season? Well, he is a “young” 29, as his birthday just passed in December. Also, Ingram has less wear and tear than most running backs of his age when they hit the open market. He only has 1,321 career carries to go with 228 receptions. through his age-29 season, McCoy had 2,185 carries and 441 receptions. Ingram has 1,549 touches in his career—just over 50% of McCoy’s career total through his age-29 season. Ingram was suspended for the first four games of last season due to a positive PED test, and he was still far more productive than McCoy, albeit in a much different (and much better) offense. If Ingram wants a chance to be a lead back, outside of the shadow of his younger teammate Alvin Kamara, a two-year deal for $8-$10 million could be worthwhile for both Buffalo and Ingram.
The former fourth-round draft choice by the San Francisco 49ers had his most productive NFL season in 2018 as a member of the Seattle Seahawks. Davis ran 112 times for 514 yards (4.6 YPC) and four touchdowns. Seattle was the number-one rushing team in the league, and they had three running backs surpass the 470-yard mark, all of whom were 25 years old or younger. Davis is the eldest of the trio, and he is the only one not under contract for next season. While he has never had the chance to be “the guy,” this is another opportunity to grab a talented player from a time-share at the fraction of the cost of Buffalo’s current offensive backfield. Davis is also a capable receiver, as he caught 34 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown this year.
How could we discuss running backs without the most talented one on the market? The negatives here are obvious—Bell hasn’t played football in over a year, and he is looking to make more money than any running back in NFL history with his next contract. If the Bills are looking to save cash, then this isn’t the route to take. However, Bell’s talent is undeniable. In the three seasons where Bell has played all 16 games, he has rushed for at least 1,200 yards, caught at least 75 passes, averaged at least fpur yards per rush, and scored at least nine total touchdowns each time. Buffalo should kick the tires here, and ultimately, they probably should pass...but man, it sure is tempting.
Speaking of kicking the tires and taking risks, signing Ajayi represents an opportunity to buy low on a supremely talented player coming off an injury. Ajayi suffered an ACL tear in Week 5, but he had rushed 45 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns to that point in the year. Ajayi’s effort waned at times when he played for the Miami Dolphins, but he seemed to turn the corner after being traded. If he is the kind of player motivated by adversity and doubt, then rehabbing an injury could be the catalyst for another big jump. Spotrac places his market value at $3.6 million annually, which could be a steal if he is able to bounce back next year.
Other Players to Consider
- Jalen Richard
- Peyton Barber
- Alex Collins
All three are restricted free agents, meaning that their teams will have right of first refusal on any contract offer (provided that they offer the players a tender). Given that two of three (Barber and Richard) were undrafted as rookies, they will probably receive at least the original-round tender. Collins was drafted in the fifth round when he entered the league, so Buffalo would have to forfeit a pick in the fifth round if the Bills were allowed to sign him. All three players may be worth a look, given their youth (all are entering their age-26 season) and ability level.
- Latavius Murray
- Javorius Allen
- Ty Montgomery
Three slightly underwhelming veteran options could serve as a solid pairing for a rookie. Murray has outstanding athletic ability, but it hasn’t turned into consistent success in games. He still outproduced McCoy this year (140/578/6; 4.1 YPC), and he will turn 29 this month. Allen was surpassed by multiple running backs on the depth chart while with the Baltimore Ravens, but he has been both a reliable short-yardage back and receiving back during his time with the team. He turns 28 in August, and he could be viewed as a younger, cheaper version of Chris Ivory. Montgomery offers fantastic versatility, as he can line up as a running back or wide receiver, which would give offensive coordinator Brian Daboll excellent flexibility with his personnel groupings. As a runner, however, Montgomery is not an upgrade to McCoy. He will only be 26 years old heading into next season, though, and he has shown flashes of greatness in the past.
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