Analysis

Ten running backs worth pursuing via free agency/2021 NFL Draft/trade

In this series, NFL.com analysts look at the best players available via free agency, the NFL draft or trade at the following positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and defensive back. Today, Maurice Jones-Drew looks at the top 10 running backs worth pursuing.

Rank
1
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · Trade

The Carolina Panthers have been very vocal about their goals for the offseason, with a top priority being improving the quarterback position. Deshaun Watson would don Panther blue in 2021 in David Tepper's purr-fect world, but for Houston to even entertain that idea, the Panthers will have to give up the farm ... and then some. That's why Christian McCaffrey could be on the trade block this offseason. But, like my buddy Adam Rank pointed out last week, CMC would likely have to be dealt after June 1 to alleviate the dead-money hit. McCaffrey is one of the league's premier running backs despite missing a majority of last season with a number of injuries. His play-making ability as both a running and receiving threat is second to none when it comes to the position, making him an enticing add (although at a steep price) for any RB-needy team.

Rank
2
Aaron Jones
Free agent

I've been a fan of Jones since he came into the league four years ago. All he's done is get better and elevate the play of those around him. Jones, who averages 5.2 yards per carry in his career, has consistently moved the chains and found the end zone since becoming the Green Bay Packers' full-time starter in 2019, racking up at least 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons and totaling 25 rushing touchdowns. I'm still wondering why the Packers haven't signed him long-term. The team could decide to place the franchise tag on Jones, which Over the Cap projects to be worth $11.1 million for running backs, but even that feels too low for what Jones offers.

Rank
3
Najee Harris
Alabama · Prospect

Harris is, hands down, the best running back in the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is a freak athlete whose repertoire is reminiscent of the players above him on this list. He's an all-around back who can run between the tackles, hurdle defenders and catch out of the backfield. Though he might lack long speed, Harris can handle a heavy workload and be a Day 1 starter.

Rank
4
Travis Etienne
Clemson · Prospect

The Clemson product is a home run hitter as an explosive one-cut runner. While Najee Harris has been at the top at every level, Etienne has progressively improved as a pass catcher and blocker in pass protection. Etienne would be a good fit for zone-blocking scheme, an offense that more than half of the league uses.

Rank
5
Leonard Fournette
Free agent

Playoff Lenny. Lombardi Lenny. Super Bowl Lenny. I don't care what you call him. What I do care about is the fact that the former No. 4 overall pick showed he can work through adversity and still ball out when his team needed him most. The lasting impression of Fournette heading into the offseason was his Super Bowl LV performance, in which he racked up a season-high 135 scrimmage yards to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the franchise's second title. Fournette is still young (26 years old) and still has plenty of gas in the tank, and I'm excited to see what's next for the rejuvenated back.  

Rank
6
Chris Carson
Free agent

Carson is an incredibly explosive running back -- amassing 2,381 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs in the 2018 and '19 seasons -- and one of the league's best when healthy. But that's the issue: He hasn't been readily available over his first four seasons, playing in 45 of 64 regular-season games since 2017. He's fought through myriad injuries, including a foot injury that sidelined him for four games last season, but he possesses the goods to still be a top-10 back. 

Rank
7
Phillip Lindsay
Restricted free agent

Though Lindsay's 2020 campaign was plagued by injuries, he's proven to be a reliable back by recording back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to open his NFL career, and he's averaging 4.8 yards per carry in his first three seasons. The fact that Lindsay has played one full regular-season slate in three seasons could affect how much interest the restricted free agent receives, if the Denver Broncos decide not to offer him a tender. That said, if Lindsay's body can stay intact, he can provide a dynamic element to any backfield in need of talent.

Rank
8
Gus Edwards
Restricted free agent

The 6-foot-1, 238-pound bruiser has been a consistently productive back in his first three NFL seasons, averaging 5.2 yards per carry for his career. He's a perfect fit in the Ravens' rushing attack alongside Lamar Jackson and J.K. Dobbins, so I think the team will offer him an extension. However, the restricted free agent could be the apple of someone's eye and receive an offer the Ravens don't match. No matter where Edwards ends up playing next season, his skill set and production could thrust him into a starting role.

Rank
9
James White
Free agent

White is such a valuable running back option because of the pass-happy world we live in. The 29-year-old has been a dynamic third-down back as a sure-handed pass-catcher out of the backfield throughout his career, but especially over the last three seasons, in which he's registered 208 receptions for 1,771 yards and 13 TDs. And we can't forget his epic performance in Super Bowl LI (14 catches, 110 yards and three total TDs), an effort that should have earned him the game's MVP award. White's skill set could elevate an offense looking for a dynamic pass-catching element. 

Rank
10
Michael Carter
North Carolina · Prospect

This selection might surprise some people, but Carter made a splash at the Senior Bowl back in January, likely improving his draft stock. He has special speed and gets from zero to 60 with no hesitation and continues to be explosive with the ball in his hands at the second level. Carter is a compact running back (5-8, 199 pounds) who will offer NFL teams a fresh, change-of-pace option in the run game and a target with room to develop in the passing game. 

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

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