Starting running back changes are coming to the NFL. The current state of a number of contracts and the influx of talent from the college level have created a sort of perfect storm for change. Last time the AFC West was the focal point. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the NFC West.
Running Back Changes – NFC West Edition
David Johnson is the unquestioned starter here, but the Cardinals still have backfield questions. Specifically, what do they do with Adrian Peterson? Peterson is still under contract with the Cardinals. Although, his time with the New Orleans Saints didn’t exactly paint a good picture for his ability to accept a backup role.
If for some reason Peterson is with the Cardinals next season, he would cost $3.5 million against the cap. The good news for the Cardinals is that they could cut Peterson before June 1st and have no dead money going forward. It makes too much sense for the team to move on from Peterson.
Assuming Peterson is cut, the team will have depth issues to fix. With Kerwynn Williams and Elijhaa Penny both set to become free agents, the Cardinals are forced to look to finding value in free agency or the draft.
The Rams have Todd Gurley–maybe you’ve heard of him–as their starter. And it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon. If there is going to be any kind of change, it will be with their depth. Lance Dunbar will be a free agent, as is Malcolm Brown, but the Rams have exclusive rights with him. Chances are though that the Rams don’t spend much in free agency or in draft at the position. They have bigger offseason priorities. Namely, figuring out what they want to do about Sammy Watkins and Trumaine Johnson.
Things definitely get more interesting with the 49ers. As things stand right now Carlos Hyde will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The same Carlos Hyde that was the focus of preseason criticism. After leading the team in rushing yards (940), rushing touchdowns (8), and receptions (59), Hyde heads into free agency with quite the resume.
Now, it would be foolish to suggest that Hyde has a zero percent chance of returning. In fact, the 49ers definitely have the cap space to sign him and others. However, there are a lot of variables at play here. The Jimmy Garoppolo trade took the team out of the “we need to draft a quarterback early” camp, which opens up a number of possibilities.
One of those possibilities could be taking a running back in the draft. Sure, the team has more pressing needs at corner and wide receiver, which makes taking a running back early (as in the first round) less likely. However, the running back class is, as mentioned before, extremely talented. Even if they pass on the position in the first round, they could still find a talented potential starter later on. And that route would be cheaper than re-signing Hyde.
Another cheap route for the 49ers is simply handing the job to Matt Breida. Yes, Kyle Shanahan loved Joe Williams going into the draft, but Breida’s impressive rookie season likely puts him ahead of Williams. Out of the three–Hyde, Breida, and Williams–Breida profiles as the superior athlete. The problem with Breida is that he doesn’t have the body mass index of a traditional starting back, and he dropped six passes out of 36 targets. Word on the street is that’s not good.
It certainly wouldn’t be good for Breida’s prospects for starting if the 49ers choose to keep Hyde. Although, keeping Hyde would be a smart play. He had impressive numbers and has expressed interest in re-signing.
The Cardinals have Johnson, the Rams have Gurley, the 49ers have Hyde (possibly), and the Seahawks have, well, room for improvement. Spearheaded by Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls, the Seahawks managed to finish 23rd in rushing. If it wasn’t for Russell Wilson and his scrambling, Chris Carson‘s brief flash of potential, or Mike Davis and his agility, the team would have finished closer to the bottom. So what do they do going forward? Pete Carroll has already said that he wants to get back to running the ball well, so we can expect that the running game will be a focal point this offseason.
The team is in a position to make a number of changes at running back this offseason. Lacy is a free agent, and it’s hard to see the team wanting to re-sign him after his most recent numbers. You could say the same thing for Rawls too, who is a restricted free agent. Davis joins Rawls in the restricted free agent group, but after Davis’ production, it would make more sense for the Seahawks to sign him back over the previous two options. J.D. McKissic is also a free agent (with exclusive rights). With this many free agents, changes are definitely on their way for the Seahawks backfield.
As with the 49ers, the Seahawks have a number of ways to find a starter amongst these changes. First, they could turn to free agency. The current projection for their cap space is $13 million. However, that could change if Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor decide to retire. If it doesn’t change, guys like Hyde could be had at a discount due to the influx of prospects. Second, they could turn to the draft itself to find a starter. Third, they could turn to either Carson or C.J. Prosise to take the job. Prosise has a promising athletic profile, but he has yet to stay healthy enough to showcase his talent. Given the amount of talent that will be in the draft, expect the Seahawks to, at the very least, use a pick to address depth.
The main players in the running back market in the NFC West will be (and should be) the 49ers and the Seahawks. Both currently have question marks at the position. And both could have new starters going into next year. The Rams and the Cardinals, on the other hand, are only in the market for depth.