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NFL Free Agency: Ranking the Top 5 Free Agent Running Backs in 2022

The NFL's running back carousel has never been more active than it has been throughout the 2021 season, and because of COVID protocols and late-season injuries, it's really come to a head of late. Which available players will be at the top of buyers' wish lists come March?
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NFL Free Agency: Ranking the Top 5 Free Agent Running Backs in 2022

2022 NFL Free Agency isn't too far away. Heck, we're already in Week 16 of this season. So, for some teams, it's already time to start looking ahead. Brett Oswalt does just that, breaking down the top-5 running backs available in next year's free agency class. Does your team need a veteran presence in the backfield? Check out who they should sign below.

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5. Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals, much like the Bucs, are set to lose their backfield duo this offseason, including the 25-year-old Edmonds. The more likely pass-catcher of he and James Conner, he's struggled to make as big of mark within Kliff Kingsbury's offense beside Kyler Murray and company. Edmonds has been limited to 10 of 14 games because of injuries and has earned a very OK 68.5 Pro Football Focus score to show for it. And while he has carried the ball more than 10 times just four times, he's averaged a career-best 5.9 per rush in the process.

Edmonds' fit will be one that allows him to serve in a two-head committee with a more inside-the-tackle runner. He might fit with Tampa Bay as a potential receiver out of the backfield, but the most intriguing spot would be the Buffalo Bills, who haven't gotten a return on the promise of Zack Moss in their pass-happy offense. According to Spotrac, Edmonds' market value is as much as $5.2 million a year over a potential three-year deal.

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4. D'Ernest Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns

Coming into 2021, Johnson was a little-known player who went from South Florida to undrafted and on to the AAF. He's since carved out a backup role with a loaded Cleveland backfield, but this year he received his first two career starts. In those two games, he was able to take full advantage of the Browns' offensive line and Kevin Stefanski's running scheme and convert 41 carries into 245 yards and a touchdown alongside 9 catches for another 80 yards -- against the Broncos' and Patriots' stout defenses, at that. Johnson's seen 25 carries outside of those 2 starts, however, to this point he's not averaged more than five yards a tote, earning himself an 86.4 grade, per PFF.

The hard-working Johnson will have just turned 26 prior to the open of restricted free agency, so it would be hard to envision Cleveland -- with both Chubb and Hunt locked up through the end of next season -- spending the kind of money he can demand. Spotrac pegs his market value at roughly $2.6 million per year for what is likely to be a two-year deal. The Houston Texans could look to add him as their lead back, but I wouldn't put it past the Buccaneers to push for Johnson at the right price. After all, they -- like the Cardinals -- are set to lose both Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones if they aren't willing to pay them what they want this offseason.

3. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After what he did in the 2020 postseason, it's hard to argue against Playoff Lenny's proven ability as a workhorse back in the NFL. Not only did he mash his way to nearly five yards a carry in that Super Bowl run, but this year, the soon-to-be 27-year-old has more than 800 yards and 8 scores on a 4.5 average to date. He's also hauled in 69 catches for another 454 yards and 2 touchdowns, putting him on pace to surpass his previous career-bests in the receiving game.

Fournette's ability to diversify, and to do so beside Tom Brady, is going to warrant some serious attention from all teams. It wouldn't be shocking to see Tampa sign him back, but a $6 million market value (which would rank 13th in the league) might be too high for their liking. Run-focused teams like the Patriots and 49ers could also come calling.

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2. James Conner, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Obviously, Conner is the other Arizona back we alluded to, though "other" might not be the correct word choice. After all, the one-time Pro Bowler has had a bounce-back season in his first in the desert. On a much larger workload than that of his backfield mate, the 26-year-old has turned 218 touches (carries plus catches) into more than 1,000 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. PFF grades him out at 80.9, while Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVAR) rates him 13th among backs.

It sure seems like Conner is comfortable in his role with the Cardinals, but he with him comes a market value estimated at $5.9 million a year for someone who's likely to have played his way into a two- maybe even three-year deal. There's a chance he stays in the division with San Francisco and barring any major injuries popping up all the aforementioned buyers are candidates for Conner's services.

1. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fournette isn't the only Buc all but assured a new home in the new year. At a young 24, Jones is almost three years Playoff Lenny's junior, not to mention his 458 career carries are less than half of his, making him a far more intriguing addition for the long-term (for whatever that means to a running back). But what makes him more appealing given his lack of a full workload for the entirety of any one year?

Jones' issues have been rooted more in consistency catching out of the backfield and fumbling. In all reality, though, he's had just 7 fumbles in 53 games, most notably 2 on a season-high 192 carries in 2020. That same year he posted 978 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns at a very nice 5.1 yards per clip. This year, his 4.7 yards per carry is tied for 11th, although his low involvement in the passing game (eight targets) is less than promising for his size and shiftiness. He proved last year, with his 73.6 PFF grade, that he can be better than this year's 62.1 mark. A lot is left to be proved as far as a full season, but for a 24-year-old that might only cost $2.7 million or so per year the risk might be worth the reward of a guy who can be a big factor for three or four years. As someone who is a better piece of a team-building back, and one willing to make a risky move, Jones could fit in with New England, or try his hand with the Cardinals in place of Edmonds and Conner.


Brett Oswalt has been writing about sports for five years, has covered everything from the NBA to College Football DFS, and previously served as an editor at numberFire. He is a Senior Workforce Planning Analyst at Highmark by day, and an avid sports fan and girl-dad by night. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, Marley, daughter, Aria, and goldendoodle, Braun.


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