2021 NFL free agency preview: Detroit Lions would be wise to pass on big-name RBs

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The free agent negotiating period opens March 15 and the Detroit Lions have holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Here is the third in a series of position-by-position breakdowns on the top players available in free agency and what the Lions might do at each position. (Past: QBs I WRs)

Running backs

On the Lions’ roster for 2021: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Jason Cabinda, Nick Bawden.

Pending Lions free agents: Adrian Peterson.

Top free agents: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers; Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals; James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers.

Others who may interest Lions: Corey Clement, Philadelphia Eagles; Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams; Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers.

Analysis: How Brad Holmes can reshape entire Lions WR corps this offseason ]

Market watch: Chasing running backs in free agency has always been a fool’s errand. The position is so demanding, and the workload so diversified, that by the time most running backs are eligible for free agency, they start to see a noticeable drop in production. The top running back from the 2018 free agent class, Jerick McKinnon, missed two full seasons with injury before returning in a supporting role last fall. Le’Veon Bell, the top back on the market in 2019, was released a year and a half into his $52.5 million contact. And while last year’s best free agent back, Melvin Gordon, had a solid season with 986 yards rushing, he had little impact on the Denver Broncos’ record.

This year’s free agent running back class seems as mediocre as ever, and in a shrinking salary cap environment, big contracts may be hard to come by as teams wait for cheaper labor in the draft. The one exception to that will be Jones, who is a prime franchise tag candidate in Green Bay. He is coming off a Pro Bowl season and has been an important part of the Packers’ NFC North-best offense the past two years. Drake, Conner, Chris Carson, Leonard Fournette, James White and a few other backs should come off the board early in free agency, but none is the type of player teams will build around.

To win 2021 NFL free agency, Lions should recreate their 2010 blueprint ]

The Lions have what they believe to be a No. 1 running back in Swift, a player general manager Brad Holmes knows well as the Rams entered last year’s draft with a big need at the position (they took Cam Akers in Round 2). What the Lions lack is depth, and with Peterson unlikely to return, it would not be surprising to see them add a proven backup in free agency and/or use a pick on the position in April’s draft. Clement played for running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley and adds value on special teams, and Brown is coming off the most productive of his six seasons with the Rams. If the Lions are willing to spend a little more, Mike Davis and Matt Breida are viable insurance options; both have tasted success in fill-in stints in the feature back role.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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