NFL free agency 2022: Cordarrelle Patterson, James Conner headline valuable options at running back

It’s time for NFL teams to start figuring out how they’d like to build their team for 2022, and the execution of that blueprint will begin in a few weeks when the doors to free agency fly open around the league in March. Every general manager took notes from the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams on how they built the rosters that led them to Super Bowl LVI, and rightfully so, with the running back position having been a key reason both teams were able to meet each other at SoFi Stadium. 

There will be no shortage of impressive running back talent to be wooed this spring, and while a few others at varying positions will be locked in early via their team’s franchise tag, that presumably won’t be an issue for the flood of veteran running backs who are set to hit the open market. It’s admittedly not a group that will reset the market as Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry did in recent offseasons, respectively, but that doesn’t mean there’s not great value to be had at the position. 

From the versatility and explosiveness of James Conner and Cordarrelle Patterson to the consistent bully-ball methods of Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette, and many more, teams in need of an upgrade at running back have a chance to do so this offseason for what will likely be viewed as a steal.

Tier A


Age: 26 | Last team: Cardinals

Conner left the Pittsburgh Steelers with hopes of reminding the NFL he could take over games and, well, mission accomplished. The two-time Pro Bowl running back produced 1,127 yards from scrimmage last season in the desert, but even more eye-popping were his 18 touchdowns. Conner is an end zone machine nearly any team would do well to add to its roster. It would behoove the Cardinals to seek a re-up, but it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll get calls from other clubs as well.

Age: 30 | Last team: Falcons

If you’d like to know just how valuable Patterson was to the Atlanta Falcons in 2021, look no further at how they struggled without him in the lineup. The four-time All-Pro was a force last season — able to deliver production as a running back, wide receiver and kick returner — and should be one of the more sought-after names in free agency. Patterson is lightning in a bottle and should easily find a worthy deal the moment teams are allowed to legally tamper.

Age: 28 | Last team: Broncos

Things didn’t play out the way Gordon would’ve liked in his pursuit of a major deal from the Los Angeles Chargers prior to joining the Denver Broncos in 2020, but you could argue he was back to form. The two-time Pro Bowl running back racked up a total of 2,275 yards from scrimmage with 20 touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Broncos — despite the fact Denver was a mess at the QB position. Gordon has done the free agency dance before but, this time around, he’s not looking to break anyone’s bank.

Tier B

Age: 27 | Last team: Rams

Simply put, the Rams might’ve been lost at the position this season if not for Michel. After losing Cam Akers in training camp to a torn Achilles, the Rams didn’t simply hope for the best at the position — instead calling the New England Patriots to trade for the former Georgia star. They sent 2022 fifth- and sixth-round picks in exchange for him, and all he did in return was rush for 845 yards and four touchdowns, while adding another 128 receiving yards and one TD to his stat line. Now healthy and seemingly away from the injury bug, he’ll be a top name to watch in free agency.

Age: 27 | Last team: Buccaneers

Playoff Lenny was in full effect during the Super Bowl run by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2020 season, and his 812 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns truly re-polished his regular-season brand. After nearly saving the day in this year’s playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, Fournette showed he’s still got RB1 ability. Adding Fournette to a roster in need of either a bell cow or to tandem with a more slippery threat at RB feels like good medicine.

Age: 25 | Last team: Cardinals

If you’re the Cardinals, you’re either going to retain your top two RBs in Conner and Edmonds or you’re going to have to reset at the position entirely. Edmonds is up for a new deal as well, and he’s equally as dangerous playing the role of wide receiver out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs. He hasn’t proven himself a definitive RB1 in his first four years in the league, however, which makes for an easier and less-expensive conversation for GMs who want to give him a call. Edmonds is able to provide great impact as a tandem RB for a team who already has a true starter in place.

Age: 26 | Last team: Seahawks

Penny bounced back wonderfully following a forgettable 2020 season that saw him log no starts and only three games active — en route to just 11 rushes for 34 yards with no touchdowns — largely due to injury. In 2021, it was Penny helping to carry an uneven offensive load for the Seahawks, flipping his individual fortune with 749 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns last season, reinvigorating his brand in the process. It’s to be determined if Penny can carry an RB1 load of his own, but the potential is there after playing second fiddle for his first four NFL seasons.

Tier C

Age: 30 | Last team: Patriots

If you’re looking for someone who can also bring your team some Super Bowl experience, even beyond what Michel and Fournette would, look no further than White. He’s a three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots who knows what it takes for teams to reach the pinnacle of the sport. That’s invaluable knowledge that can rub off on the locker room, and he’s not yet on the wrong side of 30. That said, White is also coming off his least-productive campaign since his rookie season because of a hip injury that pushed him to injured reserve and only 38 rushing yards with one touchdown in three games (no starts) — driving his value down this offseason.

Age: 25 | Last team: Colts

It feels like it was just yesterday when Mack was the dominant back for the Colts — tearing off chunks of yards seemingly at will. That’s changed in a big way, though, with a stint on injured reserve in 2020 that led to the emergence of Jonathan Taylor. Mack has reportedly begun seeking an exit from Indy since, and that’s likely bolstered by having logged zero starts for the Colts and being active in only six games, rushing for just 101 yards and no touchdowns in 2021. Still a very capable back, Mack has a lot of work to do to rebuild his brand, and that might begin with a one-year “prove-it” deal somewhere.

Age: 25| Last team: Chargers

As consistent as they come, Jackson won’t floor teams with an ability to take over games, but he’s gotten progressively better with each passing season. The 25-year-old is one of the youngest in this crop of free agent running backs, and his 542 yards from scrimmage in 2021 was the highest tally of his career by nearly 100 yards, and averaging 5.4 yards per rush along with 7.1 yards per target as a receiver is nothing to shake a stick at. After playing the role behind both Melvin Gordon (at one time) and then Austin Ekeler, Jackson is a great value grab from a rotational standpoint.

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