The free-agent running back market remains littered with potential game-changing talents. Veterans such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Leonard Fournette, Sony Michel, and Melvin Gordon remain on the open market. All four of these proven running backs are expected to land fairly sizable contracts based on their 2021 production. For a team looking to spend a little less at the position by taking a flier on a high-risk, high-reward type of ball-carrier with a little more tread on his tires, Seattle’s Rashaad Penny qualifies as a highly intriguing option.
The former 27th overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Penny’s four-year career with the Seahawks was unfortunately riddled with injury and inconsistent play. Penny never lived up to his shocking draft billing, but he did remind everyone what he’s capable of when healthy down the stretch of the 2021 campaign. Over his final five regular-season contests, Penny accounted for an astounding 671 rushing yards and five touchdowns, including four 100-plus-yard performances, best highlighted by a 190-rushing yard output in a Week 18 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Penny proved plenty worthy of receiving a second opportunity as he prepares to put a disappointing tenure in Seattle in his rearview mirror. We’ve identified three potential fits for Penny in free agency.
The Falcons are facing some salary-cap-related issues and may have an extremely difficult time retaining do-it-all versatile weapon Patterson. Atlanta is currently applying the full-court press to land Houston Texans disgruntled quarterback Deshaun Watson in a blockbuster trade. If Watson heads to his hometown of Georgia, the Falcons will have to trade fellow quarterback Matt Ryan fairly quickly, and their attention can then shift to upgrading their backfield.
The aforementioned Patterson is expected to depart the franchise in free agency and Mike Davis was an inefficient runner last season.
Atlanta’s rushing attack managed to average a pathetic 85.4 yards per game in 17 regular-season contests. Only the Houston Texans ran the ball at a less effective rate (83.6/game). Part of Atlanta’s rushing attack was undeniably due to an underperforming offensive line, but the lack of a high-level between-the-tackles runner didn’t help, either.
Penny possesses the size, speed, and physical running style necessary to thrive in Arthur Smith’s system. Given their salary cap situation, Atlanta should take a chance on a low-cost running back with something to prove in 2022 in hopes of improving their backfield this coming season. Penny is exactly the type of high-upside ball-carrier that could solve their woes.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht would almost certainly love to have Fournette back next season, and Fournette would probably love to be back in Tampa now that Tom Brady has returned from his extremely short-lived retirement. Playoff Lenny has been an incredibly consistent performer for the Buccaneers since arriving from Jacksonville and is undoubtedly looking to cash in on his resurgent performances via a lucrative contract.
The Buccaneers have thus far prioritized retaining the likes of Chris Godwin and Carlton Davis, who have both already agreed to long-term deals. With Rob Gronkowski now expected to re-sign with the Buccaneers due to Brady’s return, retaining Fournette’s services may not qualify as financially plausible.
The Buccaneers currently possess just a little under $5 million in available cap space, via Spotrac. Fournette’s potential departure means Licht would have to look for a low-cost replacement as he plans to fill out his backfield. The presence of Ke’Shawn Vaughn gives the Buccaneers one option, but Vaughn does his best work when part of a two-or-three-man committee. Penny would be an excellent replacement for Fournette, as both backs play with a similar punishing style and mindset. Vaughn, Penny, and a mid-round draft pick would round out Tampa’s new-look backfield in intriguing fashion.
The Bills would appear set at the running back position going forward with Zack Moss and Devin Singletary in what was a productive two-man backfield a year ago, but their recent intentions and actions would suggest otherwise. Bills general manager Brandon Beane surprisingly attempted to sign free-agent running back J.D. McKissic to a two-year contract worth $7 million earlier this week. An uber-productive third-down back, McKissic initially agreed to sign with Buffalo during the legal tampering window before pulling a U-turn and ultimately re-signing with the Washington Commanders on an identical deal from a compensation standpoint.
McKissic’s change of heart could force Beane and the Bills to extend their interest back into the free-agent running back market. Head coach Sean McDermott and ex-offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have consistently gotten production out of the running back position without spending much capital via free agency or the draft, and new play-caller Ken Dorsey should have little issue continuing that tradition.
Penny feels like an excellent fit from a stylistic and financial perspective. Penny would thrive in a Bills offense that consistently faces light boxes due to their pass-happy offensive approach.