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NFL free agents: 5 cheap running backs who could back up Saquon Barkley

If the Giants can’t bring Wayne Gallman back, where can they turn to fill the spot behind Barkley?

Buffalo Bills v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The New York Giants have invested a lot into their running back position over the last four years. They made Saquon Barkley the second overall selection in 2018, which was the highest a running back has been drafted since Reggie Bush came out of USC in 2006. Former general manager Jerry Reese also spent a fourth-round pick on Clemson’s Wayne Gallman back in 2017. Current general manager Dave Gettleman signed Dion Lewis to a one-year, $1.5 million deal last spring - both Gallman and Lewis are impending free agents.

It’s been a rough two years for former second overall selection Saquon Barkley. He played through a high ankle sprain in 2019 and tore his ACL in week two of the 2020 season. Gallman was acceptable in lieu of Barkley during 2020, but the former Penn State Nittany Lion’s inability to stay on the field should be addressed in some capacity.

I’m all for re-signing Gallman, and I would also welcome Devonta Freeman back as well, but those might not come to fruition. New York can either select a running back on Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft, sign one as an undrafted free agent, or take another kick at a Dion Lewis type of contract for a veteran running back. Here’s a list of running backs that may make sense.

Duke Johnson, Texans

Former Texans’ coach, and general manager Bill O’Brien traded a third-round pick to the Browns for Duke Johnson and then failed to fully utilize his pass-catching skill-set. Despite the slight misuse, Johnson had 70 catches on 106 targets for 712 yards, and 4 touchdowns through two seasons in Houston.

David Johnson suffered a bad concussion in 2020 (after O’Brien’s firing) and Duke Johnson filled in adequately until he also suffered a concussion and a neck injury that sidelined him for the last three games.

Duke Johnson has always been a third-down type of back in the NFL, but he had a complete skill-set coming out of Miami in 2014. He was good in between the tackles, showed solid vision, and had good athletic ability to win in tight spaces with his lateral movement skills/agility. He’s still only 27-years of age and will certainly be looking for a fresh start away from Houston.

Giants’ senior offensive assistant, and 2020 tight ends coach, Freddie Kitchens was Johnson’s running backs coach in Cleveland during the 2018 season. It’s unclear if their relationship is solid or not since Johnson was unhappy with his role in Cleveland, but that easily could have been an issue with Cleveland as a whole, and not just Kitchens.

T.J. Yeldon, Bills

The 27-year-old former second-round pick by the Jaguars is an intriguing option. He was buried on the depth chart behind Devin Singletary and Zach Moss (not a ringing endorsement, I know), but stepped up in the playoffs for Buffalo and showed the dual-threat ability that we all witnessed early in his career and at Alabama.

Yeldon was at Alabama and his running backs coach was Burton Burns, currently in that role with the Giants. Yeldon rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 37 touchdowns for Burns and the Crimson Tide during his three years in college. The Jaguars used him a lot as their primary third-down back behind Leonard Fournette and he displayed solid receiving skills in that role.

The fit, and price, should make sense for both Yeldon and the Giants. Yeldon is 6-foot-1, 223 pounds; he runs a bit upright, but he can spell Barkley and play a third-down role.

James White, Patriots

The hero of Super Bowl LI may be on his way out of New England. It was a relatively disastrous year for the Patriots who watched their former golden boy hoist a Lombardi Trophy for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New England finished 7-9 in 2020, their first losing season since going 5-11 in 2000.

White only played in 86 snaps in 2020. White missed time early in the season when his paents were involved in a car accident that claimed his father’s life. When White returned, he found limited playing opportunities, with his 330 snaps played his fewest since 2015.

Joe Judge was with White in New England when he was drafted in the fourth round out of Wisconsin in 2014. There’s a connection and White could be a step up from Dion Lewis in terms of receiving ability. He would provide a solid safety blanket in the short parts of the field. White really struggled in pass protection in 2020, but he was solid in prior seasons. He just turned 29, there’s familiarity, and he can be an upgrade from Lewis. Hopefully, Barkley is back and healthy in 2020; but even if he is, White’s presence would be a quality addition to the offense.

Marlon Mack, Colts

Mack tore his Achilles in Week 1, just 11 snaps into the season. The writing was on the wall for Mack’s departure from Indianapolis before the injury as the Colts spent a 2020 second-round pick on Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. Mack, who turns 25 on March 7, has a career 4.5 yards per carry average with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and he has 21 rushing touchdowns in his career.

Mack was drafted in the fourth round out of USF back in 2017. He’s a solid receiver - not known for it, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield. The big issue for Mack will be overcoming the injury. He had good athletic ability before the injury, and he’d be a talented player on the cheap due to the injury. He should be an option, but injury concerns have to be weighed.

Gus Edwards, Ravens

I would fully support the Gus-Bus coming back to the New York area. Edwards was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 2018. Edwards truly embodies the toughness, grit, and power that Jason Garrett and Joe Judge are looking for in their running backs. He’s 25 years old, and 6-1, 238 pounds of raw strength and hard-nosed running ability.

Edwards had a great season with Baltimore in 2020 as he rushed for 723 yards and 6 touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards a carry. He quietly had 731 and 741 rushing yards in the previous two years as well. He may have played his way out of the Giants' realistic price range, but if he’s available on a cheaper deal due to the reduced 2021 cap then I would love this addition to back up a player like Barkley. The issue with Edwards is that he’s a restricted free agent, so the Ravens could match whatever contract a team offers.