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2021 NFL free agency preview: 5 running backs with ties to the Detroit Lions

Detroit has a handful of options to improve their backfield in 2021.

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions could be in the market yet again for a running back in 2021. While D’Andre Swift had a promising enough rookie season and Kerryon Johnson remains under contract for one more year, Detroit could use some serious depth there.

There’s always a chance veteran Adrian Peterson comes back. He’s expressed interest in staying in Detroit, and he has a history, albeit quite brief, with head coach Dan Campbell when the two crossed paths in New Orleans.

But let’s look at what else is out there. The Lions have a lot of connections around the NFL with their varied coaching staff and front office, so here are some of the top free agent running backs who have a connection with the Lions.

Todd Gurley

Connection: Drafted by Rams in 2015 (Lions GM Brad Holmes)

Gurley will likely be the most expensive option on this list, as Spotrac lists his market value at $5.5 million, which is the exact one-year deal he signed with the Falcons last year.

Gurley’s career has significantly dropped off since an amazing four-year start with the Rams. In the past two seasons, he averaged a collective 3.7 yards per carry, but he’s still found the end zone 21 times (though, he probably wishes it was just 20).

Gurley has never not been “the guy” in the NFL, so I’m not sure how much mutual interest there would be with Detroit offering a 1B role aside Swift, but that reduced role could be exactly what his career needs at this point to give himself a jump start.

Latavius Murray

Connection: 2 years in New Orleans (Dan Campbell)

Okay, I’m cheating a little here. Murray is under contract for two more years with the Saints, but New Orleans is notoriously way over the salary cap right now. Murray has already been speculated as a possible cap casualty, saving New Orleans nearly $2.5 million in cap space with just a $1.7 million dead cap number.

If that happens, the Lions should jump all over Murray. Though he’s already 31 years old, he’s still playing at a very efficient level. As the thunder to Alvin Kamara’s lightning, Murray averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year with a solid 656 rushing yards. He’s also caught at least 20 passes in five of his past six seasons, so he’s not exactly a one-dimensional guy.

Mark Ingram

Connection: Eight years with the Saints (3 year overlap with Campbell)

In New Orleans, Ingram served an identical role as Murray—who replaced him in 2019. After parting ways with the Saints, Ingram went to Baltimore and immediately produced the third 1,000-yard season of his career. This year, the Ravens focused on their younger backs, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, leaving Ingram’s role as purely supplemental. Eventually, he was waived right after Baltimore was bounced from the playoffs.

Ingram has a vibrant personality that could bring some serious leadership to a running back room that could be without Adrian Peterson next year. He’ll be hungry for a significant role after being phased out in Baltimore, and the Lions can give that to him.

Because he was cut and cleared waivers, Ingram is actually available to be signed right now.

Malcolm Brown

Connection: Been with Rams since 2015 (Holmes)

If the Lions are going bargain bin shopping, Brown is a guy that Brad Holmes knows well. Spending all six years of his career with the Rams, Brown actually had his best year in 2020. Carrying the ball a career-high 101 times, he turned those into 419 yards (4.1 YPC) and five touchdowns. He threw in an additional 23 receptions, giving the Rams a nice complement to both Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson.

If Brown is seeking to leave their shadow and give his career a chance to bloom even more, Detroit could provide a mutually beneficial relationship.

Dwayne Washington

Connection: Three years with Saints (Campbell)

A reunion with Washington could produce an interesting dynamic in Detroit. Washington was well-liked by New Orleans as a special teamer and occasional rusher. Making him the full-time No. 2 in Detroit would be a significant risk, considering Washington has never run the ball more than 90 times in a season... and that was his rookie year with the Lions. In the past three years combined in New Orleans, he’s managed just 43 rushes for 229 yards (5.3 Y/A).

Still, if Detroit want a solid special teamer that could take some carries in a pinch, they could do a lot worse than Washington.

Bonus

Jordan Howard

Connection: Two stints with the Eagles (RB coach Duce Staley)

Howard isn’t included in the top five here, because I can’t for the life of me confirm that he’ll actually be a free agent. He finished the season on the Eagles practice squad, which should mean he’ll be a free agent, but he doesn’t appear on any online list of Eagles free agents and Spotrac page doesn’t quite list him as a free agent, either. I still believe him to be a free agent, but I didn’t want to short you guys, especially since I already cheated with Latavius Murray.

Anyway, Howard is just 26 years old and could be the physical presence the Lions need alongside Swift. He’s just a season removed from playing that role successfully in Philly, rushing for 525 yards, 4.4 yards per carry and six touchdowns behind Miles Sanders on the depth chart. Staley, the Eagles running backs coach at the time, will have a good sense on what Howard can bring.