2021 free agent preview: Do the Broncos need to add a running back?

When March 17 arrives and the new league year officially begins, teams across the league will be able to add an influx of talent to their roster.

As General Manager George Paton enters his first free-agency period, the Broncos could choose to add to their roster in several key areas. Over the coming days, we'll evaluate some of the top options who are poised to enter the open market.

We continue with a position that could undergo foreseeable changes in Denver: running back.

THE TOP OPTION:

AARON JONES

Jones made the Pro Bowl for the first time in the final year of his rookie contract with the Packers, as he rushed for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns. He also caught a pair of scores to reach double-digit touchdowns for the second consecutive season. In 2019 — in which he also broke the 1,400 all-purpose yard mark — he scored 16 touchdowns on the ground and added three more as a pass-catcher.

His talent likely won't come without a hefty price tag. Jones figures to become the highest-paid running back from this year's free-agent class and will likely be among the top earners at the position. Whichever team decides to bring in Jones will be making a big financial commitment.

Perhaps it speaks to the current evaluation of the running back position that Jones is the top-rated running back on Pro Football Focus' free-agent rankings — and he only comes in at No. 45 overall on their ranking.

THE BEST OF THE REST:

CHRIS CARSON, KENYAN DRAKE, JAMES CONNER, MIKE DAVIS, JAMES WHITE, LE'VEON BELL, MARLON MACK

Five other running backs made the cut for PFF's Top 100 available free agents — and Mack was among the first couple of options among those who just missed the cut. Each player would bring something different to their new club.

Carson was a dependable rusher in 2018 and 2019, as he broke the 1,100-yard mark in consecutive seasons before dropping to 681 yards for five touchdowns in 12 games in 2020. He's not a dominant receiving threat out of the backfield, but he did add four receiving touchdowns in 2020. His yards per carry average ranks ahead of players like Drake, who posted 955 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2020 for Arizona. Drake, a former third-round pick in 2016, was traded to the Cardinals in 2019 after starting his career in Miami. While his yards per carry numbers and receiving averages aren't stellar, he has posted 18 touchdowns in 23 career games for Arizona.

Conner and Bell are still looking to recapture the magic they each found in Pittsburgh. Conner made the Pro Bowl in 2018 as he rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he's totaled just 10 touchdowns and fewer than 1,200 yards in the two years since. He hasn't appeared in more than 13 games in each of his three years in Pittsburgh as a significant contributor. Bell, meanwhile, has yet to make the Pro Bowl after two first-team All-Pro seasons early in his career with the Steelers. He sat out the 2018 season and has bounced from the Jets to the Chiefs over the last two years, totaling just over 1,000 rushing yards in two years. At his height, though, Bell provided electrifying play-making ability. Perhaps it's still there, even if it's in a complementary role.

Davis and White could also be strong additions in reserve roles. Davis forced 43 missed tackles as a runner in 2020, according to PFF, and he can create yards after contact. White, meanwhile, could add an element to a team's passing game; he's broken the 500-yard receiving mark in three of his seven NFL seasons.

Mack could be the wild card of the group. The former fourth-round pick posted consecutive seasons of at least 900 rushing yards in 2018 and 2019, and he recorded 18 total touchdowns during that time. He carried the ball just four times in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury, but it's possible he could be a low-cost, high-upside option for a team.

WHAT MAKES SENSE FOR THE BRONCOS?

Potentially no move at all. A year after signing Melvin Gordon III to a two-year deal, it's not necessary that the Broncos add to the position again in free agency. Their moves will all depend on their plans for the players already on the roster. Gordon remains under contract, but he could face a three-game suspension that would keep him out for the beginning of the season. Phillip Lindsay, meanwhile, is set to become a restricted free agent. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, his rushing yardage dropped to 502 yards and one touchdown in 2020. If Denver decides to move on from one of the two players, it's possible the Broncos could simply add a mid-to-late-round draft pick to supplement the position. If both players aren't in the plans, though, Denver may need to also add a veteran in free agency.

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