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PFF’s top-50 NFL free agent list includes 2 Cardinals, no Kenyan Drake

Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake celebrates his touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, left, during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries and receiver Larry Fitzgerald made Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 50 NFL free agents heading into 2020.

But notably absent from that ranking was running back Kenyan Drake, who rushed for eight touchdowns in as many games and averaged 5.2 yards per carry with the Cardinals.

The reasoning can perhaps be found in what PFF said about two running backs who did land on the list.

NFL rushing champion and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry came in at 28th, while Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon ranked 32nd.

Nobody quite exemplifies the current understanding of running backs being dependent on their environment — at least long term — than Melvin Gordon. The Chargers star held out at the start of the 2019 season, looking for a big payday off the back of his best-graded season perhaps with the understanding that replicating that 2018 season was unlikely given the blocking in front of him. So it proved, as Gordon averaged only 3.8 yards per rush attempt, 2.5 of which came after contact, on his way to a 66.0 overall PFF grade. Gordon has shown he can be a big-time player with some help around him, but so have a lot of backs.

The same thought-process from the analytics website can be said about Henry.

PFF says that “it would be a mistake to get carried away with (Henry’s) performance and throw huge free agent money his way.” There is data to support that claim.

So what’s that mean regarding Drake?

The good news for the Cardinals is that other teams are aware that spending big money on running backs is a bad idea. The market starts with the more versatile Gordon and the wildly productive Henry, and Drake could be one of the first backs to fall in line after that. But how many NFL teams want to shell out for a true bellcow of a running back? That’s hard to judge.

Maybe the little interest and a bad market could lead Drake back to Arizona on a reasonable deal. He certainly would be welcomed back by head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who watched Drake immediately acclimate to the offense following a midseason trade from the Miami Dolphins to Arizona.

Drake finished his half-season as a Cardinal with 643 yards on the ground and 28 catches for 171 yards.

As PFF might attest to, his environment helped him produce. Arizona’s offensive line was the surprise of the season, and Humphries’ place in that will be one of the top priorities for general manager Steve Keim heading into 2020.

The starting left tackle came in at 45th on PFF’s top free agent list.

Humphries battled injuries early in his career, only flashing the ability that made him a 2015 first-rounder, but he is coming off his best effort as a pass blocker. He gave up only 30 pressures on 677 attempts in 2019, just two more pressures than he allowed in 2018 on 335 fewer opportunities. It was Humphries’ first season grading below 72.0 in the run game, but he could be the classic “late bloomer” along the offensive line as he heads into his age-26 season.

Before the end of the season, Humphries said he would like to return.

His history of knee injuries, the Cardinals having money to spend and tackle prospects being under consideration with the team’s No. 8 overall draft pick will play a role in what direction Arizona wants to go.

As for Fitzgerald, well, his future is likely up to him. Kingsbury said he wanted to pitch the 16-year pro on returning in 2020, and there was production on Fitzgerald’s end leading to that conversation.

Fitzgerald paced Arizona with 804 receiving yards, 75 catches and 109 targets. He also led the Cardinals with 10 receptions of 20 or more yards.

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