NFL Free Agency: Running Backs

Ben Tate

Since the dawn of time, Running Back has always been the most important position in traditional fantasy leagues. The fantasy points delta from the top starter in the league (RB1) to the bottom (RB20-24) has always been high. Today, premier Running Backs receiving 20+ carries per game are more rare than ever and a fantasy luxury that few can afford, especially in contract terms.

In 2003, thirteen Running Backs received 300 or more. From 2011-2013, only nine Running Backs received more than 300 carries. Twice, in those three seasons (2011 and 2013), only two Running Backs got 300+ (there were five in 2012).

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During that same time period, the average number of carries for the NFL’s top 10 rushing leaders declined from 344.8 (2003) to 284.2 (2013).

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Today, there are a lot more two and three back systems in the NFL than there once were. The average age of the league’s leading rushers have remained remarkably consistent during that time period, ranging from 26.8 (2003) to 25.1 (2009), and was 26.6 in 2013. Running Backs really only get one crack at a big contract. Typically, a back would be entering his contract year between the ages of 24 and 27, but most of the time, either (a) teams convince the good ones to sign an extension before reaching Free Agency, or (b) the players and agents demand new contracts before reaching the expiration of the deal. In both scenarios, someone makes the players realize the very real risk of injury and the chance that they’ll never get their big pay day.

During Free Agency in 2008, Michael Turner received a 6-year deal from the Falcons, but he was Ladanian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego. In 2007, 28-year old Jamal Lewis, who had carried the ball over 1,800 times for 7,800 yards during six seasons with the Ravens, received a 1-year deal from the Browns. The last really big splash for a Running Back in Free Agency? You have to go all the way back to 2006, when the Cardinals gave Edgerrin James a four-year, $30 million contract.

I don’t expect anybody to break the bank in Free Agency this year, but there is an interesting crop of young players with a lot of upside.

1. Ben Tate

Ben TateBefore the 2011 CBA, first-round picks received 5- or 6-year contracts, and everybody selected after the first round received 3- or 4-year contracts (almost always depends on team preference). Tate hits Free Agency a year earlier than his 2010 Round 1 counterparts, C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews (recently retired Jahvid Best was also taken in the first round that year), and is the top available back almost unanimously. The Texans have to pay Arian Foster handsomely for three more seasons, and are unlikely to try to retain Tate. Several teams are in need of a feature back and I expect Tate to be a starter in week 1.
Best Fit: Cardinals, Packers, Browns, Jets
Most Likely: Cardinals, Packers, Browns, Jets, Jaguars, Raiders, Dolphins

2. LeGarrette Blount

darren-mcfaddenI, personally, am a big LeGarrete Blount fan. Jeff Fisher admitted to making a mistake when he cut Blount in hopes of placing him on the Titans Practice Squad in 2010. The Buccaneers claimed Blount off waivers. Blount had 1,000 yards during his Rookie season with the Buccaneers in 2010. He received fewer carries in 2011, but still had a productive season, gaining 781 yards on 184 carries. In 2012, Blount fell victim to the regime change in Tampa. Greg Schiano replaced Raheem Morris and the team drafted Doug Martin in the first round. In 2013, Bill Belichick traded for Blount, sending track star Jeff Demps and a first rounder to Tampa. Blount fought his way through a crowded and talented backfield, averaging 5.3 yards per carry from week 3-17. Relative to his production, Blount hasn’t made much money in his NFL career, so I expect him to take the biggest payday he can get, regardless of fit.
Best Fit: Jets, Rams, 49ers
Most Likely: Jets, Patriots, Raiders, Rams, 49ers

3. Knowshon Moreno

knowshon-morenoMoreno, the first Running Back selected in 2009, had his first thousand yard season in 2013, his fifth season as a pro. Moreno struggled as a Rookie, averaging 3.8 yards per carry and notably struggling to pick up the offense. In 2010, Moreno was part of Josh McDaniel’s Tim Tebow experiment. In 2011 and 2012 Willis McGahee took the majority of the carries. Then, in 2013, the team drafted Montee Ball in the second round. Moreno held off Ball and Ronnie Hillman during a breakout season in which he gained nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage. So, why isn’t Moreno at the top of the list? In 8 games, Moreno rushed for less than 50 yards, averaging 2.7 yards per carry. His 2013 statistics may be misleading, as his performance may very well be attributed to defenses respecting Manning and his aerial weapons. I see Moreno ending up in a timeshare. The place where he ends up (likely the place he’ll receive the most touches), may not be the best fit.
Best Fit: Broncos, Chargers, Cardinals, Browns, Falcons, Patriots, Colts
Most Likely: Broncos, Chargers, Cardinals, Browns

4. Darren McFadden

lagarette-blountAlmost universally pegged as injury plagued, McFadden hasn’t played more than 13 games in any of his six NFL seasons. He’s only played in 29 games over the last three seasons. However, the fourth overall pick in 2008 is still only 26-years old and hasn’t exactly played behind a stellar line or high-power offense. He could be a great addition for a team in a non-feature role, provided he doesn’t see himself as an every-down back. The Raiders are not likely to retain McFadden, and are just now starting to unearth themselves from years of Salary Cap disaster. As an aside, from 2006-2010 the Raiders selected five players in the top 10; they traded their 2011 first round pick to New England for Richard Seymour; they traded their 2012 first round pick to the Bengals for Carson Palmer. Out of those seven players, Darren McFadden was the only one who played for the Raiders in 2013. Reggie McKenzie continues to have his work cut out for him.
Best Fit: Jets, Cowboys, 49ers, Ravens
Most Likely: Jets, Cowboys, 49ers, Jaguars

5. Toby Gerhart

toby-gerhartIn four years with the Vikings, Gerhart received 10+ carries only nine times. It’s no surprise that Gerhart wants to leave Minnesota, in search of a better opportunity. Players are expected to make the most of their touches, but it’s very difficult to get in the flow of a game carrying the ball only once or twice. Gerhart played very well in three of his last four games, against Seattle, Green Bay, and Baltimore (he only received two carries in the overtime win vs. CHI). There will be a market for Gerhart. He only has 276 career carries, and is only 26 years old, but I can’t place him any higher on the list because of the sample size. I very much expect Gerhart to be part of a Stanford reunion in Free Agency, the only question for me is whether it will be in San Francisco, with Jim Harbaugh, or in Indianapolis, with Andrew Luck.
Best Fit: 49ers, Colts, Jets, Ravens
Most Likely: 49ers, Colts

Other Top Free Agent Running Backs:

6. Andre Brown – When healthy, Brown has shown some flashes of brilliance in the last two seasons. He’s reaching Free Agency at an interesting time, since the Giants have only David Wilson and Michael Cox under contract (Brandon Jacobs retired and Peyton Hillis is further down on the list). It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants make a run at someone higher up on this list, or try to resign Brown.

7. Ahmad Bradshaw – A hard, one-cut, downhill runner, Bradshaw has always been somewhat underappreciated, and he’s still only 27. His career yards per carry average is 4.6, and he only had one season (2011) where it was less than 4.5. Bradshaw, who signed with the Colts late in Free Agency because of a foot injury, only played three games with the Colts before suffering a season ending neck injury. I would not be surprised to see the Colts resign Bradshaw, given the uncertainty of Trent Richardson’s stardom (or mediocrity). I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Bradshaw end up back with Big Blue.

8. Maurice Jones-Drew – After eight seasons with the Jaguars, MJD is reaching Free Agency for the first time. He’ll be 29 later this month, and is coming off two rough seasons, one in which he missed 10 games, both in an abysmal offense. Jones-Drew can still be an effective runner in a role where he doesn’t have to carry the ball 300 times per year. Look for him to return home to Oakland, or nearby San Francisco.

9. Rashad Jennings – I really liked Jennings coming out of Liberty in 2009. He backed up MJD during the height of his power, and did not get his first real opportunity until 2012 after MJD was injured. Unfortunately for Jennings, that opportunity was within the NFL’s least talented offense, and he did not have much chance for success. He had several good games for the Raiders in 2013, and found his most success in the games which he received 10+ touches. Jennings may be back in Oakland, but I believe he’ll be able to do better than 1-year deal he signed with the Raiders in 2013.

10. Donald Brown – Much like his 2009 first-round counterpart on this list, Brown did not have much success until 2013. He was thrust into a bigger role than the team had planned for him, after Ahmad Bradshaw was injured and Trent Richardson struggled. I believe that Brown would make a solid third down back for several teams, and there should be a market for his services.

11. Rashard Mendenhall – Bruce Arians sure seemed determined to keep the reigns on rising star Andre Ellington. Mendenhall received the bulk of the teams carries in every game which he played, despite never rushing for more than 76 yards, and never averaging more than 4.7 yards per carry. If Mendenhall doesn’t resign with the Cardinals, he’s likely to end up in a secondary role somewhere. His days as a starter are over.

12. Anthony Dixon – Dixon won’t remain in SF, but he’ll latch on somewhere as a short yardage back.

13. Peyton Hillis – From Madden cover to out of the league in less than 2 years, Hillis eventually landed with the Giants in 2013, and played well enough to earn himself another year in the league.

14. James Starks – He gradually saw his role reduced after a 20 carry, 132-yard game in week 2. I don’t see him returning to the Packers, and he may struggle to find a home early in Free Agency.

15. Bernard Scott – only played in two games for the Ravens in 2014. He’ll be on a roster this summer but may not be able to survive camp cuts.

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