Free Agent Market For Running Backs

In recent years, many NFL teams have moved away from an offensive game plan that predominantly involves one feature back, instead choosing to rotate two or three backs in and out of the lineup. Several of the league’s most dangerous offenses over the last few seasons, including those in New England and New Orleans, have relied on multiple backs, without any one player racking up huge yardage.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still running backs capable of carrying the ball 300+ times in a season, but the position has increasingly become one that teams feel they can fill without landing a big-name player. No running backs are expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s draft, and the one major trade for a back consummated during the 2013 season (the Colts giving up a 2014 first-round pick for Trent Richardson) turned into something of a cautionary tale when Richardson struggled to produce in Indianapolis.

Nonetheless, teams still need to fill the position somehow, and with many intriguing players set to hit free agency this offseason, it could be a buyer’s market for running backs. The Broncos, Raiders, Patriots, Jaguars, Colts, and Giants are among the teams whose most productive backs are pending free agents, while the list of other clubs who could explore upgrades at the position includes the Dolphins, Browns, Titans, and Falcons. Here’s a breakdown of which players might be on their shopping lists:

First tier:

Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden are perhaps the most noteworthy names in this year’s group — MJD led the league in rushing as recently as the 2011 season, and McFadden is a former fourth overall pick and is still just 26 years old. Still, both players had disappointing walk years, with injuries playing a role in both cases. That’s a familiar theme for McFadden, who has never played a full season, and it’s also becoming increasingly common for Jones-Drew, who appeared in just six 2012 games before being plagued by nagging injuries in 2013. Both players offer tantalizing upside and should still have something left in the tank, but they’ll need to be paired with solid second and third options in order to keep their workloads in check.

Rashad Jennings, MJD’s former backup in Jacksonville and McFadden’s replacement in Oakland for much of the 2013 season, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and filled in admirably for McFadden with the Raiders. While he may not be relied upon to be a No. 1 back, he’d make an excellent No. 2. The same could be said for Joique Bell, who had an excellent season in Detroit sharing backfield duties with Reggie Bush. Among this year’s free agent backs, none ranked higher according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics than Bell (ninth), though he’ll be a restricted FA and has conveyed a strong desire to re-sign with the Lions.

LeGarrette Blount, Knowshon Moreno, and Donald Brown weren’t expected to carry the loads for their respective clubs when the 2013 season opened, but by January, they were the No. 1 backs for three of the AFC’s top four teams. None of them are older than 27, so they should do well on the open market, though their potential earnings vary. I expect Moreno, who has the strongest career resumé overall, to land the biggest contract of the three, while Brown will likely sign the most modest deal. Brown only assumed the top role in Indianapolis due to Ahmad Bradshaw‘s neck injury and Richardson’s ineffectiveness, and is likely to return to No. 2 duties wherever he ends up in 2014.

Finally, while he’s not currently eligible for free agency in 2014, Chris Johnson is very likely to be released by the Titans. Johnson’s production has certainly slowed down since he rushed for over 2000 yards in 2009, but he has still recorded six consecutive seasons of 1000+ rushing yards since entering the league, and could benefit from a change of scenery.

Second tier:

Injuries in 2013 limited the likelihood of Ben Tate or Andre Brown landing big contracts this offseason, but both players have the potential to match or surpass the production of any of the running backs listed among the first-tier options. Although Tate has been stuck behind Arian Foster in Houston for the last several seasons, he’s believed to have the talent to be an NFL starter, and could get that opportunity in 2014, depending on where he lands. Brown, meanwhile, has flashed a ton of promise during the last two seasons with the Giants, but didn’t take full advantage of his opportunity to start in 2013, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry on 139 attempts.

While Tate and Brown are still fairly young, with their best years potentially ahead of them, many of the other names in this group will draw interest because of performances in years past. Rashard Mendenhall and Peyton Hillis had their best seasons in 2010, but were seeing significant action up until last year, and should be able to land backup roles. Meanwhile, Willis McGahee started six games in 2013 for the Browns, and turned in a career-worst 2.7 yards per carry. That performance could make it an uphill battle to land a backup role in 2014, but considering McGahee reportedly wants to play for several more seasons, he at least believes he has something left in the tank.

James Starks should also draw interest in a part-time role, as he’s coming off the best season of his four-year career, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and racking up nearly 500 rushing yards for the Packers.

The rest:

Every year, we see non-descript backs take advantage of openings created by injuries or poor performance, so it’s likely that at least one or two names in this group will make some noise next season. The rest of the names on the 2014 free agent list include longtime backups like Anthony Dixon and Toby Gerhart, who have been stuck behind Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson respectively for the last several seasons.

There are also former starters such as Ronnie Brown, Felix Jones, and Bradshaw, who aren’t likely to return to a starting role anytime soon. Throw in solid part-timers such as Jonathan Dwyer and Jackie Battle, and return specialists like Leon Washington, and there should be plenty of options available on the free agent market for teams who don’t want to use draft picks to fill out their backfields.

Previously:
Free Agent Market For Quarterbacks