Free Agency Primer: Running Backs

There’s over a combined 12 seasons worth of 1,000-yard rushing campaigns for the stable of running backs that are available via free agency on the eleventh day of March.

There is somewhat of a risk with free agent running backs, especially with the bevy of players being selected on a yearly basis in the second round of the draft as tail backs. The league has moved away considerably from absolutely needing the blue chip running back with the Heisman pedigree. Running backs are no longer being taken in the top ten picks on a consistent basis, nor are they getting paid top-dollar. That could be attributed to their lack of longevity (the average NFL career length for a running back is three years).

So why spend decent coin on a runner? Well, this year’s crop, which has an average age of 27, has some relatively young players. What you get out of these players, for the most part, is the sense that they can be relied upon as pass-protectors, and durable runners, both aspects that rookie running backs have a hard time getting acclimated to. Buyer beware though, as if there is one recurring trend with this year’s crop of free agent runners is the fact that they are very injury prone

For general managers and teams looking for runners on the first day of free agency, my only advice is to tread lightly.

Here are my top 10 free agent rushers.

1. Ben Tate: I struggled putting Tate as my number one free agent running back, but when you factor in his production/talent and age ratio, combined with the lack of a pounding he’s taken, Tate should have a lot of mileage left in his legs. Tate’s rookie season was in 2010, but missed the entire campaign with a knee injury. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, he rushed 175, 65 and 181 times respectively. In contrast, Arian Foster rushed 351 times in 2013. Tate has a nice combination of speed and size and he’s a tough player, having played the second half of the 2013 season with broken ribs. But it is quite concerning the limited amount of games he as played due to injury, and it will surely make teams weary of acquiring his services. From a skills standpoint, he has top 10 talent. His receiving acumen could use some work and he doesn’t have the same amount of vision and cutback ability that Arian Foster has, but if placed in the right situation, such as a zone-blocking scheme, he could thrive like he did in 2011 backing up Foster.

2. Knowshon Moreno: One of my favourite runners to watch is the under-appreciated Moreno. He’s your typical run-of-the-mill move the chains type running back that will not dazzle with blinding speed or crazy juke moves. What Moreno does is find the right holes, by utilizing his very good vision. He can adeptly pitch in as a pass-catcher and has established himself, with very little doubt, as the best pass-blocking running back in the league. No other quarterback will display a running back’s talent to pass block than Peyton Manning. The latter, especially on 3rd and long’s on shotgun, will most of the time leave the running back in the backfield to protect the quarterback. Moreno has footed the bill with regards to protecting the proverbial “derrière” of the league’s Most Valuable Player and he’s done that more than admirably.

Moreno isn’t without his faults though, as he’s dealt with some injuries in the past, most notably, a torn ACL in 2011. In 2011 and 2012, Moreno played 15 games and totaled 175 carries, a number that couldn’t even eclipse any of his other individual seasons on their own.

To me, the fit is just so perfect with Denver. I understand they have Monte Ball, Ronnie Hillman and they really like rookie C.J. Anderson as well, but Moreno’s grasp of the offense, his willingness to share the workload (an underrated aspect of a running back), and how he is endeared by many of his teammates would lead me to believe that most of the players want him back, especially the aforementioned Peyton Manning. Moreno carries a $3,2 million cap hit, with a base salary of $1,7 million. Teams that want to add a veteran ball carrier, who can be a an every-down back, yet split carries, will love Moreno. Miami would not be a bad fit as they had issues running the football in 2013.

3. LeGarrette Blount: You can make an argument that the “Blount object” was the Patriots second best offensive player in the second half of the season. In a season in which Tom Brady had his trials and tribulations with his youngest, yet weakest set of receivers in almost a decade, Blount churned out a respectable 772 yards and, 5 touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry. He got the break he needed with Stevan Ridley struggling with ball security and Shane Vereen injuring his wrist in the early part of the season. Blount is always a wild card, as he’s dealt with character issues in the past, but his talent is unquestioned. At nearly 260 lbs., he can run over and around defenders and by all accounts, according to the Patriots coaching staff, he’s greatly improved his pass-protection

Like Moreno, the fit just makes so much sense. The Patriot way has also included being stingy with players over the last few years, but Bill Belichick must realize that Ridley still isn’t a reliable back and Vereen is too much of a pass-catcher to handle the full-time running back duties. Blount is a perfect “move the chains” back that can fit in many roles. I listed him, but I’d be shocked if he was not retained.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew: The last two season’s have been absolutely horrendous for “Pocket Hercules”, to the point where I cannot see ‘MJD’ staying in Jacksonville. It started in 2012 with a contract dispute that saw the 3-time Pro Bowler sit out all of training camp.  Although he came through and ended up starting the season, he looked out of shape and subsequently was shut down for the season due to a foot injury after only six games. This season, despite the advent of a full training camp, Jones-Drew never hit his stride, only hitting walls of defenders; partly due to a weak offensive line, that traded its best player, former first round pick Eugene Monroe to Baltimore, but also due to MJD creeping up in age.

At his zenith, Jones-Drew combines a small stature, which makes him incredibly hard to tackle due to a powerful lower body. Combined with his freakish speed and you have a running back that has recorded three seasons of over 1,300 yards (including a league-leading mark of 1,606 in 2011). He has 79 touchdowns in eight seasons, although he has not reached double digits since 2009.

Jones-Drew will be 29 at the end of this month and precedence of older running backs as well as his obvious decline in talent does not bode well for his future prospects. Depending on the right system though, with a mauling offensive line, MJD could possibly thrive. There have been some rumblings about a return home to California, possibly in San Francisco, but with Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter (not to mention Marcus Lattimore), Jones-Drew isn’t really needed. I’m not ready to say that his days as a feature back are over because he has been healthy enough during his career to garner such a label (he played 15 games in 2013). However, there are few teams I can envision trying to do what the Falcons did last year, which they failed miserably with; sign a 29-30 year old running back, and assume he will reach his mean career production. MJD may have a tougher market than we think, despite his pedigree.

5. Darren McFadden: Nobody is more saddened by the current state of McFadden as an NFL running back than I am. I loved him coming out of the University of Arkansas and thought he’d be on his way to reaching or even potentially bettering the numbers that Adrian Peterson showed.

McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season and only has one season of over 1,000 yards. He has missed a combined 29 games in his six NFL seasons. TWENTY-NINE! That is nearly two full seasons amortized through six years. That’s an average of nearly 5 missed games per seasons.

When he is on the field, his power and straight line running ability are as good as they come, evoking memories of Bo Jackson. Injuries to his hamstrings have hampered him, however, he still displays tremendous speed in the open field despite the myriad of lower body ailments he has dealt with. Unlike other free agent running backs, Darren McFadden has proven that he cannot be an every down back. His high point in carries was 223 in 2010, which was also the only season he had over 1,000 yards. Wherever he goes, he must be capped at about 130 to 180 carries, in order to keep him healthy and fresh. I can easily see him being the home-run hitting type of running back that can be deployed about 11 times a game. As long as you’re not running a zone blocking scheme and asking McFadden to make too many reads – he’s strictly a one cut downhill runner who explodes into the hole – he can still be a force. Hue Jackson, the Bengals current offensive coordinator, held the same position for the Raiders in 2010 when McFadden had his best statistical season of his career. That would not be a bad fit with Gio Bernard already in the fold.

6. Andre Brown: Andre Brown is yet another runner who has dealt with many injuries in his limited time in the league. Brown doesn’t have the explosiveness of some of the other backs, but he is a solid chains move that can find holes and pass protect. The Giants have an unfortunate situation where their 2012 first round selection, David Wilson is coming off neck surgery and his status is murky for training camp. Conversely, Andre Brown has been injured too many times to be completely relied upon. He missed all of 2010 with a ruptured achillies tendon. In 2012 and 2013, he could only play a combined 18 games. Any team that will attempt to acquire Brown will need to go through their due diligence to ensure he checks out medically.

7. James Starks: Starks was an imperative cog in the Packers 2010 championship run. He never gets credit for how well he played during that postseason. Maybe it has something to do with how his career has fizzled up and down like the stock market.

When healthy, Starks reminds me a lot of Ahman Green, the former Packer who had a Packers record of 1,800 yards back in 2003. Starks is a big back, at 6’2, 218 lbs. and he can cutback like a 5’9 scat-back. Last season, he spelled Eddie Lacy admirably while he was dealing with a concussion. He rushed for 20 carries and 132 yards against the Redskins.

Ideally, the soon to be former Packer is better suited in a timeshare, but this could be his opportunity to gain a starting gig. If not for past injuries, he may have already had it, which leads credence to the type of talent he has.

8. Rashad Jennings: Before this season, Jennings was a bit player on a bad Jaguars team, struggling starving for carries from workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. At 28 years of age, he’s one of the older rushers along with MJD. Jennings though, has only accumulated a combined 163 carries in his four seasons as a pro, so you can make an argument that he has fresh legs with much left in the tank.

At 6’1, 233 lbs., Jennings combines a tremendous combinations of speed and size. He’s been known as a great finisher of runs, as he always fights for extra yards and moves piles forward. Jennings won’t be offered any big contracts due to his age and history of concussions, but he can easily be in a timeshare situation like in either New York based teams.

9. Toby Gerhart: The time is now for the former Stanford Cardinal to make the leap from Adrian Peterson’s backup, to a potential starter in the league. Please avoid any stereotypes when analyzing Gerhart, who is a very athletic player, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, which is above average for a running back. Gerhart, despite his limited carries, has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career on 276 total carries and over 1,300 yards. An underrated aspect is his pass-catching ability, as he was often the third-down back in place of Adrian Peterson in many situations. From a pure talent perspective, Gerhart would’ve been ranked higher on this list, but his resumé is rather thin. Still, look for him to garner interest as a starter from some team looking to take a chance on him.

10. Donald Brown: How weird is it that Donald Brown had the last four years to establish himself s the bona fide starter in Indianapolis after the team let go of Joseph Addai. Brown could never get going as he either dealt with injuries or an inability to adjust to the pro game. He was the type of player in college that thrived only because he was faster than his opponents.

Fast-forward to this season and one would assume that when Trent Richardson came from Cleveland, that Brown would’ve been relegated to the bench. Little did we know that Brown turned out the best performances of his career as a Colts player, as he outperformed Richardson from a yardage (507 to 458), yards per carry (5.3 to 3.0) and touchdown standpoint (6 to 3) after the Cleveland trade. It is easy to say that the trade motivated Brown, and it may have lighted a fire in a player whose game was relatively soft as an NFL running back. Brown should be a good bet to join a two or three-man backfield, but don’t look for him as a starter, despite his 2013 success in Indianapolis.

That’s it for the list of free agent running backs. This is as talented a group as there has ever been since free agency has been implemented in 1993. What worries me is the nearly 200 combined man games lost between these 10 players, which is why many of these players will need to be on pitch counts.

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