Monday, February 27, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Running Back

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top running backs expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

A second-round pick by the Ravens in 2008, Rice totaled only 454 yards on the ground as a rookie  before erupting as one of the NFL's elite running backs. Since the 2009 season began, he has totaled three straight 1,200-yard seasons (including two 1,300+ seasons) and 29 offensive touchdowns, wit ha career-high 12 rushing touchdowns this past season. A 5-foot-8 bowling ball, Rice would be the best running back on the market but may very well get the franchise tag from the Ravens. 

2. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears 

Selected 11 picks ahead of Rice in the 2008 NFL Draft, Forte racked up 1,238 yards and eight scores as a rookie but was held under four yards per carry during his first two seasons. Since then, however, he's proved to be among the league's better backs, totaling 1,069 yards on a 4.5 average in 2010. Despite playing in just 12 games in 2011 due to a knee injury, Forte racked up 997 yards on a career-high 4.9 average, while nearing career highs with 52 receptions and 490 yards. The do-it-all back has earned a healthy raise from the Bears or someone else.

3. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks 

The 12th overall pick in 2007, Lynch was largely a disappointment in Buffalo despite opening his career with two 1,000-yard seasons. He was shipped to the Seahawks early in the 2010 season and averaged just 3.5 yards a carry in his first season at his new home. However, Lynch is now entering the market coming off his best season yet, having rushed for a career-high 1,204 yards on a 4.2 average. Lynch, who has engineered quite possibly both of the most memorable runs over the past two seasons, is not going to blow anyone away with his speed but is the definition of a workhorse.

4. Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders 

Although he's been in the league five seasons, Bush is just now entering free agency because his rookie year was spent on the PUP list from a broken leg suffered in college. Working as a backup to Darren McFadden for pretty much all of his career, Bush has seen plenty of action thanks to McFadden's durability issues and the league's current two-back nature. Bush set career-highs with 977 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, making him a guy that could go from backup-to-starter in free agency like Michael Turner did a few years back.

5. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots 

An undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss in 2008, Green-Ellis has served as a feature back in the Patriots' multi-headed backfield over the past two years. His numbers dipped a bit in 2011, going from a 1,008-yard, 13 touchdown performance the previous season to just 667 yards and nine touchdowns on 3.7 yards per carry this year. Some of that was due to the Patriots' line injuries, and some of it was due to Green-Ellis' lack of star power. He has the ability to be a productive back and he doesn't have a fumble in 510 pro carries, but he's also not going to light the world on fire.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals  — A former first-round pick of the Bears, Benson struggled in Chicago and briefly looked to be turning things around in Cincinnati, but his numbers are deceiving. He has three straight 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, but hasn't cracked four yards per carry since 2009 and has no burst to speak of. Teams looking for a starter should go younger and cheaper.
  • Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia Eagles — Picked up in free agency last offseason, the former No. 2 overall pick was not needed in Philly thanks to LeSean McCoy's career year. However, I still believe Brown has starting ability and could produce if given the opportunity. The question is how many more opportunities he'll get, because teams just don't go for backs in the wrong side of 30.
  • Kevin Faulk, New England Patriots — A long-time third-down back of the perennial contenders, Faulk was inactive for the Patriots' Super Bowl loss to the Giants earlier this month and has just 38 touches over the past two years. It's likely the 35-year-old is headed for retirement.
  • Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers — After a career year in 2009 that saw him total 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns, Grant was limited to just one game in 2010 and was hardly a factor in the Packers' pass-happy offense in 2011, ranking second on the team with 559 yards. There was never anything all that special about Grant, and my guess is his starting days are about over.
  • Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins — A sexy fantasy pick before the season thanks to Mike Shanahan's apparent infatuation, Hightower was uninspiring in five games with the Redskins before tearing his ACL. The fumble machine is purely a backup candidate at this point.
  • Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns — One of the feel-good stories of 2010 and the subsequent Madden NFL cover boy, Hillis overplayed his hand in 2011 trying to get a big contract, holding himself out of games, losing respect from teammates and killing his value in the process. A one-trick pony that was never going to be a long-term NFL starter, Hillis will have to prove himself all over again in 2012.
  • Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs — Jones really turned his career around after busting in Arizona as a first-round pick in 2000, but his productive has waned since 2009 and he can no longer handle an NFL workload. He's a good presence for the younger backs, but that's about the extent of his contributions.
  • Steve Slaton, Miami Dolphins — It seems like forever ago Slaton rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie with the Texans in 2008, but he's now fallen out of favor with two franchises and has had trouble just getting on the field. There's talent in there somewhere, but it'll take a miracle for us to see it again.
  • Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions — Originally a third-rounder by the Lions in 2008, Smith was out of football in 2011 until rededicating himself and earning a roster spot back in Detroit thanks to some impressive workouts. Although a few minor injuries hampered him, Smith's efforts translated to the field as he rushed for 356 yards and four touchdowns (4.9 average) in just seven games. He's still only 25 and could be a bargain starter if he stays motivated, although durability remains a concern.
  • Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers — A bowling ball at 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, Tolbert has grown to be a fantasy annoyance with 19 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons. He's got value as a goal-line back, but he's not a feature back talent.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets — Arguably the best back of his generation and a shoo-in Hall of Famer, Tomlinson mustered just 280 yards on 75 carriers with the Jets in 2011. He could probably still be productive in a good offense if given the chance, but it seems likely the five-time Pro Bowler will simply call it quits.
  • Cadillac Williams, St. Louis Rams — A former first-round pick, Williams has endured numerous knee injuries in his career and totaled just 361 yards as a backup in St. Louis in 2011. Turning 30 this offseason, he might get a few more chances but will never be handed the keys to the offense or asked to carry the load.

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