Detroit Lions: 4 Free-Agent Running Back Targets
The position of running back has evolved over the years.
As recently as five years ago, the idea was to have one work horse back that essentially carried the load for the entire season.
Sure, there have been other evolutions in the position. Roger Craig of San Fransisco ushered in an era of running backs that could be used as receivers out of the backfield. Barry Sanders showed us that you didn't have to be as tall as Eric Dickerson or O.J. Simpson in order to dominate. And Christian Okoye made the bruising back cool again.
But through all of those different types of backs, each was his team's primary back. It was routine for running backs to carry the ball over 300 times in a season.
But there were a few huge drawbacks to this plan.
One, teams were easier to plan for. In the 1990s, teams could beat Detroit if they could slow down Sanders. Sure, that is easier said than done, but that was the main reason that the Lions only won one playoff game during Sanders' career.
Two, if your back gets hurt, your entire season went up in smoke.
Three, backs had an incredibly short career. Remember Okoye, Curt Warner or Joe Morris? These guys were backs with epic talent that ran out of gas way before their time.
So with the new running back by committee idea, teams are protecting themselves in a myriad of ways. Furthermore, it makes drafting a running back in the high rounds much less important.
This brings me to my point.
The Detroit Lions had one of the worst running attacks in football last year. They were a completely one-dimensional team. Obviously, they won in spite of this, and plenty of teams have in recent years.
But we saw the drawbacks to this as well. In short-yardage situations, the Lions put quarterback Matthew Stafford in danger because defenses could pin their ears back and blitz without fear of a running attack.
The Lions also struggled in third-down situations throughout the year. Part of this was because of the one-dimensional aspect of the offense. But part of that was due to the fact that on first and second downs, the team wasn't getting the short gains that a running attack can bring.
The Lions also could have been much more effective in keeping time of possession on their side, which helps everyone on the team including the defense.
So why aren't the draft gurus talking about running back as a position of need for Detroit?
The hope is that between last year's rookie Mikel Leshoure and oft-injured Jahvid Best, the Lions will have a serviceable enough back.
Also, there is really only one highly touted back in this draft, and he will be a high pick. But this is a huge hole for Detroit right now, and one that must be addressed in free agency.
Here are four free agent backs that Detroit should target.
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The Detroit Lions need a bruising back, plain and simple.
Sure, we all hope that Leshoure will come back in top form, but the list of athletes that have successfully come back from Achilles injuries is not exactly awe-inspiring, especially when it comes to football players.
Tolbert is a bruiser, plain and simple.
He started out as a fullback, but was pressed into halfback duties over the last two years due to the initial slow start to Ryan Mathews' career. But since Mathews broke out in the second half of this season, Tolbert is sure to test the free-agent market. Tolbert is a 5'9", 250-pound behemoth. He hits the hole with authority, and has somewhat nimble feet.
For Detroit, the idea is to bolster their short-yardage and goal-line game, and Tolbert is known for both. Over the last two years, he has 19 touchdowns, most of which coming in short-yardage situations.
The question is what will it take to get him?
When Detroit signs Calvin Johnson to an extension, it will certainly take care of its own free agents first. This won't leave them with a whole heap of cash, so they will have to hope to get Tolbert on the cheap.
Tolbert made about $2 million last year, and the Lions might be able to swing something in that range for the big back.
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Michael Bush is another one of those bruising backs that still has some tread left on his tires. However, Bush also adds more top-end speed than Tolbert, and is a better pass-catcher.
He also will require quite a bit more money.
The Raiders most certainly will let him go, as they have their own franchise back locked up with Darren McFadden. Bush made $2.6 million last year, and given that he is 27, he will likely try to get a long-term deal that will give him some serious cash.
But Bush is going to have to temper his expectations as the running back position has undergone a major change in compensation as well. Since very few teams employ a feature-back system, they view their backs as part-time specialists.
Running backs and their salaries are in three different tiers.
Tier one is the rookies or those that are still on their rookie salary. Most of them are underpaid (Matt Forte made less than $1 million last year).
The second tier are the veteran specialists. Most of them make roughly $1.5-$3 million per season. This includes the Chester Taylors and the Ricky Williamses of the league.
The third tier are the superstars that are widely overpaid. They make exceptional money but are always the first mentioned on the chopping block. This includes players like Maurice Jones-Drew.
So where does Bush fit? He sure isn't going to get superstar money like Chris Johnson or MJD. But he is better than Taylor or Williams.
Given his injury history, it is possible that he could get around $3-$5 million per season with incentives.
The Lions will have a tough decision to make here, one that likely will depend on what they see on the draft board.
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Signing Ryan Grant would accomplish two feats.
One, it would give the Lions a solid veteran running back that could provide around four yards per carry.
Two, it would really stick it to Green Bay.
Grant has logged a lot of yardage over his career, but he still has some juice left in the tank. But given the fact that he is 29 and running backs historically fall apart after 30, he might be a bargain.
The Lions should be able to get him for about $1.5-$2.5 million per year.
He isn't a bruiser, but he does do a lot of things very well and would provide insurance should Leshoure have a setback.
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Now this will be an interesting player to watch. Hillis certainly wants to get paid, but is there a team out there that seems him as elite?
Not likely. Therefore, his price tag is certain to come way down.
Given that Ray Rice is certainly going to be franchised and Matt Forte is way out of Hillis' league, Peyton will likely have his value tied to someone like Marshawn Lynch.
However, Lynch is coming off of a 1,200-yard rushing campaign, and Hillis is coming off of a disappointing season in which he gained about half of that.
I could see Lynch re-signing with Seattle, but not for a ton.
This could push Hillis' value down to about $4 million per season, something that could be tough but doable for Detroit if it can restructure Calvin Johnson's contract.
Hillis would fit the Lions very well. He moves the pile, is quicker than he looks and is a goal-line monster.