NFL Free Agency: Linebackers and Running Backs Have to Wait Their Turn

Aaron NaglerNFL National Lead WriterMarch 19, 2012

It's a waiting game for guys like Erin Henderson
It's a waiting game for guys like Erin HendersonOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The initial free-agency surge has come and gone (one future Hall of Famer notwithstanding) and there is one irrefutable truth: Guys involved in the passing game got paid. Guys involved in the running game are still waiting their turn.

Whether improving their ability to pass the ball (Seattle adding a quarterback; Tampa, Washington, San Diego, New Orleans and New England signing pass-catchers), to harass and get after the quarterback (Buffalo and Atlanta signing DEs) or to stop the ball from getting to those pass-catchers (St. Louis and Dallas each adding top cornerbacks), teams have figured out the passing game has to take priority when building your team.

Meanwhile, old-school positions like middle linebacker and running back have to wait for a pass-happy market to die down and, in some cases, let the draft play out before getting serious looks from ball clubs.

Before teams figured out that pass was king, running backs and inside linebackers were the glamour positions in the NFL. Up until a few years ago, running backs and two-down linebackers continued to be paid big money—even though, statistically, passing the ball has always been more important to the success of NFL teams.

This shift in philosophy has affected how teams approach not only free agency, but the draft as well. Alabama’s Trent Richardson, the consensus top running back in this year's draft, may very well be the best, most complete football player in the entire draft. However, you can bet come draft time, he will follow in the footsteps of the last great running back to be taken in the Top 10, Adrian Peterson. Peterson should have been a top-three pick in the 2007 draft and ended up going seventh overall to the Vikings.

The trend is even more pronounced at linebacker. Occasionally a linebacker slips into the Top 10, but more often than not it’s a team further down in the draft order with a desperate need that ends up taking a player who will most likely not be on the field on third downs—the "money down" of the NFL.  

So while teams address their needs for passing and defending the pass, good players like Stephen Tulloch, Erin Henderson, Mike Tolbert and Michael Bush wait for phone calls and meetings. We should see the market for their services pick up this week.