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2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Running Back Market

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Running Back Market

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    One of the deeper positions in NFL free agency is running back. With the overall decreasing value of the position, there is less money spent on running backs, though because they cost less, players are getting second and third chances in new venues.

    I've put together a list of 10 running backs who are free agents this offseason whom I think will be very interesting as free agency hits. The players on this list were chosen based on a number of factors, including age, skill level and future NFL prospects, as well as overall market value.

    We know the overall value of running backs have taken a hit—so unfortunately for many of these players, they'll make less money than they would have just three or four years ago.

    Let's take a look at how their 2013 went and what the 2014 offseason and regular season might hold for them.

     

    *All statistics obtained from NFL.com or ESPN unless otherwise noted.

Darren McFadden

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    10 games played

    Rushing: 114 carries for 379 yards, 5 TDs, 3.3 YPC

    Receiving: 26 targets, 17 catches for 108 yards

    Running back Darren McFadden’s sixth season with the Oakland Raiders was spent pretty much the same way his preceding five were—with him injured and missing a chunk of the season.

    McFadden has a lot of promise and a lot of ability. He has flashed tremendous speed, elusiveness and can produce some amazing runs when he’s on the field.

    But all too often he isn’t on the field, and that will hurt his overall value to any team.

    Someone will take a chance on his upside, though he will either wait a bit until the higher level free agents are cleared out or he’ll sign a cheap contract early.

    Any team who signs him can assume it won’t have him for a full 16 games, so it won’t pay him like he will. He’ll split carries at best, which might help him stay healthy and on the field.

Maurice Jones-Drew

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    15 games played

    Rushing: 234 carries for 803 yards, 5 TDs, 3.4 YPC

    Receiving: 59 targets, 43 catches for 314 yards

    As he turns 29 this year, running back Maurice Jones-Drew faces a tipping point in his career. There’s a fairly good chance that the Jacksonville Jaguars will have him back if he takes a “hometown discount,” but at his age, the chances of another huge contract if he does so are slight.

    On top of the age issue, Jones-Drew is coming off a 2013 season which wasn’t all that exciting either.

    His yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.8 in 2012 to 3.4 in 2013. His average was 4.7 over the course of his career and that 1.4 yards-per-carry drop dragged that down to 4.5.

    Now, you can argue that the offensive line and the poor supporting cast hurt Jones-Drew. Behind a better offensive line, we should see Jones-Drew’s average rise.

    There are several teams entering or in the midst of championship windows that could use Jones-Drew to put them over the top. While he is definitely slowing down a bit, Jones-Drew has enough in his tank for several more solid years.

    So if you need a running back for a team which is already built, he’s your guy. It’s less likely he will be productive on a poor team like Jacksonville.

Knowshon Moreno

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    16 games played

    Rushing: 241 carries for 1,038 yards, 10 TDs, 4.3 YPC

    Receiving: 74 targets, 60 catches for 548 yards, 3 TDs

    After four seasons of very subpar football, many people, including National Football Post’s Dan Pompei, thought Moreno might be cut before the 2013 NFL season kicked off.

    In previous seasons, Moreno ran with inconsistent leg drive, had a tough time getting to the second level and, when he did, seemed to run out of steam, something that limited the number of big runs he produced.

    During 2013, Moreno broke off numerous long runs, including two against the New York Giants in Week 2 that were over 20 yards.

    Overall, Moreno looked like a different back. Analysts talk about a “light going on” for a player, and as far as I can see, that’s exactly what happened for Moreno. He was in better shape and showed better field vision and endurance. Overall, Moreno had a great season.

    He’s likely to see a fair amount of interest from teams this offseason, but repeating his success could be totally dependent on where he lands. He’s not likely to have a quarterback of Peyton Manning’s caliber elsewhere, so he’ll see more stacked boxes once again. And you always wonder whether a guy who had a career year right before free agency will relax once he gets a fat contract.

    I predict Moreno’s numbers will not top what he did this past year, and I would not be surprised if he regressed a little.

    Moreno is one of several Denver Broncos players who may leave the Mile High City for big money, only to see their production regress to their previous mean.

Ben Tate

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    14 games played

    Rushing: 181 carries for 771 yards, 4 TDs, 4.3 YPC

    Receiving: 51 targets, 34 catches for 140 yards

    After serving his time as Arian Foster’s backup, former Houston Texans running back Ben Tate is poised to make some money in free agency.

    Tate, who started seven games for the injured Foster, had a strong 2013 despite playing in a terrible offense for most of the year. He certainly had some stinkers (36 yards against Baltimore in Week 3, 12 yards and a touchdown against St. Louis in Week 6) but also flashed some of the speed and power he had shown in prior years.

    Tate ran for 771 yards and four touchdowns (three of which admittedly came in one game against the New England Patriots in Week 13). Tate had to overcome cracked ribs during the season and was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 19, causing him to miss the final two games of the season.

    Possibly the best bet to be this year’s example of “leaping from backup to starter,” Tate has all the tools to be a lead back in the NFL and, as you can tell by his perseverance through the cracked ribs, he’s tough.

    In the right situation, Tate is the kind of runner who could have a huge season in 2014. I suspect he’ll fetch a nice contract and should have some real success, even on a team with a poor offensive line.

Andre Brown

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    8 games played

    Rushing: 139 carries for 492 yards, 3 TDs, 3.5 YPC

    Receiving: 29 targets, 20 catches for 103 yards

    After breaking his leg in the final game of the New York Giants’ preseason and being placed on short-term injured reserve, Andre Brown returned to the lineup and had a pretty good season, especially considering just how awful the offensive line was.

    Here’s a hint if you missed the offensive line's performance this season: It was awful.

    Brown had some ups and downs, as well as a concussion, but played well overall. He runs tough, shows good, though not game-breaking, speed and played well when nothing much was helping him on the offense.

    An intriguing player who has battled injuries during his career, Brown is probably better suited to a role where he can split carries, though he proved he can carry the full load if need be.

    I expect him to become part of a very effective committee next season.

Toby Gerhart

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    14 games played

    Rushing: 36 carries for 283 yards, 2 TDs, 7.9 YPC

    Receiving: 19 targets, 13 catches for 88 yards

    When Toby Gerhart was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, the team had high hopes for the Stanford running back.

    So far, he hasn't panned out.

    Gerhart has occasionally flashed some good speed, vision and power, but not consistently and rarely all at once. Of course, sitting behind Adrian Peterson, you aren’t likely to get into enough of a rhythm to show all of that at once.

    While it wouldn’t be a shock to see him remain in Minnesota, there’s a good chance he ends up as a backup or splitting carries in a new location. If so, a fresh start could do wonders for him.

    Considering his lack of reps though, expect a small contract as a team hedges its bets. I believe Gerhart will be a solid back who can split carries in a new location next season.

LeGarrette Blount

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    2013 Stats

    16 games played

    Rushing: 153 carries for 772 yards, 7 TDs, 5.0 YPC

    Receiving: 5 targets, 2 catches for 38 yards

    After a big rookie season, things went downhill for LeGarrette Blount with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last season he got a fresh start in New England, but expectations were low.

    After all, he had seen his yards-per-carry average drop three years straight (from 5.0 to 4.2 to 3.7) and was mired behind Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and, at one point, Brandon Bolden.

    Then Vereen was hurt, Bolden was unimpressive and Ridley kept fumbling. By the time the Patriots hit the playoffs, Blount was nearly having a career year. He ripped off 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills and then 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs.

    Of course, he and the rest of the offense was shut down by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Blount split carries with Vereen and Ridley (Blount/Ridley had five carries each and Vereen had four) and only Vereen had anything close to success (totaling 34 yards).

    Still, teams will likely look to the two great games and the solid numbers he put up at the end of the season and give him a shot.

    Blount is best used as a bruising short-yardage or a goal-line back rather than a lead back.

Donald Brown

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2013 Stats

    16 games played

    Rushing: 102 carries for 537 yards, 6 TDs, 5.3 YPC

    Receiving: 35 targets, 27 catches for 214 yards, 2 TDs

    The Indianapolis Colts decided to trade a first-round pick for Trent Richardson and then, despite the fact that Donald Brown outplayed Richardson nearly every game, Brown didn’t see the field nearly as much as he should have.

    Brown has had an up-and-down career so far, injuries and some ball-security issues limiting his effectiveness. However, this year he looked like the light had come on. Perhaps he was due to put it all together.

    Or perhaps he woke up one morning to see the news that his team had spent a potentially high draft pick on another running back.

    Whatever the reason, Brown had his best overall season. While he totaled the second-most yards in his career, his touchdown total, receptions, receiving yards and yards-per-carry average were all career highs.

    Brown has too much history of underwhelming play to net a ton of money or walk into a starting job. A team may sign him, but he’ll likely be one of several backs battling for time.

Rashard Mendenhall

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    ** UPDATED **

    Rashard Mendenhall announced his retirement on March 9, 2014. 

    2013 Stats

    15 games played

    Rushing: 217 carries for 687 yards, 8 TDs, 3.2 YPC

    Receiving: 21 targets, 18 catches for 134 yards

    When he came to the Arizona Cardinals, the idea was that Rashard Mendenhall would be the answer to their backfield issues.

    Instead, he was outplayed by rookie Andre Ellington who, while ending with fewer yards, had a much higher yards-per-carry average (5.5 versus 3.2) and was very effective catching the ball out of the backfield as well.

    Mendenhall is a solid north-south runner who can get the tough inside yards and still has tread left on his tires at 26 years old.

    The problem is the constant stream of injuries he has had over the course of his career and the underwhelming overall production.

    Mendenhall will find work, but his history of injuries and inability to produce consistently will make him no better than depth for most teams.

Rashad Jennings

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2013 Stats

    15 games played

    Rushing: 163 carries for 733 yards, 6 TDs, 4.5 YPC

    Receiving: 47 targets, 36 catches for 292 yards

    After several years as Maurice Jones-Drew’s backup, Rashad Jennings got a one-year contract from the Oakland Raiders (for dirt cheap at that, according to Spotrac.com).

    The result was one of the best year of his career.

    Jennings took over for Darren McFadden when, as always seems to happen, he got hurt. Once Jennings took over, he performed well behind the Raiders offensive line.

    While Jennings struggled when given the chance to lead in Jacksonville, in Oakland, the outcome was different.

    Jennings was far more consistent and effective than he was in Jacksonville, topping 100 yards twice and twice scoring a pair of touchdowns, once against the Dallas Cowboys and once against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    With a solid season under his belt, Jennings is going to get a lot of interest. While he played well this past season, some teams will worry that it was an aberration. He should get a shot at a starting job, but more than likely he will have to compete for it.

    There are plenty of teams who will bring him in for a look, though, and if he plays as well as he did this year, he should get a shot to take the starting job.

     

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.

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