It's understandable that many of the best running backs in 2014 NFL free agency are still on the open market. With the decreasing shelf life and unpredictability at the position, even those with a track record of steady production are in danger of dropping off at any time.
But the premier ball-carriers still seeking a landing spot this offseason should be claimed soon enough, as interest in them heats up following the first frantic frenzy of free-agent acquisitions.
Longtime Jacksonville Jaguars franchise cornerstone Maurice Jones-Drew is poised to play elsewhere. Knowshon Moreno, a former first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, is still on the fence about changing organizations for the first time.
Perhaps the biggest wild card of all is LeGarrette Blount, who came on strong at the end of last year for the New England Patriots, yet he may be playing for his third different team ahead of his fifth NFL season.
Below is analysis on the latest rumors, buzz and general news regarding these backs and what it might mean for their respective futures.
Maurice Jones-Drew Receiving Legitimate Interest from Four Teams
Marketability is a somewhat of an issue for Jones-Drew, because he just turned 29 and averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry last season.
But a lot of that is excusable due to the circumstances in Jacksonville, as the Jags were a terrible team and had lackluster blocking that impacted the entire offense.
Apparently other teams are thinking that way, too, given the multiple suitors reportedly lining up for Jones-Drew's services. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported Monday that the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots are all in the running:
The Daily News has learned that the Jets, Patriots, Dolphins and Steelers are in the hunt to land veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew. The teams are expected to meet with the Jones-Drew camp at league meetings this week.
All of these options are intriguing for various reasons. The Jets could use any playmaker they can get, and coach Rex Ryan would love a tough, physical runner line Jones-Drew since he prefers to run the ball a lot and play great defense.
New England is interesting, since its pursuit of Jones-Drew seems to hint that it won't retain Blount, especially since Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are still under contract through this coming season. Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com reports Tuesday that the Patriots aren't actually interested, though.
The third AFC East team in Miami has offensive line issues of its own, so Jones-Drew would be making a bold choice by taking his talents to South Beach.
Even with Le'Veon Bell already in the fold, Pittsburgh could use another back to complement him. Albert Breer previously reported that Jones-Drew returned to the Steelers' facility after his initial visit:
Free-agent RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who visited with Steelers today, will be back at the team's facility tomorrow. Could have a home there.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 20, 2014
Since the return didn't result in a contract agreement, that must mean Jones-Drew is biding his time, weighing his options and at least hearing what the other organizations have to say. And who could blame him?
It seems as though the deck has always been stacked against Jones-Drew since he arrived in Jacksonville. His loyalty has been admirable to this point, but the opportunity to start fresh for the first time in his career should serve him well, and give him a better shot at his first Super Bowl.
Will Knowshon Moreno Stay in Denver, Or Bolt for Miami?
All the information regarding Moreno is out in the open. After a visit with the Dolphins, he has yet to land an offer to go there. New Miami general manager Dennis Hickey commented on that, per Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald:
GM Dennis Hickey on Knowshon Moreno: "We have talks. We'll continue to go through there and continue to dialogue and see where it goes ..."— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) March 24, 2014
The Dolphins could certainly use a spark in the backfield, considering they ranked 26th in the league in rushing offense in 2013. As mentioned before, though, the offensive line is a major concern, along with the inconsistent play of third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
All of those issues are intermingled. Even an all-purpose player with Moreno's versatile skill set may not be able to rectify that tenuous situation.
CBS Sports personality Jamey Eisenberg reported what Broncos head coach John Fox had to say regarding Moreno, where he hinted about the running back's return to the Mile High City:
At the NFL owners meeting now and #Broncos coach John Fox said the "door is always open" for Knowshon Moreno to return.— Jamey Eisenberg (@JameyEisenberg) March 25, 2014
Since Moreno was such a big part of Denver's prolific offense last season, it's hard to believe the Broncos are so open to let him roam around and possibly leave town. Peyton Manning's prowess under center makes everyone around him better, but the hard running, receiving ability and blitz pickups Moreno mustered in 2013 made him a key cog.
Pro Football Focus notes how elusive Moreno was in a career year that saw him run for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and snag 60 receptions for 548 yards and three additional scores:
Our Top FA Running Back still available, Knowshon Moreno, forced 38 missed tackles from 349 total touches in the regular season and playoffs— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 24, 2014
Moreno can't find a much better situation than the one he has with the Broncos. As long as Manning is still producing at a record-breaking rate—or anywhere close to it—the progress Moreno has shown should only continue.
After playing just 15 total games in the previous two campaigns, the 26-year-old Moreno didn't miss any contests this past year. To avoid a heavier workload and enjoy more open rushing lanes, his best bet is to stay put, even if it comes at an unwanted and unwarranted hometown discount.
LeGarrette Blount to the AFC North?
The bruising, 250-pound back is sure to find an NFL home in 2014; perhaps in a feature No. 1 role at that, given his nimbleness and deceptive speed for his size.
Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun and National Football Post reports that Blount will visit with the Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Friday, explaining why league meetings caused the previously arranged sit-down to be put on hold:
New England Patriots veteran free agent running back LeGarrette Blount's visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers has been pushed back until after the league meetings, according to league sources.
Originally scheduled to visit the Steelers on Sunday night and Monday, Blount is now scheduled to visit the AFC North franchise on Friday after the meetings have concluded.
This way, Blount will get to meet with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who are attending the meetings.
Sources also tell Wilson that the Baltimore Ravens are interested in Blount, along with the Patriots. So it appears that New England may be more intent on keeping Blount than it seemed in light of the rumor suggesting it covets Jones-Drew.
Which running back will be the most productive over the next two seasons?
Diminutive All-Pro Ray Rice suffered a severe, discouraging drop-off in 2013 when he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, while Bernard Pierce wasn't impressive in his own right, averaging 2.9 yards per pop. Even if blocking up front is the issue, Blount has the bulk to fall forward and help Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco get back on track.
Although running backs aren't the hot commodities they used to be, Jones-Drew, Moreno and Blount all deserve shots at being starters in 2014. In the case of the former two, they can play every down if need be and help take pressure off their quarterbacks, making play-calling in critical situations more difficult to diagnose.
While Blount hasn't shown the pass-catching or blocking Jones-Drew and Moreno have demonstrated, he has the frame to become an asset in protection and the power and elusiveness to be dangerous after the catch.
There seems to be a lot of intersecting interests among the teams in pursuit of these three backs, but whoever lands them will feel fortunate. They all should be able produce for at least the next two years.