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NFL Free Agency: 10 Best Change-of-Pace Running Backs Available

Shae CroninCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2017

NFL Free Agency: 10 Best Change-of-Pace Running Backs Available

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    In today's NFL game, the use of a two-running back system has become the norm. Whether teams execute their offense with immense tight end-like runners or quick-moving scat backs, it's easy to see the effectiveness of using a dual-player backfield.

    Although the lockout is looming and the 2011 season is uncertain, this NFL offseason appears to be one of the richest free agent pools in history. That being said, many teams may be looking to shift their backfield and change their appearance, perhaps trying to land that change-of-pace running back that can alter the dynamic of their team's offense.

    That being the case, we take a look at the 10 best change-of-pace running backs on the market and where some may end up.

No. 10: Leon Washington

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    The Seattle Seahawks are more than likely making Washington a top priority on their re-signing list as he offers elite speed and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. For a team that starts more of a hard and downhill runner, Washington serves as a great complement in order to keep opposing defenses on their toes.

    I believe that 2011 could be Washington's most productive season since his rookie year with the New York Jets in 2006 (650 rushing yards, 270 receiving and four touchdowns).

No. 9: Tim Hightower

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    Since coming on to the scene as sort of a surprise in his 2008 rookie season, Hightower's scoring production has faded off a bit. However, after rushing for 23 touchdowns in three seasons without ever having been the clear-cut primary back in Arizona, I believe Hightower to be a hot commodity.

    Standing 6'1" and weighing more than 220 pounds, Hightower is the bruising kind of back that team's love to have in the red-zone. Hightower also has the ability to receive the ball out of the backfield, making him the dual-threat that forces defenses to cover a wider range.

    Some teams may look away from Hightower because of his mild case of fumbleitis (12 in three seasons), but they'll be attracted to his yearly increasing yards-per-carry and yards-per-game numbers. As a restricted free agent, Hightower will likely remain in Arizona as the second punch with Beanie Wells.

No. 8: Joseph Addai

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    Although a situation for an NFL player doesn't get much better than playing for the Indianapolis Colts, perhaps Joseph Addai could use a change of scenery.

    The soon to be 28-year-old running back has spent all five of his professional seasons with the Colts and has been hampered by injuries and declining production over the past three years. Because Addai is a restricted free agent and other teams will be weary of his health, we can expect to see Addai back in the blue and white next season.

    But, if the Colts decide to go a different route and Addai moves forward, a team would have a fine opportunity to land an experienced runner with a developed knowledge for the game (playing behind Manning). Addai may not blow by defenders with elite speed or use his shifting techniques to shake would-be tacklers in the open field, but he simply gets the job done.

No. 7: Mike Tolbert

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    In last year's draft, the San Diego Chargers believed they had selected their running back of the future in Ryan Mathews. They never imagined they'd rely so heavily on an undrafted third-year player out of Coastal Carolina.

    Mike Tolbert played a key role in the Chargers' success last season, as he ran for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. Making a name for himself in the league, he'd likely get a few looks from teams pursuing to complete their one-two backfield. However, because the Chargers now realize Tolbert's ability when called upon, the team will likely do what they can to retain him.

No. 6: Darren Sproles

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    Since breaking out in 2008 with 330 rushing yards, 342 receiving yards and six touchdowns, Darren Sproles has made a name for himself as being the pro-typical scatback. Using his small shifty frame (5'6") and his blazing speed, Sproles has a strong ability to make defenders miss.

    After Mike Tolbert's production last season and the Chargers recent draft selection of Ryan Mathews, the future of Darren Sproles in San Diego may be fading dim. For a team that's looking to upgrade their return game and/or bring in a sneaky and reliable catcher out of the backfield, Sproles could fit the bill.

No. 5: Pierre Thomas

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    With his recent battles of trying to stay healthy, Pierre Thomas may be an expendable player for the New Orleans Saints this offseason. Fitting the bill as more of an all-around running back, Thomas has the ability to step into the right situation and start for an NFL team.

    Hopefully for Thomas, teams will look at his production in 2008 and 2009 when he rushed for a combined 1,418 yards, caught passes for 586 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. In my opinion, health concerns are the only thing holding Pierre Thomas back from ranking second or third on this list.

No. 4: Cedric Benson

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    After being selected fourth overall by the Chicago Bears in 2005, Cedric Benson was on his way to being labeled as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. But, since finding a new home in Cincinnati in 2008, Benson has built a solid reputation for running hard between the tackles and finding the end zone.

    Since joining the Bengals in 2008, Benson has rushed for 3,100 yards and 15 touchdowns, likely making him a top-priority for the Cincy front office this offseason. In the case that Benson does sign with another team, it could be a make or break situation, as I see Benson as the type of player that needs to be with the perfect team in the perfect situation.

    He's 29-years-old and teams may be cautious with a player that's inconsistent.

No. 3: Ronnie Brown

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    Although earning acclaim as being the multi-purpose back, Ronnie Brown has only posted one 1,000-yard season since 2005 and he hadn't played 16 games in a season until just last year. Now, at the age of 30, Brown is likely on his way out of Miami and some team will have a chance to grab an aging veteran that, I believe, can still offer solid production.

    I understand that the running back wall at 30 is a big leap of faith for most front offices, but Ronnie Brown is a tough player (regardless of injury history) and he finds ways to produce. In six seasons, Brown has 6,306 yards (rushing and receiving combined) and 38 touchdowns—making him retain some attractiveness for a team looking to add a second runner to their backfield.

No. 2: Ahmad Bradshaw

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    At the ripe age of just 25 and the increased production every season, Ahmad Bradshaw has made himself one of the hottest names on the free agent list this offseason.

    Bradshaw's future in the Big Apple is unknown at this point but there sure are going to be some clubs, other than the Giants, that are interested in acquiring his services. After rushing for 1.235 yards and eight touchdowns last season, Bradshaw continued to impress with his hard-nosed style of play.

    And, to boot, Bradshaw has shown his ability to receive out of the backfield lately, bringing in 68 catches for 521 yards the past two seasons.

No. 1: DeAngelo Williams

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    With the increasing roles of Mike Goodson and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina, the Panthers may be willing to part ways with 28-year-old and two-time 1,000-yard rusher DeAngelo Williams.

    Williams has all the tools of an elite running back in the NFL and he sits atop this list mainly because he'll be a clear-cut starter on a team before the 2011 season begins. The Miami Dolphins have been rumored to be interested in Williams' services and DeAngelo is reportedly all for it.

    Although Williams is coming off of an injury-plagued 2010, I believe him to be worth starting tailback dollars. In five NFL seasons, Williams has rushed for over 4,200 yards and 31 touchdowns. He also poses a threat out of the backfield, hauling in 922 yards and four touchdowns in his career.

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