Brian Westbook and 5 of the Most Underrated Free Agent Running Backs

Brenda SummersCorrespondent IIMay 12, 2011

Brian Westbook and 5 of the Most Underrated Free Agent Running Backs

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    This is the second part of a series that takes a look at the underrated players in free agency this year. 

    Running backs are heavily loaded in this offseason group of players looking to either be signed, re-signed or traded.

    There are new guys who didn't get drafted and vets who didn't get a contract. 

    Some just don't seem to have a place left on the team because the depth chart is too full.  This is another case of everyone wanting the players believed to be the best in the league and pushing out the others who didn't do as well as expected.

    The average career length of an NFL player is anywhere from 3.5 years to six years.  If they happened to be a No. 1 draft pick, their career length vastly improves to 9.3 years.  Then, if they were good enough to play in the Pro Bowl at least once, that number reaches 11.7 years.

    However, if you are a running back, teams tend to prefer the younger guys who still have their top speed and leg strength.  Last season, the average age of the "stud back" players like Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Peyton Hillis, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, etc... was 24 years old.  The other running backs, not considered to be as high-tiered, averaged an age of 26.1 years.

    Therefore there is good news if you are a running back who is young and a first round pick who will eventually land in the Pro Bowl someday.  If you don't happen to fall in this list, then you might need to consider another line of work.  

    Regardless of statistics, using multiple running backs on offensive schemes is becoming more popular than using the one back (Vikings) who ends up doing all of the work.  The average rushing attempts in the NFL is approximately 14,000, so it would seem wise to spread that workload around if you want to keep players off the injured list.

    The players on this list are hoping to be added to a team who needs help and/or depth at running back. They have plenty of leg left in them and would immediately add to the strength of the offensive roster.

Noel Divine: West Virginia—Undrafted

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    First of all, can someone help me understand why he wasn't drafted?  Okay, he's not very tall at 5'8", but he has incredible speed (4.34 40-yard dash) and can use the juke move like its nobody's business.  He was also adopted by Deion Sanders.  Doesn't that count for anything?

    Noel Devine did not have a stellar senior campaign because of an injury, but he still racked up 4,317 yards for 29 TDs in his career at West Virginia.  There were character issues when he was younger, but he seems to have cleaned up his act.  He also appears to lose track of the ball in his hands when he is already compromised, health-wise.  He had six fumbles last year which is more than his other three years combined.

    Devine will never be a power back, but put a little more weight on this guy and he'll slide past everyone if he has good blocking in front of him. Once he's out in an open field he would be very difficult to catch.  Devine is a sprinter with good vision and powerful acceleration.

    He had a toe injury last year but played through it and still managed just under 1000 yards.

    This guy may be small framed and not an effective blocker, but he can run.  If a team is looking for a guy who isn't an every-down player but can shoot through holes or take off on the outside for major gains, they don't need to look any further than Devine.

    He is probably not the most underrated back on this list but he deserved to be drafted in the later rounds.  Devine needs good solid offensive protection around him to get out, so I would hope he gets picked up by a team with a big front line.

Derrick Locke: Kentucky—Undrafted

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    Derrick Locke was another undrafted player this year.  He's another shorter back at 5'8", but a has a stockier build than Devine.  Locke also had a great 40-yard time of 4.37 at the Combine. 

    He was originally brought in as a sprinter on Kentucky's track team.  Locke wanted to play football though, and quickly earned the respect of the coaches who added them to their roster just weeks later.

    Locke and Devine have a few things in common, including that they were both injured during their senior years which effected their running games.  They both ending up posting under 1000 yards their final season, which may have harmed their draft stock.  Locke was projected to go in the sixth or seventh round, but his phone never rang.

    This is a guy who should definitely be given a chance to shine in the NFL.  He is driven, and attended a training camp this offseason hoping that it would boost his chances at getting drafted.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way for him, but it does tell you something about his work ethic.

    Locke rushed for 2,618 yards and scored 22 TDs for the Wildcats.  He also caught 95 passes for 883 yards and three TDs.  If you had any questions about his abilities as a kick returner, he holds the school record for kickoff return average at 27.1 yards per return.

    Locke should have been a "lock" for being drafted this year.  Some team is going to get very lucky this offseason if they are smart enough to pick him up.  He doesn't quit and plays like he has something to prove every down.  He has the qualities to be one of the NFL's "little big men."

Brian Westbrook: San Fransisco 49ers—UFA

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    Westbrook schooling PhillyJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    If we are going to consider the first two undrafted players, let's look at another RB who was listed at 5'8" and 200 lbs in the draft (though he is listed at 5'10"). Brian Westbrook is 31 years old and has been in the NFL for nine seasons.  This season would be his 10th, but he finds himself as an UFA againand there has been no news of anyone chomping at the bit to get him.

    He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers last year as an UFA after spending his first eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    Some may believe that he is at the end of his career, and others may believe he's still got a lot of game left in him.  Either way, Westbrook my be looking at an uncertain future.

    Regardless of where he lands or if he lands anywhere, it would be difficult to argue that he emerged as one of the best RBs throughout this decade.

    Westbrook (9,051) sits only behind LaDainian Tomlinson (11,582), Steven Jackson (10,618) and Thomas Jones (9,550) for total rushing yards from scrimmage from 2004-2010.  He is also the leader in receiving yards for a RB since 2004 with 3,522, in receiving TDs with 26, total receptions with 396 and yards after catch with 3,302.

    Yet, he is an unrestricted free agent with no place to call home.

    Of course he could stay with the 49ers.  But there are rumors that he would like to return to the Eagles.

    It is true that Westbrook's production was not as high in the past two years.  One reason is because he hasn't had anywhere near the number of carries he was given from 2003-2008 (low of 117 in 2003 and a high of 278 in 2007).  In 2009, Westbrook had 61 carries with the Eagles and in 2010 he had 77 carries with the 49ers. 

    His yards per carry hasn't changed all that much with the lowest since 2002 being four yards (2005 and 2008) and the highest being 5.2 in 2003.  He still averages 4.6 yards per carry.

    Maybe we should return to the formula outlined in the beginning. 

    Westbrook was taken in the third round has been in two Pro Bowls.  The third round pick would hurt his longevity so let's subtract a year for each round after the first which would put Westbrook at 7.3 years. 

    However, the two Pro Bowls bode he was in increases his longevity to at least 11.7 years in the league.  If he just went to one then he would be at about 9.5 years, but since he was in two I'll give him another year, putting Westbrook at 10.5 years. (I am being a little tongue-in-cheek with these stats but they give us something interesting to use to calculate the potential years left for RBs in the league).

    Given the very sophisticated statistical analysis, Westbrook should be good for another one and a half seasons.

    The reality is that what has hurt Westbrook the most is his extensive list of injuries.  He does manage to come back from them, however, and as we have already seen, his average yards per carry really hasn't been all that effected.  He just needs to be healthy and on the field.

    I'm not sure exactly where Westbrook is rated overall this season, but I feel fairly confident that most teams see him as an injury risk and a guy who probably has his best years behind him.

    Westbrook made this list primarily due to the possibility that he will be overlooked because of the sheer numbers of younger veteran RBs in free agency this year.

    If teams do overlook him, perhaps they should think again.  Westbrook should be used as a veteran mentor for some of these young guys on anyone's roster.  He may be limited to how many carries he can handle and he may be an injury risk, but you can't deny his worth as a veteran player. 

    He should be given another year in the NFL.

Kenneth Darby: St. Louis Rams—UFA

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    Kenneth Darby is in his fifth year in the NFL.  He has played for the St. Louis Rams for the past three seasons behind starter, Steven Jackson.  This year, the 28-year-old finds himself as a unrestricted free agent which means the Rams chose not to tender him.

    Darby isn't the fastest RB in free agency and may not be the strongest, but he is worth a good look as a second back.  The Rams will be looking for someone who they believe can add more to their running game than Darby did.  Whoever they bring in will have to fight for touches because Jackson gets about 70 percent of them.

    The Rams are not expected to even keep Darby on their roster even as a third RB option.  But he deserves consideration by other teams. 

    Though Darby only averaged 3.1 yards per carry last season he did score a couple of TDs.  He's in a tough position with the Rams because they rely so heavily on Jackson.  Basically, if you're name isn't Jackson than you're just seen as someone who is taking touches or receptions away from their star RB.

    Darby is a versatile player who can be used on special teams, as a solid short yardage RB who rarely fumbles the ball (one fumble in his entire NFL career), and as a receiving RB on the offensive line.

    Darby should be picked up by a team who will allow him to develop into the kind of RB that he is.  He will never be Jackson but he can add a lot of depth to a team's running back corps and pick up extra yardage. 

    In college, Darby had two seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing and surpassed Shaun Alexander as Alabama's career leading rusher.  He has the talent but needs to be coached to step up his game.

Brandon Jackson: Green Bay Packers—RFA

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    Brandon Jackson, who is entering his fifth season in the NFL, is reported to be expendable by the Green Bay Packers who drafted him in the second round in 2007.  The initial reports were that they did not even offer him a tender but this has been refuted.  He now reportedly has a third-round tender placed on him.

    However, if there is a new collective bargaining agreement, Jackson would become an unrestricted free agent.  Some already have James Starks lined up as his replacement.

    Jackson, generally been used as a third-down back, had his best year last season with 703 rushing yards, three rushing TDs, 342 receiving yards and one TD.  He's also a very good blocker which is nice to have in a running back.

    It would be a bit puzzling if the Packers did let him go, but they do have depth at this position and may be willing to get a third round pick for him.

    Personally, I think any team would be lucky to get him.  He may run for big pickups but that's not what he's used for.  Jackson will get the third down yardage to keep the offense on the field.  How many teams could use that kind of player?  Several.

    Jackson won't stick around long if free agency comes to fruition.  But putting a guy on the potential trade chopping block who had a very solid year makes him under appreciated if not underrated.  The Packers want someone like Adrian Peterson who can give them a true-threat running game.  Jackson didn't turn out to be that guy but he will be some team's power back.

    They'd also like to get some money out of Jackson.  Since he had a good year why not slap a tender on him and get as much as you can?  That's what they are hoping to do.

    I don't see Jackson staying in Packer land next year.  So where will he end up?  Maybe the Vikings will stop using Peterson on every rushing play and add Jackson to push the ball up the field.