2012 NFL Free Agents: Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agent Running Backs

Cedric Hopkins@FieldandCourtContributor IJanuary 4, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agent Running Backs

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    An unrestricted free agent in the NFL is a player without a home—he wants to put on a uniform, but like you, he's not on a team's roster. Then there's the restricted free agents. Those are the guys that want to move on, but their team is like a bad ex-girlfriend—as soon as they try to move on, their team just won't let go.

    In 2012, there will be 10 unrestricted free agent running backs that will have an immediate impact for whichever team is fortunate enough to sign them. Well, maybe except for Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant, but I wanted this to be an even 10 list. Anyway, the other eight will surely be impact players in 2012.

    In order to make it to the unrestricted status these guys had to have played four seasons and had their contract expire without an extension from their current team. Trust me, it's an optimal position to be in for them.

    Kind of like you with your Verizon contract—you want to make it to that two-year mark, but can never seem to get there because of that much needed upgrade. Now stop fretting over your cell phone plan and click below to find out where Beast Mode will be beasting next year. 

No. 10—Ryan Grant

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    The last few weeks of the season, Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant has looked like a decent back. But then you consider the fact that he hasn't faced an eight man front on any of his carries and you can see that he's just below being decent.

    The Green Bay Packers have carried four running backs this year: James Starks, Ryan Grant, John Kuhn and Brandon Saine. It's time for the Pack to cut bait on their weakest link—Grant. 

    It's clear that Grant has played his last season with the Packers. He's doing his best to run his way onto another team's roster. He's no longer a true No. 1 running back. But he could serve useful as a backup to a legitimate top-rusher with injury concerns.

    Landing Spot: Oakland Raiders (after Michael Bush leaves)

    The Raiders paid Michael Bush $2.61 million on a one-year contract for the 2011 season. They will be able to sign Grant for significantly less money than Bush's one-year deal and won't lose much production. 

No. 9—Cedric Benson

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    The Cincinnati Bengals struck gold with quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. With Cedric Benson as their running back, they've struck fool's gold. It's time to move on.

    Not only is Benson a mediocre runner that relies on volume rather than talent, he's one bar fight away from a lengthy suspension. And if we look at Benson's track record, that bar fight is just a few weeks away.

    In Benson's four seasons in southern Ohio, he has averaged over 4 yards per carry in only one of those seasons—and that was in a year where he played only 13 games. 

    Landing Spot: Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts are relying on Joseph Addai to fill the shoes of a featured back—something he cannot do. He is currently being outplayed by draft disappointment Donald Brown. Due about $5 million in 2012, Addai will be replaced by Benson for half the cost to the Colts. 

No. 8—Mike Tolbert

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    San Diego Chargers running back Mike Tolbert is the complete package—he can pass block, catch out of the backfield, pound the rock between the tackles and is a goal line specialist. There's no question that he'll seek employment outside of southern California in hopes of doubling his $1.835 million salary. 

    He's worth it. And with Ryan Mathews having a strangle-hold on the feature back role, he won't see a large pay day in San Diego. 

    Landing Spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

    The Bucs have learned that 2010 sensation LeGarrette Blount is not the running back of their future, but Tolbert will be. With a struggling offensive line and young quarterback, the Bucs need a capable back that can pick up the blitz and give Freeman more time to pass. Tolbert is that guy. 

    Blount is only valuable as a clock-killing back. And that's something that the Bucs won't need any time soon. They first have to learn how to get the lead in order to kill the clock.

No. 7—BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    In 2010, New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for over 1,000 yards and had 13 scores. He had the look of the Pats featured running back, if ever there was such a thing. 

    In 2011, we've seen a changing of the guards. Stevan Ridley has overtaken Green-Ellis in the Pats' backfield. Typically, Green-Ellis served as the goal-line back, but in recent weeks Ridley has assumed that role. 

    It's time for Green-Ellis to take his talents to another team. The time to strike is now for the 26-year-old because if he plays another season with the Pats, his value will tank.

    Landing Spot: Cincinnati Bengals

    With Cedric Benson on his high horse to the Indianapolis Colts, Green-Ellis will be able to add to the Bengals rising offense. The only problem for the Law Firm is that he won't be able to get much more than his current $1.835 million salary. He's got to show more on the field before a team will sign him to a multi-year major payday. 

No. 6—Michael Bush

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    With the arrival of Ryan Grant in Oakland (under my scenario), backup running back Michael Bush will need to find another team. Whichever team picks up the hyped-up Bush needs to beware. 

    Bush averaged 4.44 yards per carry on his first 134 carries of the 2011 season and a dismal 3.13 yards per carry on his last 122 carries. The man simply wore down as a featured back. Overall this season, Grant has looked just as good as Bush.

    Teams will look to Bush's average of 116.3 total yards per game, but forget that he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry (Grant, 4.2 YPC). While some claim that Bush may be franchised by the Raiders, that would be absurd. He would receive $7.7 million in that scenario. He's not worth that figure.

    Landing Spot: Kansas City Chiefs

    He's likely to be overvalued in free agency by the Chiefs. While they are anticipating having Jamaal Charles back in the fold, they will need a capable backup/change-of-pace back. Jackie Battle is not filling that role well. 

No. 5—Peyton Hillis

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    The Cleveland Browns bruiser Peyton Hillis suffered through contract issues and injuries that rendered him ineffective in the early part of the season.

    In the nine games that Hillis had at least 10 carries, he only averaged over 4 yards per carry in two of them. This, despite playing behind a formidable offensive line. 

    Turning 26 in late January, the power back will be best served to pack his bags and pull his moving truck to another team. He still has a lot left in the tank and will be a strong candidate to bounce back in 2012. 

    Landing Spot: Minnesota Vikings

    With Adrian Peterson likely to start the season on the PUP list, the Vikings will need to shore up their backfield. While Toby Gerhart runs hard, his production pales in comparison to Hillis' ability. 

No. 4—Kevin Smith

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    With the dominance that running back Kevin Smith has shown since joining the Detroit Lions in early November, the Lions should do all they can to retain his services. 

    With Mikel Leshoure still unable to run after undergoing surgery on his Achilles' tendon, the Lions cannot rely upon his return. They also need to be concerned with Smith and his knack for sustaining injuries. As I was writing this, Kevin Smith suffered what was described as a "nasty" injury in practice, according to Paula Pasche of The Oakland Press

    Landing Spot: Detroit Lions

    The Lions will be able to re-sign Smith to a one-year deal while they wait to see what production they can get out of Leshoure once he returns from one of the more severe injuries in sports. 

No. 3—Marshawn Lynch

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    Marshawn Lynch has posted career numbers this season with the Seattle Seahawks. He had plenty of motivation—it was a contract year for Beast Mode. 

    There's no question that Lynch ran his way into a payday. The only question is who's going to sign his checks.

    Landing Spot: Seattle Seahawks

    Lynch is a prime candidate for the franchise tag for the 2012 season. The Hawks will want to ensure that Lynch's performance wasn't a fluke before handing him a multi-year deal. The tag will mean Lynch will pocket approximately $7.7 million in 2012. He received $1.14 million on a one-year deal in 2011. 

No. 2—Matt Forte

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    The path has been cleared for Matt Forte to sign a long-term deal with the Chicago Bears—general manager Jerry Angelo has been let go. Forte still says that the two side are not talking, however. 

    When the two sides start talking, Forte should demand at least the numbers that Titans running back Chris Johnson received (six year, $56 million). Forte has proven that he's just as capable as Johnson, if not better. 

    The Bears have been reluctant to secure Forte for their future even after he was one of the most productive running backs in the league this year. And after watching backup running back Kahlil Bell dash for 314 yards on 68 carries (4.6 YPC), the Bears' reluctance may grow deeper. 

    Landing Spot: Denver Broncos

    After Forte makes it clear that he will hold out longer than Vincent Jackson did, the Bears franchise him with the agreement that he will be traded to the Broncos for Demaryius Thomas and a high draft pick. 

No. 1—Ray Rice

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    Ray Rice finished the year with career highs in rushing yards, touchdowns and receiving yards. He also crossed the chalk line 15 times this season. 

    If the Ravens want to keep Rice and his 4.69 yards per carry on the roster, then they will have to dish out some serious cash. 

    The Ravens could always use the franchise tag on Rice, but that would be a cop-out. And it would also likely lead to a holdout. Rice would scoff at being paid $7.7 million for one year when his value is much more than that. 

    Baltimore has gone 11-0 when they feed Rice the ball 25 or more times. All four of the Ravens' losses have come in games when Rice has had 20 or fewer touches. The Week 7 Jacksonville game was very perplexing when Rice received only eight carries in a close contest.

    In other words, Rice is the foundation of Baltimore's success.

    Landing Spot: Baltimore Ravens

    The Ravens will secure Rice to a long-term deal and look to add a capable wide receiver to give quarterback Joe Flacco someone to throw to and take the pressure off the run game.

    Now that you know where the top-10 UFA running backs will land, click here to find out where the top-50 NFL free agents of 2012 will be playing.