Matching Top Free-Agent Running Backs on the Market to Best Team Fits
It’s mid-February, and the NFL’s version of the hot stove league is starting to warm up a bit.
Over the last week or so, we have seen players get cut due to salary-cap reasons as clubs look to open up room to re-sign their own or get ready to make a major acquisition.
Here, we take a look at the top 10 running backs who will be available (or, in the case of one player, available immediately). If you’re looking for a complete list of players at the position (one that could change daily), Spotrac has the skinny.
Keep in mind that most of these running backs aren’t available until March 9 at the earliest and in the case of some may never see free agency at all. We will decide which player fits best with which team based on needs and (of course) finances. We’ll also point out those who we figure won’t leave their current clubs anytime soon.
The following 10 players are listed in alphabetical order and not in order of preference. We’re here to make your shopping experience is as straightforward as possible.
Matt Asiata (Potential UFA, Minnesota Vikings)
Four seasons, 58 games, 1,316 total yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns.
That's not exactly an overwhelming resume for any running back. But in the case of Matt Asiata, those numbers are just fine when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings.
That’s because the franchise has Adrian Peterson, who led the league in rushing this past season. But what stands out about Asiata, who filled the void left by Peterson’s absence for nearly all of 2014, is that he’s capable of putting up respectable numbers.
A year ago, the former undrafted free agent played in 15 games and made nine starts, leading the team with 570 rushing yards, finishing second on the Vikings with 44 receptions and totaling a club-high 10 touchdowns. He also scored a pair of two-point conversions.
With Peterson back this past season, Asiata’s role decreased; he wound up finishing fourth on the club in rushing behind Peterson, fellow backup Jerick McKinnon and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. With McKinnon in the fold, look for Asiata to wind up with a division rival that ran the ball for the fewest yards in the league in 2015.
Best Fit: Detroit Lions
Prediction: Signs with the Lions
Joique Bell (Released by Detroit Lions)
The journeyman performer, who had brief stints with the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles before arriving in the Motor City in 2011, showed signs of being a reliable runner once he took the field for the team in 2012. From 82 carries that season to more than double that total in 2013 (166) to a career-best 223 attempts the following season, Bell ran for a combined 1,924 yards and 18 touchdowns in that three-year span. He also caught a combined 139 passes in those seasons.
Last year, injuries hampered his performance and availability as Bell totaled only 597 yards from scrimmage in 13 contests, scoring four touchdowns. It was one reason the Lions finished last in the NFL in rushing in 2015.
Now that he’s available to sign elsewhere immediately, where would be the best landing spot? It’s worth noting that the New York Jets have a trio of running backs (Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley) that could hit the open market on March 9.
We expect at least one of them to return (as you will see), but adding Bell now would give the team a little peace of mind for the next few weeks.
Best Fit: New York Jets
Prediction: Signs with the Jets
Matt Forte (Potential UFA, Chicago Bears)
While injuries played a big factor in running back Matt Forte’s lack of production in 2015 and limited him to only 13 games, he still managed to lead the Chicago Bears in rushing with 898 yards and finish third on the team with 44 receptions (good for 389 yards and three scores).
Forte’s seven overall touchdowns tied for the team lead with 2015 rookie standout Jeremy Langford, who will now become the main threat out of the Chicago backfield now that the Bears have opted to move on from their eight-year veteran.
Via Instagram earlier this week, Forte announced he would not be back with the franchise in which he amassed has 12,718 yards from scrimmage and 64 touchdowns in 120 regular-season games:
Despite my wishes, my days as a member of the Chicago Bears have sadly come to an end. I was informed earlier this week from the GM that they will not be attempting to re-sign me in free agency.
I will remain forever grateful for my time spent in Chicago and being able to play for an organization with such a rich history. My only regret is not being able to win a Lombardi trophy for the best fans in all of sports. I’m excited about the next chapter of my NFL career. But, Chicago will always be home.
Yes, a team such as the New England Patriots could use the versatile skills of the two-time Pro Bowler. But his price tag may be a bit much for that team, and frankly, a club in the AFC South could use him a whole lot more.
Best Fit: New England Patriots
Prediction: Signs with the Tennessee Titans
Ronnie Hillman (Potential UFA, Denver Broncos)
The 2015 Denver Broncos parlayed an overwhelming defense and a persistent ground attack into a Super Bowl title.
While the team averaged a not-so-impressive 99.3 yards per game on the ground in three playoff wins, Denver did it courtesy of 91 running plays, thereby controlling the tempo. Running backs C.J. Anderson (54) and Ronnie Hillman (32) combined for 86 of those 91 attempts. Hillman totaled a mere 54 yards on those 32 carries, and his longest run of the postseason was just nine yards.
During the regular season, the roles were reversed. Hillman led the team with 863 yards rushing on 207 carries and ran for seven touchdowns; Anderson rang up 720 yards on 152 attempts with five scores.
They certainly made for a terrific one-two punch in the Mile High City. But the Broncos have other key personnel to re-sign; they may let their leading rusher this past season test the market and hope that Juwan Thompson can fill his spot should Hillman opt for a change of scenery.
Best Fit: Denver Broncos
Prediction: Signs with the Seattle Seahawks
Chris Ivory (Potential UFA, New York Jets)
When it was all said and done, the New York Jets finished 10th in the NFL in rushing this past season, and only four players in the league topped running back Chris Ivory’s career-high 1,070 yards on the ground.
A closer look shows that nearly half (460 yards) of Ivory’s total came in his first four games of the season.
Following the strong start, he ran for 100-plus yards just once in his final 11 games and seemed to become less of a part of the game plan, be it due to injury or design.
Now, Ivory can hit the open market next month. And keep in mind that teammates Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley are also scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, which means Zac Stacy could be the only running back on the roster under contract come March 9.
If Ivory does sign elsewhere, where does he fit best? Rich Cimini of ESPN.com has a few ideas, and one suggestion won’t go over well with the New York Jets faithful.
In our attempt to prevent mass hysteria in the Big Apple, we’ll say Ivory remains with the Jets. All kidding aside, he’s a perfect fit for what this team does best.
Best Fit: New York Jets
Prediction: Re-signs with the Jets
Chris Johnson (Potential UFA, Arizona Cardinals)
Just when it appeared that running back Chris Johnson’s days in the NFL were numbered, the Arizona Cardinals gave the former Pro Bowler a chance to rack up some numbers for them.
While rookie David Johnson emerged as the main threat out of the backfield by season’s end, it was Chris Johnson who carried the load for the most part early in the year before going down with a broken leg. Despite missing the final five games of 2015, he still led the team with 814 yards rushing.
Going forward, David Johnson will be the primary running back for Bruce Arians’ club. His 12 total touchdowns were tops for the 2015 NFC West champions.
What about the artist still occasionally known as C2K? The Miami Dolphins offense could certainly use a home run threat out of the backfield (what team couldn’t?), especially if the team loses Lamar Miller to free agency (more on that later). But even if the club retains Miller, Johnson would be a nice option and give last season’s 23rd-ranked running attack a little more oomph.
Best Fit: Oakland Raiders
Prediction: Signs with the Miami Dolphins
Doug Martin (Potential UFA, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
It’s been an up-and-down four seasons for Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin.
The 31st overall pick in the 2012 draft turned in an impressive rookie season, rushing for 1,454 yards while finishing third in the league with 1,926 yards from scrimmage. His 12 total touchdowns were tied for sixth in the NFL that season.
Over the next two seasons, injuries limited Martin to 17 games, 1,080 yards from scrimmage and three scores.
This past season, he rebounded in a big way and finished second in the league in rushing with 1,402 yards, topped only by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (1,487).
Here’s the rub: The Buccaneers failed to pick up the fifth-year option for the former first-round pick and now risk losing him to free agency.
“We’ve had great discussions, and I think it’s pretty mutual he’d like to be here and we’d like to have him,” said Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”
When it’s all said and done, while Martin may indeed test the market (and is looking for a big payday, according to Stroud), he may find out that there’s no place like home.
Best Fit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Prediction: Re-signs with the Buccaneers
Lamar Miller (Potential UFA, Miami Dolphins)
It sounds somewhat hard to believe, but only seven players in the league ran for 1,000-plus yards this past season.
One of those was Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,089 yards with his new team but obviously didn’t come close to reaching the NFL-high 1,845 yards totaled by running back DeMarco Murray in 2014.
What does that have to do with Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next month? The feeling here is that he could be ideal for the Dallas offense, one that finished ninth in the NFL in rushing this past season but obviously fell off dramatically from the previous season despite the best efforts from McFadden.
After totaling a career-high 1,099 yards rushing in 2014, Miller ran for 872 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He also hauled in a personal-best 47 passes, good for 397 yards and a pair of scores. He’s started all 32 games for the Dolphins the past two seasons and has scored 19 touchdowns over that span.
Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys
Prediction: Signs with the Cowboys
Alfred Morris (Potential UFA, Washington Redskins)
What’s not to like about two-time Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris?
A sixth-round draft choice from Florida Atlantic in 2012, he’s played and started every game in his four-year career with the Washington Redskins. After running for 1,000-plus yards in each of his first three NFL seasons, the former Pro Bowler still led the team with 751 yards rushing this year on a career-low 202 carries.
Speaking of attempts, Morris’ have gone down each season, from 335 as a rookie to 276 in 2013 to 265 one year later and down to the aforementioned 202 this past season. And according to John Keim of ESPN.com, his future with the team is up in the air.
The Redskins like what they have seen from Matt Jones, who totaled 794 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage as a rookie this past season but offset that with losing four of his five fumbles. Those ball-security issues need to be addressed.
Morris seems like the kind of workhorse a team such as the Dallas Cowboys would appreciate. But the sense is that he could be more effective these days with a lighter workload while being part of a backfield by committee.
Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys
Prediction: Signs with the New England Patriots
James Starks (Potential UFA, Green Bay Packers)
While numbers don’t lie, they may play tricks on occasion.
One year after ranking 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (119.8 average), the Green Bay Packers finished 12th in the league in the same category (115.6 average). That's hardly a drop-off of major concern.
However, the ups and downs of running back Eddie Lacy this past season made it tough for Mike McCarthy’s club to sustain any kind of consistency. In each of his two previous NFL campaigns, Lacy totaled at least 1,100 yards on the ground last season and was a major factor in the passing game.
So it may surprise some people to know that running back James Starks put up career numbers in 2015. Yes, he played in all 16 contests but started only four games. His career-high 601 rushing yards was second to Lacy on the team (758 yards), but Starks led the Packers with 993 total yards from scrimmage.
Simply put, the Packers need Starks as much as they ever have. He offers a nice change of pace from Lacy and still doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear after six seasons.
Best Fit: Green Bay Packers
Prediction: Re-signs with the Packers