The growing consensus in the NFL these days is that running back talent can be found anywhere, so placing a premium on the position in the off-season becomes difficult. Denver's C.J. Anderson, Detroit's Joique Bell and Houston's Arian Foster, to name a few, are all undrafted success stories who carried their teams' ground games in 2014.
[daily_cut.nfl]Still, the league's top four leading rushers last season—DeMarco Murray, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch—were taken within the first three rounds of the draft. Only McCoy's team missed out on the postseason.
There is a balance to be struck somewhere between punting on the running back position entirely and spending without constraint to upgrade the backfield.
"I know over the years we’ve talked about devaluing running backs," said Arizona general manager Steve Keim. "At the end of the day, you have to have a few guys who can carry the load."
Atop the free-agent class this year, assuming he does not re-sign with Dallas in the coming week, will be DeMarco Murray. Behind arguably the league's top offensive line, Murray took on an almost unfathomable workload in 2014: 393 carries and 450 total touches. For comparison, Bell was the next closest with 373 touches before an injury ended his season early.
Murray will set the standard for his fellow running backs once free agency opens on March 10. How much money teams are willing to commit to the position, especially ahead of the draft, is rather unclear.
Sizing up what's ahead for the NFL's free-agent running backs:
• Mark Ingram: Something about a player breaking out in a contract year makes front-office folks nervous. Ingram did just that, finally taking advantage of an expanded role in New Orleans's backfield to pile up 964 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
He's just 25, so perhaps the former Heisman Trophy winner is just now finding his groove in the NFL. Buyer beware, though: In his first three NFL seasons, Ingram averaged 3.7 touchdowns and fewer than 500 yards.
• Justin Forsett: The 29-year-old Forsett revived his career with a 1,266-rushing yard, 44-catch campaign in Gary Kubiak's Baltimore offense last season. So, what happens to Forsett now that Kubiak has moved on to Denver? That's the question interested teams have to figure out this off-season. Forsett's eight touchdowns last season matched his total from the first five seasons of his career with three different clubs.
• Reggie Bush: His name is larger than his game at this point. Bush, who turned 30 on Monday, followed up the most productive season of his career (1,512 yards from scrimmage in 2013) with an injury-plagued letdown (297 yards rushing and 550 total yards from scrimmage). He still can break off the occasional big play, but it would be hard to count on him as much more than a change-of-pace back who sees eight to 10 touches per game. Anything beyond that would test Bush's health.
• Chris Johnson: It's understandable if you want to write off Johnson, who joins Bush in crossing the 30-year-old barrier this September. After all, he had to scratch and claw his way past 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, then bottomed out with a 663-yard campaign for the Jets last year.
Truth is, he is better than the Jets—and, to some extent, the '13 Titans—made him look. Johnson still can sneak out of the backfield as a receiver (66 combined catches over the past two seasons) and will burst through to the second and third levels on occasion. The days of CJ2K are long gone, but at what likely will be a bargain-basement price, Johnson is worth the gamble.
• Roy Helu: The ex-Washington back may be this offseason's Toby Gerhart—an underutilized backup running back who finally finds a starting opportunity. Granted, Gerhart was a 2014 flop in Jacksonville. Helu ought to have a little more luck, if only because he has proved to be such an adept pass catcher (42 receptions on 47 targets last season). While comparable options are available in this year's draft class, Helu has a résumé indicating he's ready for an increased role.
• Stevan Ridley: Ridley suffered a torn ACL and MCL back in October, so there is no guarantee that he will be ready in time for training camp. That's perfect for a team hoping to score a free-agent steal. Ridley, 26, may be headed toward a one-year contract, which means he'll be plenty motivated. When he was healthy for New England, Ridley consistently churned out yards between the tackles. In spite of Bill Belichick's love for a RB-by-committee approach, Ridley posted 1,263 yards rushing in 2012 and averaged 4.3 yards on 178 carries in 2013.
Injured player to watch
• Ahmad Bradshaw: Keeping Bradshaw on the field has become an increasingly difficult task. He landed on injured reserve with a neck injury in 2013, and his 2014 season was cut short by a broken leg. When he can suit up, however, few backs in the league are as effective in a combo blocking/pass-catching role. Bradshaw also has averaged 4.5 yards per carry or better each of the past three years.
An offseason charge of marijuana possession (and a possible fine or suspension to come) will dilute the Bradshaw market further. A savvy general manager will come along and kick the tires eventually.
Veteran to watch
• Frank Gore: Has Gore's time in San Francisco come to an end after 10 seasons? Possibly, although even with Carlos Hyde pushing for more playing time, Gore topped 1,100 yards rushing for the fourth consecutive year. The 49ers, oddly, all but ignored Gore in several losses, but he was instrumental when their offense was clicking.
"Frank's just the Energizer battery, he just keeps on ticking," 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. "The last two games of the season, I think you saw what Frank still has left in the tank. [Gore rushed for 302 yards combined in Weeks 16 and 17.] A very good football player. One of the most passionate, if not the most passionate football player I've ever been around. So, I still think he's got it in him. I know that he still believes it. ... We're going to do what we can to get him back as a 49er."
Biggest wild cards
• Adrian Peterson: Now that his suspension has been reversed, making him eligible to return to the field for the first time since Week 1 of the 2014 season, Peterson just has to find out where he's actually playing.
The Vikings currently have him under contract for a whopping $12.75 million in base salary and a $15.4 million cap number, both the NFL's highest at the position. But they could save $13 million by cutting or trading him. The latter could be a hard sell unless the Vikings eat some of that salary or Peterson agrees to a contract extension.
"Adrian Peterson is under contract with us," Vikings GM Rick Spielman said at the combine. "He’s a very unique football player. I’m sure Adrian is doing everything he can do off the field. He made a mistake, he admitted a mistake. ...
"But there’s no question, I don’t think any—and I’ve said this before—I don’t think any team in the NFL wouldn’t want an Adrian Peterson-caliber running back on their football team."
• Ray Rice: Another former star trying to rebuild his NFL reputation after an ugly and very public off-field incident. It feels like Rice has been in the league forever, but he's still just 28, so he should have at least a couple of productive football-playing years left. Of course, he hasn't suited up since a dismal 2013 season that saw him average 3.1 yards per carry.
We've seen enough players earn second (and third and fourth) chances to know that front offices can overlook personal misdeeds if there is talent to be found. The question is: Does Rice have enough talent left to help a team?
• Return of the Round 1 back?: The draft is an X-factor at every position when it comes to analyzing free agency. It's of particular interest this year at running back, however, because of the apparent abundance of talent at the position. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley are being discussed as possible first-round picks ... and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Will a team try to sign someone like Bradshaw when Ameer Abdullah may fall to them in the draft? Why pay up for Forsett if workhorses like David Cobb can be had in the middle rounds?
The loaded draft class could delay how actively teams chase free-agent running backs. Veterans looking for new contracts may have to wait until the draft wraps on May 2, when GMs have a better idea of what their depth chart looks like.