A look at potential free agents by position heading into the NFL shopping season. This installment features the running backs.
By Jay Skurski
News Sports Reporter
It’s a good year to need a running back.
Four backs among the top 13 in rushing yards are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents when the NFL’s new league year starts next Wednesday, including two of the top five in Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and the New York Jets’ Chris Ivory.
Martin, 27, finished No. 2 in the league with 1,402 yards on 288 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per rush, while Ivory, 28, gained 1,070 yards on 247 carries to finish fifth.
Both of them are on the right side of 30 at a position that values youth perhaps more so than any other in football.
Evidence of that can be found in the Bears’ handling of eight-year veteran Matt Forte, who has been informed Chicago will not try to re-sign him in free agency. The 30-year-old leaves the team with 8,602 rushing yards, which is ranked No. 2 in team history behind only Walter Payton. Forte missed three games last season, but still finished with 898 rushing yards and caught 44 passes for 389 yards.
His durability, however, probably hurt his chances of staying with Chicago. Forte has logged 2,035 carries in 120 games and also caught 487 passes, including an NFL-record 102 by a running back in 2014. That’s a lot of hits at a rugged position.
Here is a look at the rest of the unrestricted free-agent crop at running back, along with how the Buffalo Bills may approach the position.
Potential starters: Lamar Miller, Miami; Ronnie Hillman, Denver; Alfred Morris, Washington, LeGarrette Blount, New England.
The skinny: Miller averaged just 12 carries per game last season and has said recently he’s looking to be a “feature back” with whichever team he signs with. … Hillman easily had the best season of his four-year career in 2015, gaining 863 yards on 207 carries. He has had issues with fumbles, though, with eight in his career. … The situation with Morris is the opposite. The two-time Pro Bowler is coming off the least-productive season of his four-year career, as he gained just 751 yards on 202 carries, an average of just 3.7 yards per rush. Whichever team signs him will be counting on that being a one-year dip in production and not the start of a career decline. … Blount gained 703 yards on 165 carries for the Patriots and scored six touchdowns. He’s been productive for New England the last three seasons, but the Patriots are famous for letting players go in free agency earlier than some might expect.
Aging veterans (30 or older): Reggie Bush, San Francisco; Fred Jackson, Seattle; Steven Jackson, New England; Chris Johnson, Arizona; Tim Hightower, New Orleans; Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis; Pierre Thomas, Washington; James Starks, Green Bay; Joique Bell, Detroit.
The skinny: Bush is trying to come back from a torn ACL suffered when he slipped on concrete inside St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome. He’s currently suing the city of St. Louis. … Fred Jackson, 35, remains the league’s oldest player at the position, but wants to keep playing. He spent last season as Seattle’s third-down back after being released by the Bills. … Steven Jackson appeared in the final two games of the regular season for the Patriots, as well as both of New England’s playoff games. … Johnson had a rebirth in the desert, gaining 814 yards in 11 games before a broken leg landed him on injured reserve. … Hightower had 327 rushing yards, 129 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the final four weeks as the Saints’ starter. … Bradshaw has suffered season-ending injuries in the last three years. … Thomas played four games with Washington at the end of 2015, gaining 84 yards on nine catches and rushing for 52 yards on 11 carries. … Starks, the 30-year-old Niagara Falls native, is coming off the best season of his career, gaining 601 yards rushing and 392 receiving. … Bell turned down a pay cut to stay with the Lions.
Roster depth: Matt Asiata, Minnesota; Montee Ball, New England; Bryce Brown, Seattle; Travaris Cadet, New Orleans; Shaun Draughn, San Francisco; Lance Dunbar, Dallas; Dan Herron, Indianapolis; Kendall Hunter, New Orleans; Bernard Pierce, Jacksonville; Chris Polk, Houston; Bilal Powell, New York Jets; Bobby Rainey, Tampa Bay; Jacquizz Rodgers, Chicago; Stevan Ridley, New York Jets; Jordan Todman, Pittsburgh; Robert Turbin, Dallas.
The skinny: Asiata’s numbers predictably dipped in 2015 with the return of Adrian Peterson to the Vikings, but he’s a serviceable member of a rotation. … Ball was arrested in February and charged with battery in an incident involving his girlfriend. He’ll have a hard time finding another job. … Brown landed with the Seahawks after being released by the Bills, but carried the ball just 25 times last year. … Cadet is more of a receiving threat, catching 17 passes in 2015, but rushing just 11 times. … Draughn started six games for the 49ers last year, but had a pedestrian average of 3.5 yards per carry and scored only one touchdown. He did finish with 27 catches, so he has some value out of the backfield that way.
Dunbar is another back whose best asset is as a receiver, averaging more than 10 yards per catch in his four-year career. In limited action, he’s got good numbers (4.6 yards per rush, 52 catches, 524 yards). … Herron finished 2015 with the Colts after spending four games with the Bills. … Hunter played in two games with the Saints in 2015 after spending the previous year out of football. … Pierce carried just six times last season before ending up on injured reserve in early December. … Polk started two games in place of Arian Foster for the Texans. … Powell caught 47 passes last season and is a solid player on special teams. … Rainey was buried on the Tampa Bay depth chart, getting just five carries.
Rodgers is another pass-catching option, with back-to-back 50-catch seasons with Atlanta in 2012 and 2013. … Ridley’s production plummeted in his first year in New York after four seasons with the Patriots, with just 90 yards on 36 carries. … Todman ended the season with an increased role on offense for the Steelers, but it was more because of injury. … Turbin split last season between Cleveland and Dallas, averaging 4.3 yards per rush with the Cowboys.
Who might fit the Bills: It’s hard to see Buffalo having anything more than modest interest in any running backs. Powell is a Rex Ryan favorite from their time spent together in New York, so he could be an option since Buffalo cut Boobie Dixon. LeSean McCoy’s possible legal trouble does mean Buffalo General Manager Doug Whaley will have to be prepared to act if McCoy is unavailable for all or part of the season, but none of the more prominent players figure to be on the Bills’ radar.