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2010 NFL Free Agent Running Backs

By: Roshan Bhagat

Age as of 9/1/10. “(UFA-CBA)” represents a player that will become an unrestricted free agent if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is put into place. Otherwise, free agents will be considered with a more realistic outlook of a 2010 season without a CBA in place.

Leon Washington, New York Jets (28)
It’s always unfortunate to see any player get injured, but it’s all the more painful to see them go down on a contract year. The broken leg should heal in a couple months, but it will most likely eat into what could have been a big payday. Washington is similar to Sproles, but a better pure runner. Washington has the speed to turn the corner and be a great complementary back. He has added value as a kick returner where he’s among the NFL’s most feared. This summer, he turned down a number of contract offers in hopes of a huge payday in free agency, so we’ll see if he drops his asking price this season in negotiations. Washington and Shonn Greene would make a great tandem in New York with the combination of power and speed.

Chester Taylor, Minnesota Vikings (30)
Running behind Adrian Peterson, Taylor hasn’t received nearly the amount of touches he could elsewhere. You do have to tip your hat to the Vikings coaching staff though for using him to the best of his abilities. His rushing numbers are the worst of his career, but his true value comes as a 3rd down back and in his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Even with his age, Taylor will continue to be an effective back for several years in a Kevin Faulk type role. If the Vikings don’t try hard to retain him, he could move to another contender and have success elsewhere.

Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers (29)
With an early season injury to Parker and the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall, the torch was passed in Pittsburgh to the younger, more powerful runner. Parker tough returned to make some late-season contributions, including a 91 yard performance against the Dolphins in the final week. That may have been just enough to spark some interest in the 3-time 1000 yard rusher. The odds are that Parker will return to Pittsburgh on a modest 2-3 year incentive-based deal based upon his career accomplishments to serve as the full-time backup to Mendenhall. Parker could just as easily try moving on to look for a bigger role.

Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints (25) – Restricted FA
After returning from injury that cost him a couple early games, Thomas has continued to be an effective and efficient part time runner for the Saints. He plays only between 40-50% of all snaps when healthy as part of a running back by committee, but has averaged 5.4 yards per carry over the course of the season with 7.7 per reception. He accumulated nearly 1100 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns this season. He’s a nice compliment to Mike Bell, Brees, and the passing game. With a rumor looming of Reggie Bush’s departure this offseason due to an enormous cap number, the Saints should have more than enough money to re-sign the one time starter over Rashard Mendenhall at Illinois to a long deal. If talks fall through, the Saints will have the ability to offer him a high restricted tender in which the Saints will most likely be able to retain him.

Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins (28) – (UFA-CBA)
Ronnie Brown had been the key to the Dolphins offense which ran through him and the Wildcat. Prior to his second season-ending injury in three years (foot this year), Brown had returned to form to look like one of the league’s more talented backs. Brown’s combination of size, wiggle, instincts, and speed is elite. His top-end production and efficiency (4.4 average, 8 touchdowns) prior to the injury would have been enough of an incentive for Miami to extend Brown for another 3-4 years. He’s most likely to miss OTA’s next summer, but will be ready for the start of the 2010 season. Keep in mind Brown has an interesting option built into his contract. If the owners and the NFL Players Association reach a new deal before the deadline, Brown will become an unrestricted free agent. If 2010 is an uncapped season, Brown will see his $5 million option kick in.

Jerome Harrison, Cleveland Browns (27) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
Aside from a single 100 yard performance back in Week 4, there wasn’t anything impressive about Jerome Harrison’s year coming into the final three weeks of the season. He then broke off a 286 yard total against the Chiefs, nearly breaking the NFL record, then subsequently went on rush for 275 more yards over the next two weeks. Due somewhat to the revival of the running game, the Browns managed to reel off four consecutive victories. Harrison likely earned the respect of Mike Holmgren, which should lead to a large paycheck.

Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers (27) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
It’s very difficult to measure the importance of Darren Sproles because his greatest value isn’t as a traditional runner. In fact, the entire Chargers run game struggled to get anything going on the ground, which should definitely drive his cost down. With Tomlinson also struggling to get the running game moving, Sproles’ lack of success pounding the ball can be partially attributed to a below average run blocking unit. There have also been rumors of retirement surrounding LT, which would make retaining Sproles more of a necessity. Still, Sproles is best when put on a touch count and given most of his work on screens and the return game. He won’t make $6.6 million a year, like he’s making on his franchise tender this year, but should get a high restricted-tender contract or long-term extension with the team. Sproles is one of the league’s best back-ups or change-of-pace backs. In the long shot that he were to become an unrestricted free agent, I have the hunch that other teams would overpay for his services.

Le’Ron McClain, Baltimore Ravens (25) – Fullback – Restricted FA
McClain had an outstanding season, earning himself a position on my All-Pro team. Both McGahee and Rice saw their yards per carry increase by nearly a full yard while running behind McClain. He also converted on 83% of his carries with 2 or less yards to go for a first down. No matter what happens with the CBA, McClain will be a restricted free agent, giving the Ravens the opportunity to match any offer thrown at him. If another team would rather pay him as a ball carrier than a blocker, the Ravens could have a tough time retaining him.

Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (28) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
Like his college teammate Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams has had a rebirth of sorts after a couple injury-plagued seasons. He’s reclaimed the starting gig in Tampa Bay and done about as well as you can expect in Tampa while sharing carries in a deep backfield. His numbers improved a little with Freeman under center and should continue to do so next season if he can stay healthy. The Buccaneers are in the perfect position to retain him for a “tryout” season so to speak, and then make a future decision from there on. He rushed for 800 yards this season on a 3.9 average, which improved after the first 5 carries of each game, where he averaged 4.2 over the course of the season. If the Bucs can generate continuity on offense and have the ability to remain balanced, Williams’ numbers should also increase.

Mike Bell, New Orleans Saints (27) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
Splitting time with Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell has been an effective inside power-runner for the Saints. Both Bell and Thomas provide a simple, but effective running game. If New Orleans unloads Reggie Bush’s $13.5 million cap charge by next season, they’ll have plenty of room to return Bell and Thomas, back to The Big Easy, while still having plenty of money left over. He could also become expendable if they decide to renegotiate with Reggie Bush and promote Lynell Hamilton to Bell’s role in the offense.

LenDale White, Tennessee Titans (25) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
With the explosion of Chris Johnson as the league’s best running back this season, White saw his carries scaled back big time. Over the team’s last 9 games, White received only 13 total touches, which did not go over too well with him. In recent interviews, White said that he loves it in Tennessee, but just wants to have more carries. With the Titans ready to keep pounding the ball with Chris Johnson, his best match is probably no longer in Tennessee. If White becomes a restricted free agent, look for another team to make White an offer, or send a low draft pick to Tennessee in exchange for LenDale.

Jerious Norwood, Atlanta Falcons (27) – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
This was Norwood’s most unproductive season to date with only 252 rushing yards on 3.3 yards per carry. He battled injuries all season long, which once again brings durability to the forefront. Norwood can’t be counted on as an every down back, but will sign a contract indicative of his role as it’s been in Atlanta. He’s a back-up with plenty speed to put a scare into defenses and the hands to help get the check down game going.

Other Notable Free Agents:

Kenneth Darby, St. Louis Rams (27) – Restricted FA
Kevin Faulk, New England Patriots (34)
Adrian Peterson, Chicago Bears (31)
Kolby Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (25) – Restricted FA
Jason Snelling, Atlanta Falcons (26) – Restricted FA
DeShawn Wynn, Green Bay Packers (26) – Restricted FA
Justin Griffith, Seattle Seahawks (30) – Fullback
John Kuhn, Green Bay Packers (27) – Fullback – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
Tony Richardson, New York Jets (38) – Fullback
Naufahu Tahi, Minnesota Vikings (28) – Fullback – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)
Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers (24) – Fullback – Exclusive Rights FA
Leonard Weaver, Philadelphia Eagles (27) – Fullback – Restricted FA (UFA-CBA)

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