The Chaos of the 2015 RB Free-Agent Class

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It’s been a tumultuous week for football’s most anachronistic asset, the free-agent running back. Two of the more prominent choices from this year’s class were released within hours of one another Monday, as Ben Tate and LeGarrette Blount ended their tenures with the Browns and Steelers, respectively, after just 10 games. Tate was claimed by the Vikings on Wednesday,1 while Blount — who left the field during Monday night’s game against the Titans — passed through waivers and became an unrestricted free agent before signing with the Patriots on Thursday morning.

Elsewhere, the stars appeared to align for a virtually unprecedented class of running back talent to hit the free-agent market in 2015. Adrian Peterson was suspended for the remainder of the season and had his appeal to be removed from the commissioner’s exempt list denied by an arbitrator, increasing the chances he’s played his last down for the Vikings. Marshawn Lynch took his gripes about possibly being released before the 2015 season public and was fined $100,000 by the NFL for avoiding media questions after Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. And while the league’s leading rusher took a well-deserved week off, star Cowboys back DeMarco Murray remains unsigned for the 2015 campaign, even as he plays at an MVP level for a perennially cap-strapped franchise that has a documented interest in Peterson. Fun!

This leads to all kinds of questions. If those three guys hit the market at the same time in March, who will be interested in bidding? What will those teams have to do with their current backs to make a move? And will it be a wise decision? Let’s speculate wildly!

The Problem

Free-agent running backs are a notably terrible investment. No other non-specialist position is more fungible because so much of what a running back does depends on how well his offensive line plays and how much space is created for him by his quarterback’s ability to throw. Teams have realized this in recent years and mostly stopped treating running backs as precious commodities, only to make an exception when they find that there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like signing Toby Gerhart or selecting Trent Richardson in the first hour of the NFL draft or trading a first-round pick for Richardson.

Generally, long-term deals for running backs who were allowed to hit free agency just haven’t worked out. And by generally, I mean that essentially every single contract has failed to live up to even reasonable expectations. With the help of Rotoworld and Spotrac, here is a list of every multiyear contract handed out to a running back since 2011, when the NFL signed its most recent CBA. You’ll cringe, think it can’t get worse, it’ll get worse, and then you’ll repeat that cycle six more times.

That’s a staggering amount of futility. How many of those deals would these teams sign again if they had the chance? I count three. Darren Sproles to the Saints and Danny Woodhead to the Chargers fit an undervalued archetype that I wrote about earlier this year, the small, receiving-first halfback. You’d also give Lynch that four-year extension again. Those are the best-case scenarios, and even they didn’t make it through the end of their contracts unscathed; the Saints nearly cut Sproles before dumping him off to the Eagles, Woodhead broke his fibula in the second season of his contract, and the Seahawks may cut or trade Lynch before the final year of his deal comes up in 2015.

And, oh, the horrific mistakes! Nothing will top the franchise-killing contract given to DeAngelo Williams2 in the sugar rush of the condensed 2011 offseason, but just look at 2014 alone and you’ll see how bad these deals seem to work out. Blount and Tate are already gone. Toby Gerhart lost his starting job after two weeks and has averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Donald Brown had the first two backs in front of him get injured and averaged 2.3 yards per carry before suffering a concussion; he’s probably going to be cut this offseason. Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 2.1 yards per carry. Rashad Jennings has been hurt. The best deal might have been for Chris Johnson, but he got paid more on a per-year basis than anybody else and has still been totally anonymous for the Jets.

The few free-agent running backs who have worked out over that time frame are guys on one-year deals who succeed in a new role with a new team, like Jennings with the Raiders last season and Justin Forsett in Baltimore this year. Teams much prefer to develop their own backs through the draft. Of the 32 running backs around the league who I estimate would start for their respective teams if everybody were healthy, 25 were drafted by their current team or acquired as undrafted free agents. Just three (Jets, Colts, Seahawks) starting backs came via trade and four more (Ravens, Giants, Lions, Falcons) were acquired via free agency.

It’s a simple rule: Pay a player for what he’s going to do as opposed to what he’s done in the past. Too often, teams underestimate the aging curves or the randomness of running backs and don’t get what they paid for. The hope is that there’s still enough left in the tank for Peterson, Lynch, and Murray to make that frequently made mistake less likely.

The Availability

It’s pretty rare to see even one running back of this caliber hit free agency, if only because truly top-level backs are often re-signed by their teams before they hit the market. You need a very specific and often unrealistic set of circumstances to get players this talented into free agency. Think about Drew Brees; 99 times out of 100, he never makes it into unrestricted free agency with the Chargers. He made it only because he was mediocre just long enough at the beginning of his pro career for the Chargers to lose faith in him and draft Philip Rivers. The Chargers very well might have franchised Brees after his final season in San Diego, but Brees tore the labrum in his shoulder in Week 17 of that 2005 season, which left his future unclear. It’s Plinko with career paths.

And yet, here we have three guys in those unlikeliest of circumstances, situations in which teams would be compelled to move on from a Pro Bowl–caliber player for free.

Peterson was a local treasure in Minnesota until he was indicted on charges of felony child abuse in his native Texas earlier this year.3 Even without the charges, my suspicion is that the Vikings would have at least had some internal discussions about moving on from Peterson after this season. He will turn 30 in March, he’s already suffered a serious knee injury, and his MVP season in 2012 stands out as an outlier in terms of health and production.

More notably, the Vikings could turn Peterson’s $15.4 million cap charge in 2015 into a $2.4 million hit of dead money and use the leftover $13 million to make critical upgrades on their offensive line and across the defense. With rookie Jerick McKinnon showing impressive bursts as the primary back in Peterson’s absence, the Vikings can justify making the move on football and financial grounds. It’s difficult to imagine them making such a move on PR grounds if Peterson hadn’t been charged with a crime, but the off-field excuse gives them a pretense for releasing him.

Lynch’s off-field problems are mostly in the past, but the Seahawks have their own reasons for considering his release. Namely, they’re stuck with too much talent. The Seahawks were uncommonly good in the draft over the past four years, as you might suspect from a team that managed to find a Super Bowl–winning quarterback in the third round and a shutdown cornerback in the fifth. While the Seahawks locked up the key components in their secondary by re-signing Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman this offseason, they still need to find the cap space to lock up Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner in the year to come.

General manager John Schneider already started that process by giving up on Percy Harvin, but releasing Lynch would create an additional $7 million in cap room for Seattle in 2015, with his $8.5 million cap hit turning to $1.5 million in dead money. With Lynch turning 29 in April and entering the final year of his contract, the Seahawks might very well decide that it’s better to move on from the grumbling Lynch.

Murray, meanwhile, raises far fewer red flags. He turns 27 in February, has endured a starter’s workload only this season, has no off-field concerns, and hasn’t complained about his contract. Jerry Jones has been notably prone to overpaying his impending free agents, but with the Cowboys forced to release DeMarcus Ware and restructure several regulars just to get under the salary cap this season, there hasn’t been space in the budget to re-sign Murray.

Space isn’t suddenly about to open up, either. The Cowboys already gave left tackle Tyron Smith a massive eight-year, $110 million contract and still have star wideout Dez Bryant left to re-sign. That’s without noting that less-heralded players like middle linebacker Rolando McClain will look for new deals this offseason, too. It would normally be impossible to imagine the Cowboys letting their star running back go, but would they rather buy high on Murray or buy (relatively) low on Peterson?

The Replacement Suitors

How many teams will actually be interested in acquiring a star running back for top dollar? The majority of NFL teams already have a starter who is either relatively cheap or extremely talented at halfback, and very few have the cap space to suddenly push a considerable amount of capital toward a running back. The stars have to align on both sides for a deal to come through.

By my count, about half the league could be at least somewhat interested in going after one of these three backs. The possible suitors fit into two groups. The first would require a running back only if they were to lose or move on from the back(s) they currently have.

Seattle Seahawks/Dallas Cowboys: If Lynch and Murray leave their previous employers, those teams will require a replacement running back of some nature. As mentioned earlier, the Cowboys seem likely to move on from Murray only if they can consummate their long-rumored interest in Peterson. The Seahawks would probably draft another running back or buy low on another disappointing back (as they did with Lynch several years ago) and hope that he blossoms under Pete Carroll & Co.

San Diego Chargers: San Diego looked like it had one of the deepest running back rotations in football, but that’s quickly fallen apart. Woodhead broke his fibula. Brown was a total bust. And Ryan Mathews, who finally had a healthy season in 2013, has missed most of 2014 with an injury. Woodhead signed an extension, but he’s not likely to be a primary back. It would hardly be a surprise to see the Chargers cut Brown, and Mathews will be an unrestricted free agent. If the Chargers move on from the injury-riddled Mathews and the ineffective Brown, they would be in the market for a no. 1 running back to pair with Woodhead.

New Orleans Saints: A similar situation lurks in New Orleans, where the Saints will likely cut Pierre Thomas and have to make a decision on Mark Ingram, who will be an unrestricted free agent after an up-and-down tenure in New Orleans. Khiry Robinson will still be around, but it remains to be seen if the Saints would want to get a more notable back behind Drew Brees. The biggest obstacle for New Orleans is an almost total lack of cap space, but it had no space this season and still managed to squeeze out enough room to sign Jairus Byrd, so let’s not put it past Mickey Loomis to make a move.

Atlanta Falcons: Nobody loves big-ticket free agents more than the Falcons, who seem to go shopping at the top of the market on an annual basis. It’s not a guarantee that they’ll be in need of a running back this offseason, but given how little Steven Jackson has moved the needle since arriving in town last season, it’s not hard to imagine the Falcons cutting the 31-year-old to save $3.75 million on next year’s cap.

San Francisco 49ers: It seems likely that the 49ers will move on from Frank Gore when his contract expires at the end of this season, with the longtime San Francisco starter turning 32 in May. The Niners have a possible replacement-in-waiting in Carlos Hyde, but given their splashes in acquiring veterans like Anquan Boldin (via trade) and Antoine Bethea at positions of relative strength in the past, it’s not impossible to imagine them signing one of these backs and pairing him with Hyde in a run-first offense. The most entertaining scenario: The 49ers bring Lynch back to his beloved Bay Area and line him up twice a year against the Seahawks.

Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore must be thrilled with its short-term investment in the free-agent market this season, having come away with Forsett, who leads all qualified running backs in yards per carry (5.4). He’s been a wonderful addition, and if you read my Forsett article from last week, you know that I obviously think he’ll keep this up, but Forsett’s making something close to the minimum this season. The Ravens might not want to give an undersize 29-year-old with no history of carrying a heavy workload the long-term deal he’ll surely get in free agency this time around.

Baltimore could turn the rock over to Lorenzo Taliaferro, but Ozzie Newsome has invested heavily in running backs in the past, having given big deals to Jamal Lewis (who lasted only one year on his extension), Willis McGahee, and most recently Ray Rice. If the prices begin to become similar, would the Ravens rather invest in a proven back like Murray over the relatively untested Forsett?

Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller has a player option in 2015 for $2.9 million, a deal he might choose to take in the hopes of reestablishing his value with a healthy season before hitting the market in 2016. Fred Jackson will be 34 and has no guaranteed money on the one-year extension he signed this summer, and while the Bills could re-sign him, they could also set their sights higher and target one of the other backs at the top of the market. A reunion with Lynch seems unlikely after his acrimonious departure from Buffalo, but with the ownership situation settled and the Bills staying in town, would they consider a move for somebody like Murray to try to improve a moribund offense?

The Investors

One-quarter of the league is possibly interested if they move some pieces around or lose their current back in free agency, but another eight teams would form the core of the market if Peterson, Lynch, or Murray hit free agency. In ascending order of desperation …

Arizona Cardinals: Just this past week, Bruce Arians called out current starter Andre Ellington’s work, suggesting that the Cardinals “need more” from their second-year starter. Arizona was scared to give Ellington, who has been slowed by a foot injury, a heavy workload last year and might change its mind about continuing to do so.

General manager Steve Keim has never been shy about taking a shot on a veteran if the price is right, and they could clear out a minimum of $9.2 million in cap space by releasing Larry Fitzgerald. If they moved on from their future Hall of Famer, it’s not impossible to imagine them targeting one of the market’s top backs to pair with Ellington.

St. Louis Rams: Speaking of clearing out cap space by releasing a veteran, the Rams can create about $13 million in cap space by moving on from albatross Sam Bradford this offseason. The Rams might want to use some of that money to find a new quarterback, but given that they’ve invested heavily in their offensive line and have shown some semblance of a passing game after Bradford’s injury, they could instead try to build a top-flight rushing attack that would make their next quarterback’s job — whoever that is — easier. Tre Mason looks competent, but we said that about Zac Stacy this time last year, and that didn’t last.

Oakland Raiders: Oakland’s one-two punch of Darren McFadden and Jones-Drew might have excited 2011 fantasy drafters, but it hasn’t quite worked out on the field in 2014. The duo has averaged just 3.2 yards per attempt and is unlikely to return in 2015, with McFadden a free agent and Jones-Drew about to be made one. Reggie McKenzie might not be the general manager making the signings, but unless Latavius Murray impresses over the remainder of the season, whoever signs the checks in Oakland next year will need a running back.

This is a natural landing point for Lynch, who spent his entire pre-NFL life in the East Bay and would get full market value from a Raiders team desperate to acquire some semblance of an identity. I don’t think it would work out very well for either party, but it’s the most logical fit of player and team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Saying that the new Tampa Bay regime has soured on Doug Martin seems too generous. They appear ready to shoot Martin into space, given all the anonymous comments about how they were comfortable with the idea of trading him before October’s deadline. They didn’t move Martin, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him traded or released this offseason. Charles Sims appears to be next up, and I’ve always thought Mike James was an effective option if he could stay healthy, but the Bucs could very well find an investment in a top-flight running back to be a logical step if Sims disappoints.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Having dipped their toe into the market this offseason to sign Gerhart, you wouldn’t blame the Jaguars for being shy about investing in a premium running back this offseason. Gerhart was Peterson’s backup, though; signing the real deal is another story altogether. Jacksonville has stumbled onto a useful option in Denard Robinson, who was buried on the depth chart before taking over and averaging 5.4 yards per carry over the past four games. If Robinson slows down or if the team remembers why they didn’t believe in him (and signed Gerhart) in the first place, would they be interested in using some of their ample cap space to give Blake Bortles a star rusher?

New York Jets: Speaking of ample cap space, the Jets have not exactly had a fun time in 2014. One of the few places they’re actually set is at running back, where Chris Ivory has been an impressive primary option alongside Johnson. With one year left on Ivory’s deal, the Jets could consider replacing him with a more spectacular option, especially if they were to hire a new coach who wanted to build around the running game. I don’t think current Jets general manager John Idzik would spend heavily on a post-peak free-agent running back … but what if it’s not Idzik’s call?

Indianapolis Colts: And then, of course, we finish with the most obvious answer of all. The Colts have the cap space. They have a general manager who is comfortable spending that cap space. They have a gigantic hole at running back, and they’ve clearly established a history of being willing to devote serious assets to filling that hole.

Well, attempting to fill that hole. It hasn’t quite worked out for Richardson in Indianapolis, and while the Colts were able to get by with bargain-bin signing Ahmad Bradshaw as their primary back early in 2014, Bradshaw’s fractured fibula has ended his season and created a chasm at the position. The Colts can’t turn to Richardson as their primary back in 2015, can they? It’s not difficult to imagine them going after any of these three guys to pair with Andrew Luck and their dominant passing attack.

Cutting Richardson would save exactly zero dollars — the Colts would pay just as much to keep him as they would to get rid of him — but it would prevent the team from feeling like it needs to justify the sunk cost of that first-round pick by giving him 150 terrible carries per season. They’re better off moving on and signing Lynch, Murray, or Peterson to anchor their backfield. It might not work, but at least it won’t cost them a first-round pick.

This article has been updated to correct details of Fred Jackson’s contract extension and remove an erroneous reference to the Cardinals trying to re-sign Patrick Peterson, whom Arizona re-signed in August.

Filed Under: NFL, DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys, Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell