The free agent running back market has been an interesting one so far. The richest deals so far have been handed out to guys like Danny Woodhead and Eddie Lacy, while the likes of Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Rashad Jennings continue to look for a uniform to don in 2017. Furthermore, plenty of teams could still use a reliable option at running back. The NFL Draft presents a handful of promising options in Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and others, but many coaches will take history over mystery in this league, even with aging running backs.
The “Lead Back Potential” Tier
Obviously, when looking at this crop of RBs, Adrian Peterson is the most eye-catching of the group. Yes, he’s 32, but after appearing in just 20 games over the last three seasons, AP has the legs of a 29 year old. Not to mention this is the guy who tore his ACL in 2011 and returned for Week 1 less than 9 months later, and went on to rack up the 2nd-highest yardage total in NFL history that season. Peterson’s best and brightest days may be behind him, but he still holds the potential to be a reliable RB option for a team that needs him. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to be garnering as much interest as we initially thought. The Vikings were always up near the top in the AP Sweepstakes, but that seems unlikely now that they’ve inked Latavius Murray to a 3-year deal. He had also been discussed as taking over as Murray’s replacement in Oakland, but those talks seem to have stalled and the Raiders have even resorted to trying to coax Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. Regardless, AP definitely still has some juice left in the tank, and it’s tough to think that some team won’t eventually find a spot for the future Hall of Famer.
Simply put, Jamaal Charles is a fantasy GOAT whose best days were taken from us far too soon. Charles is only 30 years old, but has endured multiple ACL tears and seems to be on the back end of his career at this point. He’ll surely be rested after playing in just 3 games in 2016 with a grand total of 12 rushing attempts, but his injury-prone knees and aging frame remain the biggest roadblocks between Charles and an NFL contract. I’m still not ready to declare that the speed and elusiveness that netted Charles 4 Pro Bowl appearances and the NFL record of career rushing yards per attempt (5.5) — along with a few track & field state championships — as gone for good, but they’ll be tough to get back, and first he’s gonna need a team to believe in him.
The “Capable Backup/3rd Down Back” Tier
Rashad Jennings is an interesting one. After setting career highs in rushing attempts (195), rushing yards (863), and receiving yards (296) in 2015, Jennings started just 12 games in 2016 due to a thumb injury. He managed to get a healthy amount of carries (181), but his production dropped pretty sharply. Jennings excelled early in his career as a backup to guys like Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, but having a starting role in New York didn’t work out too well, which will certainly scare away teams looking for a feature back. He’s 31 years old but is still definitely someone I think could be a 3rd down back on a competitive team — once he completes Dancing With the Stars.
As much as it pains me to come to terms with it, it looks like the Patriots are unlikely to re-sign LeGarrette Blount. I’m really not sure why, but that’s what it sounds like. Blount spent last season as a part of a talented but cheap three-headed monster alongside James White and Dion Lewis, and it led to him leading the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. But after the Patriots went out and signed Rex Burkhead in free agency, Blount’s role seems just about filled in New England. He turned 30 in December and obviously had discipline issues in the past (this and of course this), so he’s not the safest option, but some team at some point will be able to use his services.
If DeAngelo Williams manages to sign anywhere for decent money this offseason, he should send Le’Veon Bell an Edible Arrangement. Most guys backing up arguably the best running back in football don’t get a lot of opportunities, but suspensions and injuries to Bell resulted in Williams starting 14 games and rushing over 1,200 yards over his 2 seasons in Pittsburgh. But as a free agent at 33, it’s not gonna be easy to find a team willing to pull the trigger on him. Teams are becoming more and more wary of running backs once they hit their 30s, and Williams has taken quite a few hits over his 11-year career. If Pittsburgh doesn’t bring him back for one more year (they still may) there’s a decent chance that nobody else will.
The “Guy That Could Ride Some Team’s Bench All Year” Tier
If we’d made a Roto Award for the “Running Back Who Had The Best Opportunity To Break Out But Didn’t”, it probably would’ve gone to James Starks. After Eddie Lacy struggled with injuries and other issues over the last few seasons, Starks had a job to win on a great offense. But his 2015 performance was underwhelming, and he did little to impress anyone in 2016 before suffering a knee injury — followed by a car accident that put him in concussion protocol and ended his season. The Packers have already re-signed Christine Michael and indicated they plan to extend the Ty Montgomery experiment to season 2, so Green Bay seems like an unlikely destination. At 31 there’s still time for Starks to prove his worth and health to someone, but he’ll not topping any team’s list at the moment.
Reggie Bush looked to be poised to have a productive, lengthy career after amassing over 1,000 yards in his age-29 season in 2013. But he’s managed just 96 rushing attempts since then — and only 20 over the past 2 seasons — due to injuries and just general lack of production. Last season, he actually became the first non-quarterback in NFL history to have over 10 rushing attempts and end the season with negative yards gained (he had -3). Not exactly the resume teams are looking for in a 32-year-old. Bush certainly isn’t doomed to retire just yet, but plenty of names will definitely move before his comes up.
Honorable Mention: Chris Johnson, Justin Forsett, Tim Hightower, Karlos Williams, Khiry Robinson, Matt Asiata & Ronnie Hillman
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