The next period of NFL free agency is right around the corner and there are plenty of big names set to hit the open market. As far as running backs go, there are definitely some notable names, though as to whether or not there will be big contracts, nobody really knows.
Last season, many felt that the league was dominated by pass-first offenses, and some thought that huge paydays for running backs could be a thing of the past. Certainly, when the players actually on the market found new teams, the contracts weren't mind-blowing by any standard, but there were a few exceptions.
Then there was the NFL Draft. Eddie Lacy was considered the top guy, but with significant injury concerns, and many teams wanted no part of him. In fact, most teams didn't think highly of this draft class at all. Either way, let's take a moment to briefly recap where some of the top names went last season.
There were a few big names worth talking about last season, though no "franchise" running backs really hit the open market, at least none that weren't considered past their prime. Steven Jackson falls into the latter category, having signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons relatively early on in free agency.
Unfortunately, Jackson didn't quite work out, sustaining injuries for much of the season and being ineffective for the rest. Then there was Reggie Bush, who wanted to stick with the Miami Dolphins, but was given a better deal by the Detroit Lions. It seemed a solid match and that's what it ended up being, as Bush rushed for 1,006 yards and four touchdowns with 506 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Bush's deal was for a modest $4 million per year over four years, and it's worked out quite well for the Lions. Ahmad Bradshaw remained unsigned for quite some time, but eventually joined the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, Bradshaw got injured after getting off to a solid start, lending some credibility to those teams who stayed away from him in free agency.
Rashard Mendenhall landing with the Arizona Cardinals was considered a big deal, as Mendenhall had flashed some brilliance in the past. Unfortunately, he hit a wall in 2013 and was incredibly ineffective with the Cardinals. Other backs ended up going on to have solid seasons, like Danny Woodhead with the San Diego Chargers.
But there are two names worth talking about to wrap up: LeGarrette Blount and Rashad Jennings. Blount originally rejoined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but wound up with the New England Patriots, where he managed 772 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and looked very good in the playoffs as well. Jennings took over for an oft-injured Darren McFadden and might have earned himself a big contract, but we'll talk about that later.
2014 Free Agents
Where the contracts trend this offseason will certainly be interesting. Many running backs who changed teams last season struggled, while there were a few who performed above expectations. Then you have really solid contracts for guys like Matt Forte and Ray Rice the previous year by their respective teams, and the value of an NFL running back is still a cause for debate.
It seems likely that the top dollar in 2014-15's market won't be top dollar relative to everything else. There are some big names this offseason, but a lot of question marks to go with those big names. On top of that, running back is not considered a huge need for many teams and of course, you have the NFL Draft. This year's class looks much better than last year's and that ultimately could affect the value.
However, some of the bigger names entering the market this year are right in the sweet spot as far as age is concerned. Most of the top guys are aged between 25 and 27, and while that's getting close to the scary 30, there's plenty of room for production there. Bigger two- and three-year contracts would not be out of the realm of possibility this season.
Seeing any huge five-year deals seems highly unlikely, however. Either way, let's take a look at some of the bigger names below:
This was a huge year for Moreno. He was a candidate to be released prior to this season, but the Broncos stuck with him, and it paid off big. First, it paid off for the team, as Moreno put up a career year with 241 attempts for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns, and now it will probably pay off for Moreno.
Teams had to worry about Peyton Manning all season, which might skew Moreno's numbers and temper expectations for the time being. But seeing Moreno earn a multi-year contract at a healthy rate would not be surprising in the least.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
Where McFadden will end up is anybody's guess. When he's healthy and at his best, he's an incredibly valuable weapon. He managed 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns back in 2010, playing in just 13 games. Unfortunately, he hasn't come anywhere near that total since, and has missed 19 total games over the past three seasons.
All of the burst and natural ability can't help him when he's completely unable to stay healthy. That said, he'll probably find a home this season. He's 26 years old and shouldn't be relied on, but he will earn a one-year deal at the least, and probably more based on his potential alone.
Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts
The fact that Brown led the Colts in rushing this season speaks volumes to how messed up the position is at this point. Bradshaw was injured for much of the season, and Trent Richardson is proving to be ineffective, as he was with the Cleveland Browns before they traded him. Brown had 55 fewer carries than Richardson but had more yardage, and a much, much higher average. He carried the ball 102 times for 537 yards and six touchdowns, and should receive a reasonable contract offer from the Colts.
Tate has had a weird career with the Texans. In his rookie season, he put up 942 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but gave way to Arian Foster in 2012, only managing 279 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games. But he returned as Foster's backup again this season, and received a healthy share of carries before once again succumbing to injury.
He did have a per-carry average of 4.3 yards and 771 yards in somewhat limited action, however. It's not hard to imagine a team going all-in on Tate as its running back of the future in hopes that a starting role will get the best out of him.
Rashad Jennings, Oakland Raiders
Rashad Jennings earned himself a starting role for next season. Playing in 15 games for the Raiders, Jennings took over for McFadden while he was injured, and played incredibly well. He rushed for 733 yards off of 163 carries and had six touchdowns, while putting up an additional 292 yards in the passing game. He was explosive and consistent and while he won't receive a huge contract, it would not be crazy to see him playing on a modest three-year deal next year. The only issue: he's 28 years old.
Jones-Drew is the biggest name on this list, but he's also 28 years old. Unlike Jennings however, Jones-Drew has a ton of mileage on him. The Jaguars rode Jones-Drew into the ground and this season he just looked ... haggard. He'll test the free agent market but it's unclear what will be waiting for him. Anything more than a two-year contract with heavy performance-based incentives seems unlikely.
LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
Blount is right up there with Jennings and Moreno in the "doing yourself a favor" category. His career was sputtering out before he joined the Patriots, who used him to spell Stevan Ridley. As it happened, Blount outperformed Ridley in many ways and blew up down the stretch. He was especially effective in the playoffs. He finished the regular season with 772 yards and seven touchdowns.
Other Pending Free Agents: John Kuhn (Green Bay Packers), Rashard Mendenhall (Arizona Cardinals), Andre Brown (New York Giants), Willis McGahee (Cleveland Browns), Toby Gerhart (Minnesota Vikings), Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh Steelers), James Starks (Green Bay Packers), Felix Jones (Pittsburgh Steelers)
The 2013 running back class was viewed as light, with the biggest name, Eddie Lacy, avoided by many top teams due to his injury concerns. Lacy ended up going to the Green Bay Packers in the second round, and he rewarded them with a top-10 rushing performance this season. He put up 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Then you have Zac Stacy, Le'Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard, who were all solid contributors this season. It looks like the running back class has actually worked out quite well, but this season has a whole lot more hype around it.
There are several notable names, including Auburn's Tre Mason. He took Auburn to the BCS National Championship Game with huge performances in big games -- gouging Alabama for 164 rushing yards and Missouri for a whopping 304. He should be one of the top running backs off the board.
But there are plenty of other guys worth noting: Bishop Sankey from Washington, Carlos Hyde from Ohio State, Lache Seastrunk of Baylor, Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona and many more. Unlike last season, seeing multiple running backs taken in the first round is not out of the realm of possibility.
Expect some teams to look to free agency for their starters next season, but there aren't many dependable names available. The NFL Draft will definitely be targeted as a place to get a franchise runner, especially in the top two rounds. All of those teams that passed up last season will look to make up for it this year and there is no shortage of able bodies.