With the ever-increasing reliance on the passing game in today's NFL, the feature back is gradually disappearing. Committee backfields of situational specialists have emerged in their stead, decreasing the importance of any one rusher.
That trend, in addition to a draft class heavy on running back depth in the middle rounds, is bad news for the 2014 crop of free agent runners. The upper-level players will garner solid contracts, but nobody is likely to be break the bank this offseason.
The top backs scheduled to hit the open market are comprised largely of once-prominent players who saw their stock slide in 2013 (Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden) and once-forgotten players who improved their standing (Knowshon Moreno, Rashad Jennings and Donald Brown).
Below are the top 10 running backs who are set to hit free agency in March. Players who are expected to be released as cap casualties, like Tennessee's Chris Johnson, are not included. Each player's 2013 team is listed in parentheses.
1. Ben Tate (Houston Texans)
Long considered one of the top backups in the league, Tate finally gets his opportunity to escape from the shadow of Arian Foster this offseason. He predicted his departure from Houston earlier this offseason on Twitter, so it seems a near certainty that he'll hit the open market. Tate produced average results as the feature back with Foster injured late in the season (Tate battled broken ribs and eventually ended up on the IR himself), but his talent and age -- he'll turn 26 in August -- is enough to keep him at the top of this list.
2. Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)
It took five seasons, but Moreno finally lived up to his first-round draft selection, and just in time. The former No. 12 pick had a breakout campaign during his contract year, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career. The Broncos, who face expiring contracts from seven other starters, now have to decide if they want to fork up the money to keep him around. Considering they used a second-round pick on Montee Ball last April, they may elect to save cap space and let Moreno walk.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Following years of heavy usage, Jones-Drew is no longer the franchise running back he used to be, and it seems unlikely Jacksonville will bring him back. A foot injury ended his 2012 season just six games in and he never appeared to regain his previous form during a lackluster 2013 where he averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry. However, the fact that he is still younger than 30 and is two years removed from a 1,600-yard season means he'll draw interest from teams desperate for a proven runner.
4. Darren McFadden (Oakland Raiders)
In terms of pure ability, McFadden easily tops this list. He has shown glimpses of being one of the most-dynamic runners in the league since coming off the board in the first round of the 2008 draft. The rest of the time, however, he has been sidelined with a seemingly endless array of physical maladies. He has yet to play more than 13 games in a NFL season, and was limited to 10 in 2013. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said recently he doesn't expect to re-sign McFadden, but a team willing to gamble with his injury history could hit big if he can stay on the field.
5. Rashad Jennings (Oakland Raiders)
One reason McFadden is expendable in Oakland is the emergence of Jennings, who had a breakout year while filling in for the predictably sidelined starter. There was a month in the middle of the season during which Jennings led the league in rushing. While he faded down the stretch, he has likely done enough to earn a new contract with the Raiders. Expect him to stay in Oakland, though at 28 years old he is a stop-gap as opposed to a long-term solution.
6. Donald Brown (Indianapolis Colts)
Injuries to Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard combined with the ineptitude of Trent Richardson landed Brown in the Colts' starting lineup by seasons end. He capitalized by rushing for three touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry during the final four games (including the playoffs), and will likely draw attention as a high-level rotational piece on the free agent market. Judging from his recent nostalgic tweet, that probably won't be in Indy.
Through the first half of the season, it seemed as though the one-year "prove it" contract Mendenhall signed with Arizona last year would backfire. But after trudging through the first eight games, the former Steeler scored five touchdowns during final eight games and improved his stock. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has shown unwavering support for Mendenhall, but with second-year rusher Andre Ellington waiting in the wings, the veteran's stay in the desert could be over.
At one point during the season Blount would not have even sniffed this list, but injuries late in the season allowed him to climb to the top of the Patriots' depth chart and he took advantage with a ridiculous three-game stretch. He closed the regular season by rushing for 265 yards and four touchdowns during the last two games. He then followed that up with a record-setting 166-yard, four-touchdown day against the Colts in the Pats' first playoff game. Bill Belichick goes through backs more often than he washes his hoodie, though, so if Blount wants to nail down a steady gig, he should look to sign with another team while his stock is up.
9. Ahmad Bradshaw (Indianapolis Colts)
Bradshaw received little interest on the free agent market after being cut by the New York Giants last offseason, despite rushing for over 1,000 yards the previous season. He eventually signed a one-year deal with Indy, but played in just three games before landing on injured reserve with a neck injury. Even if Brown leaves, the Colts have Richardson and Ballard on the roster, making it likely Bradshaw will be searching for his second team in as many years come March.
10. James Starks (Green Bay Packers)
Starks has shown the ability to be a No. 1 back -- he was a key factor down the stretch in the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl run -- but has struggled to stay healthy. He missed three games in 2013 despite a decreased workload, and has now missed 35 of a possible 64 games during his four NFL seasons. He played well in relief of rookie starter Eddie Lacy this year, averaging a career-high 5.5 yards per carry.
Other notable names:
Andre Brown (New York Giants)
Brown missed half the season due to injury. When he did come back, he struggled to find the same level of success he had in 2012. He ran for 492 yards last season, but averaged 3.5 yards per carry. That mark was down from the 5.3 yards per carry he averaged in 2012. Brown is only 27, and has limited wear and tear, so he could draw interest on the market, especially from teams looking to add a solid backup.
After spending four seasons backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, Gerhart will hit the open market. He ran for just 283 yards last season, but averaged a career-high 7.9 yards per attempt. He rarely got many carries playing behind the former NFL MVP, but excelled last season when given a bigger workload. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry in games with at least seven attempts. The former second-round pick could get a look as a starter, or at least in a rotation.
The 32-year-old signed with Cleveland last year, but was only able to muster 2.7 yards per carry. He is just two seasons removed from an 1,199-yard campaign with the Broncos. The question is how much he has left in the tank and if he can still regain that form. He sat on the free agent market for a long time last year after being released by the Broncos.
Jones' production declined in each of the last three seasons and that trend continued in 2013. He finished with 184 rushing yards, the lowest total of his career. Jones is still just 26 years old and can also handle kickoff returns, increasing the chance a team takes a shot at him this summer.
The 32-year-old Brown rushed for just 157 yards last season. He has been in a backup role for the last three years, though he proved to still have something left in the playoffs, rushing for 77 yards on eight carries against Cincinnati.
Washington stated the year with New England before being released. He then landed in Tennessee and proved he is still as dangerous a return man as ever. He didn't record a single rushing attempt with the Titans, but averaged 30.1 yards per kick return.