NFL free agency a value test for running backs

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs are not the prized commodities they once were, but exactly how much their value has diminished is difficult to say. With big names still up for grabs, the 2014 offseason could be a litmus of the state of the position.

While the romantic notion of the bell-cow NFL running back is dying, there is still healthy interest in veteran ball carriers on the 2014 offseason market. On Tuesday, both Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew were the subject of rumors. The former has reportedly been courted in trade talks, while the latter visited with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are not the only interested team, according to Adam Schefter.

Both players were wisps of their former selves last season, averaging fewer than 4.0 yards per carry (3.4 in the case of MJD). Neither player is so far removed from being productive to not draw at least cursory interest, however. Where the market ultimately pins their value (and others) could be a revealing of the state of the running back position in the NFL. Here's a look at where the market stands:

Who has signed

Darren McFadden -- Oakland Raiders, one year, $4 million
Joique Bell -- Detroit Lions, two years, $7 million
Donald Brown -- San Diego Chargers, three years, $10.5 million
Rashad Jennings -- New York Giants, four years, $14 million
Toby Gerhart -- Jacksonville Jaguars, three years, $10.5 million
Ben Tate -- Cleveland Browns, two years, $6.2 million

There is no prize in this year's running back class. McFadden, Brown and Tate were former coveted draft prospects, but have not had consistent success in the NFL, compounded by injures. Jennings, Gerhart and Bell haven't received the usage to warrant big contracts despite what their production on limited touches suggests. The modest deals make sense.

Jennings was given a fourth-year perhaps in part because he did the most with the least last season. Behind a bad offensive line, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 15 games. He maintained that production as the full-time starter over the second half of the season, rushing for 102 yards (6.8 YPC) against the Philadelphia Eagles, 150 yards (6.8YPC) against the Houston Texans and 91 yards (4.0 YPC) against a top-flight Kansas City Chiefs defense.

Jennings' $3.5 million per year deal doesn't stand out against the annual salary of the other free-agent signings at his position, however. Instead of money, perhaps the reward for running backs who perform these days is something else: an extra year or two of job security at a position with an ever-dwindling individual lifespan.

Who's available

Maurice Jones-Drew

SB Nation NFL

Alfie Crow at Big Cat Country summed up what was likely Jones-Drew's final season in Jacksonville as a dull "thud." Not only did Jones-Drew fail to clear the 4.0-YPC hurdle for the first time in his career, he missed it by a lot. He averaged 3.4 yards per carry across 234 carries and 15 games, which was plenty to see that the running back no longer had the ability he possessed prior to suffering a Lisfranc injury in 2012.

Jones-Drew is desperate to extend his career, and the Steelers are desperate for depth at running back after letting Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman walk. His visit to Pittsburgh could be the start of a profitable relationship, the Steelers getting a reliable and complete backup to Le'Veon Bell, and Jones-Drew getting a chance to compete at least another season longer and maybe even make the playoffs.

Chris Johnson

Johnson isn't a free agent, but it's apparent at this point that the Tennessee Titans and the running back have agreed to a split. Unlike Jones-Drew, Johnson will likely be looked at as a starter by prospective teams. He has yet to rush for fewer than 1,000 yards in a season, and his 3.9 yards per carry last year weren't a total nose-dive. Johnson isn't worth the $10 million that the Titans are set to pay him next season, perhaps, but he has enough value to make him worth holding on to in hopes of receiving assets from another needy team.

Knowshon Moreno

Moreno is perhaps the ultimate litmus test for the free-agent market. The Denver Broncos running back carried the ball a healthy 241 times last season and had the best year of his career, racking up 1,038 yards at 4.3 YPC. He added 60 receptions for 548 yards as a receiver. Yeah, he was a bust through the first four years of his career, but he had the best season of any of this offeseason's free-agent ball carriers, and that should make him a highly-sought commodity.

Moreno is still young, and has little wear relative to his five seasons. He is a prospect that teams ought to be scrambling over one another to acquire. How he is compensated should say a lot about how teams view the future of the running back position. Will he be paid like a top free agent, or will he be treated as a utility? The answer is murky and potentially prophetic.

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