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NFL Free Agency 2012: Bargains Abound On Running Back Market

Running backs lack the appeal they used to have in a pass-first NFL but teams looking for help in the backfield in free agency should be able to find a bargain this spring.

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A first look at the list of NFL free agent running backs is enough to get any armchair general manager excited. Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and even restricted free agent Arian Foster, headline a list of some of the league's most explosive backs. Stop yourself before you clean off the white board and start working out contract details. Barring a major upset, none of those players will be testing the market when the free agent flood gates open on March 13.

Rice, Forte and Lynch are all prime candidates for the franchise tag, which pays running backs a reasonable $8 million or so in 2012. Foster would be very tough to pull away as a restricted free agent.

That leaves us with a secondary market of NFL running backs. A handful of players among that group are capable of carrying the bulk of a rushing workload for teams. The rest seem suited for complementary roles, part of a backfield tandem or trio.

With the names listed above crossed off the lost, which players represent the best of the rest?

Michael Bush, Oakland

A four-year veteran, the 245-pound Bush has power to spare. Pile-pushing is not the only thing he does well, though. Bush caught 37 passes for 418 yards and one touchdown last season. He also pass blocks like a pro.

Oakland may want to keep Bush, but they have serious cap trouble. The Raiders are projected to be about $22 million over the cap, which means re-signing Bush is unlikely. With Tyvon Branch getting the franchise tag, he's assuredly hitting the market. Anyone with a need at running back needs to take a look.

Potential destinations: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City

Peyton Hillis, Cleveland

Hillis has a more realistic shot at being a secret agent than getting a big contract. Injuries scuttled his 2011 season, and he may have to settle for something of a "prove it" deal in free agency. He is a bruiser that can also catch the ball; he caught 61 passes in 2010. There are personality concerns with him considering things got weird last year when he was seeking a new deal.

Potential destinations: Cleveland, Green Bay, New York Jets

Mike Tolbert, San Diego

Continuing the theme of power runners, Tolbert was the Chargers' preferred goal-line option, the guy that stole touchdowns from Ryan Matthews and frustrated your fantasy hopes. Like Bush and Hillis, Tolbert can also catch the ball pretty well. He caught 54 passes in 2011. He's a big back with only a little wear and tear. He makes sense as a power back complement.

Potential destinations: Baltimore, San Diego, St. Louis

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati

This is going to be a disappointing offseason for Benson. Soon he will discover that 29-year old power guys with off-field issues tend not be a high priority in the NFL anymore, certainly not something teams pay starter dollars for a fungible commodity. Someone will sign him but he may just be a complementary back at this point.

Potential destinations: Baltimore, Oakland

Kevin Smith, Detroit

I forget that Smith is only 25. It seems like he has been around longer, tantalizing fantasy owners with his potential only to land on the injury report week after week. Smith surprised everyone with 201 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a November game against Carolina. Detroit has signaled an interest in re-signing him, and given his iffy past, they should be able to do so at a decent price.

Potential destinations: Detroit, Pittsburgh

Ryan Grant, Green Bay

Grant's better days are behind him. He turns 30 in December. Grant never offered much in the passing game. With his explosiveness long gone, he looks like nothing more than a backup to do some work between the tackles. Teams will not be willing to spend much more than a flyer deal on Grant.

Potential destinations: Green Bay, Miami

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England

The most impressive stat on the Law Firm's resume is a gaudy number of touchdowns, 24 in his last two seasons. His prolific scoring comes from being featured at the goal-line in New England's high-scoring offense. Few teams can offer him that kind of production, but some will be lured by the possibility. He will probably get more money than he is worth based on his recent history. He fits what Kansas City is looking for.

Potential destinations: Atlanta, Kansas City, New England

Le'Ron McClain, Kansas City

More than just a fullback, McClain can catch the ball and runs pretty well for a 260-pound man. He may never repeat his 900-yard season with the Ravens in 2008, but teams will be attracted to McClain's potential as a tandem guy in the backfield. The question is whether he plays in Baltimore, Kansas City or someplace else.

Potential destinations: Baltimore, San Diego, Kansas City

Justin Forsett, Seattle

Forsett saw his workload drop last season as the Seahawks rode the hot hand with Marshawn Lynch. At 26 and with limited mileage on his wheels, Forsett should appeal to teams as a solid option on third downs.

Potential destinations: Chicago, Oakland

The Rest

At this point, the list of free agent running backs gets pretty blah. There should be a few more names on the market as teams start making roster cuts. The highest profile of those roster cuts could be Michael Turner from the Falcons. He did average 4.5 yards per carry in 2011, but he slowed late in the season, a telling sign for a 30-year old running back. The Falcons could part ways with him.

Brandon Jacobs might also hit the street as a cap casualty. The Giants would have to pay him nearly $5 million. Filling in for Ahmad Bradshaw last season exposed him as a nothing more than another timeshare type back, the kind that teams can find cheaper elsewhere. His deal could also be re-worked.

If teams want to add an over-the-hill superstar, a bumper crop is available in this free agent class. The list includes: Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Thomas Jones, Chester Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Cadillac Williams.

Running backs lack the value they once did, and free agency is more akin to the unemployment line than a meal ticket these days. The position has changed, de-emphasized in today's NFL. Teams know they can find starters and role players in the middle rounds of the draft, and unlike other offensive skill positions, there is little invested in the way of development and adjustment time.