There was a time in the NFL when free agent running backs would command some of the biggest contracts on the market. With the career-span of running backs seemingly getting shorter every year, teams now tend to shy away from giving out big money to aging free agents. Even still, there are several big names set to hit free agency and a number of other players who can help teams in 2013 and beyond.
While a proven workhorse running back used to be the biggest target in free agency, teams are now shifting the focus to young players with fresh legs who can fit into a running back by committee approach. The 2013 group of free agents features a mix of proven players as well as up-and-comers. Here is a closer look at a few of the players set to hit free agency.
Steven Jackson, Rams, UFA*
Jackson has a player option for this season that he has to decide on by March 12, when free agency starts. If he declines the $7 million salary, and likely reduced playing time on a Rams team ready for its young running backs to carry most of the load, he will be the most proven back on the market. The 29-year-old Jackson rushed for 10,135 yards during the first nine years of his career, and has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of the last eight seasons.
Jackson has been a workhorse for the Rams, but still may have some gas left in the tank due to a decreased workload over the last two seasons. Jackson averaged 16.1 rushing attempts per game last season, the lowest total since his rookie season. He's always been known as one of the more physical running backs in the NFL and, even if he isn't able to be a feature back, he should be a great compliment in a running back by committee approach.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants, UFA
The biggest question with Bradshaw is how healthy is he. The Giants released Bradshaw partially due to his chronic foot problems. Bradshaw has a long injury history and had surgery on his foot following the regular season. Relying on him to be a feature back could be a recipe for disaster, but even with the injuries, Bradshaw has proven to be an effective NFL running back.
The 26-year-old Bradshaw is coming off a season where he averaged 4.6 yards per carry, despite playing through injuries. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry or higher in five of his six seasons. He split carries most of his career, so his 921 career carries are less than most feature running backs have accumulated through six seasons. With the injury history driving down the price, Bradshaw could be a steal in free agency.
Danny Woodhead, Patriots, UFA
Woodhead is possibly the most versatile free agent running back, providing as much or more as a receiver as he does as a runner. He ran for 301 yards last season, but caught 40 passes for 446 yards. His receiving yards were the sixth-most of all running backs. With New England having a stable of running backs, Woodhead could depart via free agency and have a similar effect as Darren Sproles did in New Orleans on his new team.
Reggie Bush, Dolphins, UFA
Bush will hit the market for the second time in his career after a two-year run in Miami. He ran for over 2,000 yards in two seasons with the Dolphins, but his yards per carry dropped from 5.0 in 2011 to 4.3 this season. Bush will turn 28 on March 2 and could be looking for the final big payday of his career. According to Spotrac, Bush made nearly $10 million during his two seasons in Miami. He may not find another team willing to pay him like a feature back, but should be a key contributor as a complimentary threat.
Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers, UFA
Mendenhall hits the market after five seasons in Pittsburgh. He ran for more than 900 yards in three of his first four seasons, but tore his ACL at the end of the 2011 season and played in six games this past season. He gained 182 yards last season and was suspended for one game for conduct detrimental to the team. Still, at 25 years old the former first-round pick should garner interest from teams looking to take a low-risk high-reward flier.
Shonn Greene, Jets, UFA
Greene is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but averaged a career-low 3.9 yards per carry last season. Greene has never broken a run longer than 36 yards in the NFL and isn't the receiving threat Bush, Woodhead and others are, but he could make an impact in the right role. Whether that's as a feature back or a short-yardage runner remains to be seen.
Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers, RFA
After rushing 25 times over his first two seasons, Dwyer ascended into a starting role last season and finished with 623 yards on 156 attempts. At 23 years old, Dwyer will hit restricted free agency at the same time many players come into the NFL. Pittsburgh's top three running backs are free agents so the Steelers could tender Dwyer at a high dollar amount to avoid losing him.
Chris Ivory, Saints, RFA
Ivory is buried on the Saints depth chart, but has always played well when given the opportunity. He rushed 256 times during his first three seasons in the NFL, but averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The Saints have invested a lot of money in their backfield with Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. A running back-needy team could decide to sacrifice a draft pick to sign Ivory and see if he can maintain his production with more opportunities.
Other notable names: Mike Goodson (UFA), Isaac Redman (RFA), Andre Brown (RFA), Cedric Benson (UFA), Felix Jones (UFA).
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