clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NFL teams are banking on free agent running backs again

There haven't been any contracts as massive as the one DeMarco Murray signed last spring, but teams are surprisingly interested in veteran running backs on the free agent market this year.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

NFL Free Agency has been a whirlwind so far and now that the dust has settled a little bit, we can finally look back and take stock of some of the chaotic action. The running backs market has been a surprisingly interesting one, and while there weren't any crazy big-money deals like last the one Philadelphia gave DeMarco Murray last year, there were several mid-level contracts doled out, a trade and a restricted free agent offer sheet signed.

It all added up to some compelling player movement that could have a big impact for teams in 2016.

Did the Broncos make a (another) mistake?

The Broncos decided against placing a $2.553 million second-round tender on running back C.J. Anderson, and instead tendered him at an original round value of $1.67 million. This meant, essentially, that if anyone in the NFL wanted to sign Anderson for more than that, they'd be free to offer him something without fear of losing any draft picks. The Dolphins, who lost Lamar Miller to the Texans a day earlier, bit.

Miami's offer is meant to dissuade the Broncos from matching it. The deal is reportedly worth $18 million over four years, with $9.75 million in guarantees and a $4.5 million average per year. That's obviously a big jump from the $1.67 million value Denver wanted to pay their most effective rusher from the past two seasons, and the structure of Miami's offer makes it pretty unlikely that the Broncos will match it.

In effect, Denver -- who already struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball in their Super Bowl campaign last year -- have now lost their top two quarterbacks and their best running back. That $800,000 difference between the original round tender and the second-round tender might be looking pretty paltry right now, and the threat of giving up a second-round pick would likely have been enough to scare everyone else away. Now, Denver will have to look elsewhere for a running back. They've Juwan Thompsom and Kapri Bibbs waiting in the wings, and could re-sign Ronnie Hillman or look to outside free agency.

The Titans shook things up at the running back spot

DeMarco Murray was the big-money signing at the running back position in last season's free agency period, netting a five-year, $40 million contract from Chip Kelly and the Eagles, including $21 million in guaranteed cash. The hype didn't match the production though, and he followed up his league-leading 1,845-yard season with the Cowboys in 2014 by rushing for just 702 yards in 2015. His touchdown total dropped from 13 to six, and his yards per carry dipped to a measly 3.6 with the Eagles.

The Titans apparently think they can get more out of him, and they actually might be right -- Murray was never really a good fit in the lateral-running scheme that Kelly favored. In Mike Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" system, which I presume will involve more downhill running, he should at least have a chance to regain form.

The move has pretty major implications for a few players already on the Titans roster, though. Along with the fresh new contract for Antonio Andrews, things are looking grim for 2014 second-round pick Bishop Sankey, and it doesn't bode terribly well for 2015 fifth-rounder David Cobb.

Buccaneers reward Doug Martin

The biggest winner in the free agent frenzy at the running back position was Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, who was given a five-year, $35.5 million dollar deal with $15 million in guarantees and a $7.15 million yearly average. Martin bounced back from two mediocre injury-riddled seasons to finish second in the NFL in rushing in 2015, and the Buccaneers recognized his value in aiding Jameis Winston's development.

"Many of our offensive accomplishments last season can be attributed to the success of our running game with Doug in the backfield," said GM Jason Licht, alluding to the importance of not putting too much on his young quarterback's shoulders early in his career.

It's key for Tampa Bay to have some balance going forward, and while some would say that paying a running back premium money is a mistake, Martin is one of those types of runners that can create yards and scores for himself. That adds value.

Texans look to replace Arian Foster

The Texans lost the foundation of their offense over the last seven seasons when they released Arian Foster, and after absconding with Denver's heir-apparent to Peyton Manning in Brock Osweiler, they snagged him a top-tier back in Lamar Miller.

The idea behind Miller's four-year, $26 million deal, which includes $14 million in guarantees, is similar to what Tampa Bay is thinking with Doug Martin. Balance is key. A strong run game can help a young quarterback. Now, when you game plan for the Texans, you have to worry about Nuk Hopkins through the air and Lamar Miller on the ground. That's big.

The Jaguars with an identity signing

The Jaguars under Gus Bradley have been built in many ways with the Seahawks' blueprint in mind, but one thing they've been missing over the past couple of years is a physical, dominating run game that can put games away and control the clock. Seattle's had that with Marshawn Lynch, and it was a key factor in the development of Russell Wilson as a passer. Well, the Jags now have many of the pieces to a top-tier passing attack with Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, but they finished 31st in rush attempts in 2015, a number that I'm sure Gus Bradley would like to see go way, way up.

The move they made tells the whole story. Chris Ivory, whose running style and physical ferocity has often been compared to Marshawn Lynch, signed in Jacksonville for five years and $32 million, with $10 million guaranteed and a $6.4 million APY. That's starter money, obviously, and Bradley and company plan to pair Ivory with T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson to hopefully put together a more balanced, physically intimidating offensive attack. It's about identity.

The Jets' triumvirate

With the loss of Chris Ivory in free agency, the Jets turned around and signed not one, not two, but three running backs to fill out their backfield. There's still the big question on who will be handing them the ball, but for now, it's pretty clear that New York is set with three quality ball-carriers. Additionally, they've got two solid pass catching backs to work with in Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, and Khiry Robinson is a bruiser that could handle short yardage and goal line situations if called upon. That's quite the committee.

Forte is locked up for three years and $12 million with $8 million guaranteed ($4.0M APY), Powell's deal is for three years, $11.25 million with $6 million guaranteed ($3.75M APY), and Robinson's on a one-year, $1.175 million deal.

* * *

The market for free agent running backs wasn't as splashy as the defensive linemen or cornerbacks, but with a weaker draft class at the position this year, teams evidently felt that it made sense to make some moves and bring in veteran backs to carry the water for their offenses. A few interesting backs are still out there, too -- Arian Foster, James Starks, Alfred Morris, Chris Johnson and LeGarrette Blount, just to name a few -- and the secondary market is about to heat up, but this first round of deals has the potential to help shape the fortunes of the clubs that made them.