Chris Wesseling

Offseason Low Down

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The 2011 Running Back Market

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." -- Bob Dylan

With apologies to ol' Mr. Zimmerman, we could use a weatherman right about now to decipher the winds of change in free agency. After faint February hope that mediation would lead to a new CBA freeing all four- and five-year vets, Judge Nelson's April injunction of the lockout seemed to herald a return to 2010 league rules.

Entering May, it was fair to believe an NFLPA win would be bittersweet for players with 4-5 years of accrued service. Mediation leading to a new CBA, on the other hand, would put those players back on the open market as unrestricted free agents. It seemed cut and dried as recently as last week that one of those two scenarios would play out. That's no longer the case. The NFL is now crafting alternative free-agency rules that will not replicate the 2010 blueprint. In other words, we could have a situation where four-year players remain beholden to their teams while five-year veterans gain freedom.

The upshot is that we have no idea on free-agency specifics as of press time. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart fantasy owners are already at their wits' end, pleading for serenity now.

What is clear post-draft is that free-agent running backs will find a depressed market once the new league year begins. The Bengals, Colts, and Giants are the teams with the most striking needs, but those could easily be filled by Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, and Ahmad Bradshaw. The majority of teams looking to round out their backfields will be shopping for complementary pieces, not workhorses.

As's Rob Rang recently pointed out, the running back position is becoming specialized like starting pitcher, middle reliever, setup-man, and closer in baseball. For that reason, chess pieces (i.e. Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush) could have far more value than average starters.

Let's start with running backs certain to be available once transactions are allowed.

Surefire Running Back Free Agents

1. Cedric Benson, Bengals

Scouting Report: Benson was one of the most overworked backs in the league in 2009, grinding out tough yards against a string of stout defenses on his way to a career year. Those 23 carries per game caught up with him last season, as his per-carry average dropped from 4.2 to 3.5. More worrisome, his only four games over 4.0 yards per carry came against defenses ranked 32nd, 28th and 27th (twice) against the run. Throw in a checkered off-the-field history, and there are enough red flags here to scare off teams putting in their due diligence.

Availability: Benson has made it crystal clear that he's looking for one last serious contract in free agency. The Bengals ignored running back until the seventh round of the draft, and coach Marvin Lewis acknowledges that re-signing Benson will be the top priority once free agency begins. Lewis wants to turn the clock back to 2009, saddle up his plowhorse again, and use a defense/ground attack now that the Bengals are moving on from Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens. In other words, the Bengals are set to make the same mistake in organizational philosophy that the Bears made in reaching for Benson at No. 4 overall in 2005. With the exception of the best defense of the past 25 years (2000 Ravens), stout defense and ball-control offense don't win Super Bowls -- elite quarterbacks do. Benson may think he can do better than $5 million per year. In related news, Benson is delusional.

Prediction: Bengals on a three-year, $15 million contract.

2. Darren Sproles, Chargers

Scouting Report: A true specialist, the undersized but explosive Sproles has been limited to passing-down duties and kick returns since entering the league. The past three years have taken on a Devin Hester effect. Sproles has shouldered more responsibility in the passing game only to see his effectiveness on returns wane. It's just as well. There hasn't been a better receiving back in the league since the start of the 2008 season, so Sproles' return duties should be scaled back as a nod to his passing-game prowess.

Availability: After collecting $13.9 million under the franchise tag the past two seasons, Sproles is due to finally hit the open market. The Bolts are expected to at least make an offer, but they're almost certain to be outbid by teams in need of a passing-down threat and kick-returner. The Dolphins and Rams figure to show the most interest. Tony Sparano is looking for a "homerun hitter" in the passing game while Josh McDaniels needs a Danny Woodhead type to round out his 2010 Patriots' attack in St. Louis.

Prediction: Rams on a four-year, $14 million contract.

3. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins

Scouting Report: Brown's per-play performance was down across the board, finishing with a career-worst 3.68 yards per carry in a contract year. Worse, his per-carry average dropped to 3.00 flat over the final eight games of the season while he was consistently outplayed by a 33-year-old Ricky Williams. A "walking stitch in personnel medical terms," Brown is a 29-year-old back with major wear and tear knee issues. One of the most dynamic backs in the league before a 2007 ACL tear, Brown is now purely a role player.

Availability: Bill Belichick is a big Brown fan, but that well dried up when the Pats drafted two backs in the first three rounds last month. The Dolphins have sidestepped questions about re-signing Brown. With big back Daniel Thomas now on board, GM Jeff Ireland is expected to target a "scatback" to share the load. The Dolphins have no depth behind Thomas, though, and Brown is "very interested" in returning to Miami with little projected interest on the open market.

Prediction: Dolphins on a two-year, $7 million contract.

4. Ricky Williams, Dolphins

Scouting Report: Maybe it was the three-year sabbatical. Maybe it's the yoga. Whatever the cause, the effect is that Williams has yet to hit the running-back wall as he enters his mid-30s. While Ronnie Brown wore down noticeably in November and December, Williams maintained an even per-carry average of 4.2 throughout the season. Considering the Dolphins' run-blocking woes late last year, it's realistic to believe Ricky can play at a high level for at least one more season.

Availability: Williams was expected to walk away from the game after his one-year extension ran out in early January. He reversed course, instead, suggesting he had hit on the "right formula" for stay healthy and successful into his mid-30s. Williams would prefer to stay in Miami, but he hasn't been given "reason for optimism" on that front. He can still help a contender in a complementary role. Parcells coaching tree member Todd Haley could use Ricky in Kansas City as between-the-tackles insurance for a rapidly declining Thomas Jones.

Prediction: Chiefs on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

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Chris Wesseling is a senior football editor and Dynasty league analyst for The 2011 NFL season marks his fifth year with Rotoworld and his third year contributing to He can be found on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.
Email :Chris Wesseling

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