Chris Wesseling

Offseason Low Down

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The 2011 Running Back Market

Tuesday, May 17, 2011




5. Kevin Smith, Lions

Scouting Report: The small 2010 sample size suggests Smith is the same back he was as a rookie. He's a pedestrian runner with above-average receiving skills. Unfortunately, his body is giving out after a ridiculous 450 carries his junior year at UCF, followed by a heavy workload his first season and a half in Detroit. Smith is coming off surgery to his thumb and right shoulder after spending last offseason recovering from a torn ACL. He also played through serious injuries to both shoulders in 2009.

Availability: The Lions failed to extend a tender to the three-year veteran, sending him to the open market. The Lions' actions suggest Smith is damaged goods. Though guaranteed money could be hard to come by, Smith may land a make-good deal as a backup / third-down back. He'll have to prove he's healthy in training camp and preseason action. Early offseason reports suggested Smith would love to play in Miami.

Prediction: Signs with Dolphins on non-guaranteed contract.

6. Clinton Portis, Redskins

Scouting Report: Due in large part to 325+ carries in four of his first five years with the Redskins, Portis is fourth among active backs in attempts before reaching his 30th birthday. Limited to 13-of-32 games the past two years, Portis has been dogged by serious concussion issues in addition to injuries to both knees, both ankles, a calf, a hip, his back, and his neck. While he can still grind out tough yards and pass block with the best of the best, Portis simply can't stay out of the trainers room. Any semblance of big-play ability vanished three years ago. It doesn't help Portis' cause that he's always a threat to run off at the mouth as well.

Availability: The Redskins released Portis in February, taking themselves off the hook for $25 million over the next three years -- including $8.25 million in 2011. With his body breaking down and his effectiveness waning, Portis offers little more than veteran savvy and killer pass protection. If he doesn't settle for the veteran minimum, there's a good chance Portis' NFL career is over. The Bears could give him a shot at protecting Jay Cutler if Chester Taylor fails to impress this summer.

Prediction: Signs with the Bears at the end of the summer.

7. Tiki Barber, Giants

Scouting Report: Barber is wading into uncharted waters as a 36-year-old back four years removed from his last carry. While the history of backs his age is rather ominous, Tiki does have several factors working in his favor. He was absolutely on top of his game when he walked away from a three-year average of 2,204 total yards in 2007. Additionally, his injury history is clean and his legs are fresh. What life he has left in those legs is pure guesswork, but it's certainly conceivable that Tiki could contribute valuable snaps on passing downs. Just remember: it wasn't that long ago when it was crazy to suggest the comebacks of Ricky Williams and Michael Vick would not go down in flames.

Availability: Barber's rights technically belong to the Giants, but the team has already made it clear that the 36-year-old will be released as soon as the lockout is officially lifted. Had they opted to retain Barber, the Mara family would be on the hook for the final two years of Barber's pre-retirement contract. Instead, Barber will try to latch on with his twin brother in Tampa, likely for the veteran league minimum plus incentives.

Prediction: Buccaneers on a one-year, $865,000 contract.

Other surefire free agent running backs: Cadillac Williams, Brian Westbrook, Jerious Norwood, Laurence Maroney, Julius Jones, Mike Bell, Mewelde Moore, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Larry Johnson, Dominic Rhodes, Ladell Betts, Kenneth Darby, Ladell Betts, Kareem Huggins

Three- to Five-Year Restricted Free Agents

1. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers

Scouting Report: Williams' 2010 per-play numbers slipped due to the Panthers' early-season QB and run-blocking woes. Over five years, his per-carry average of 5.0 yards stacks up with Barry Sanders and Chris Johnson -- and ahead of Adrian Peterson. As recently as 2008, he was arguably the best back in the NFL, showing great patience and vision, outstanding burst to the outside, toughness up the middle, and the requisite big play ability. Williams has missed 13 games the past two years with foot and ankle sprains, but the flip side is that he's never been overworked. His legs couldn't be more fresh heading into the 2011 season.

Availability: Williams drew a first- and third-round RFA tender from Carolina. As a veteran of five years, his freedom is dependant on the specifics of the next labor agrement. Having failed to erase doubts that he can handle the feature-back role in Denver, Knowshon Moreno will have plenty of company in the backfield under his new run-oriented head coach. John Fox's veteran fetish has an obvious outlet in form of Williams, who has starred under Fox's watch the past few seasons. Even if Williams ends up restricted again, the rebuilding Panthers are better off accepting draft picks in a trade.

Prediction: Broncos via trade or signing.

2. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants

Scouting Report: The all-purpose dual threat finally wrested control of the feature back job, breaking out for career-highs in carries (276), rushing yards (1,235), TDs (8), and receptions (47). Combining a big back's physicality with a small back's skill-set and elusiveness, Bradshaw graded out well in the ratings of Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. On the negative side, Bradshaw was benched late in the season with ball protection issues. He's also recovering from a fourth procedure to his ankles and feet in the past two offseasons.

Availability: The Giants entered the offseason assuring the four-year vet that his signing would be a "priority." Originally expected to draw the highest possible tender, Bradshaw ended up at the second-round level with the bulk of his free-agent teammates. The Giants were reluctant to tender any of their RFAs, "so they decided to just tender everyone the same." Bradshaw is coming off a true breakout campaign, but we suspect teams would still be hesitant to part with a second-round pick considering his injury history and smashmouth style.

Prediction: Giants on his one-year restricted tender, leading to a long-term deal.

3. Joseph Addai, Colts

Scouting Report: Addai is a mediocre runner lacking homerun-hitting ability, but he works well in the Colts offense as a strong pass blocker and outlet receiver. The coaching staff has done well to protect him with reasonable workloads, but he's still missed 13 games over the past three years -- including half of last season with nerve damage to his neck and shoulder area. The Colts sorely missed Addai when he was out of the lineup in 2010.

Availability: In the midst of a depressed running-back market, Addai is expected to return to Indianapolis on his one-year tender. The contract specifics could change pending the labor outcome, but Addai's options will be limited at age 28 and coming off an injury-ravaged season. His skill set is worth more to Peyton Manning and the Colts than it is to other teams.

Prediction: Colts on his one-year restricted tender.

4. Michael Bush, Raiders

Scouting Report: An injury concern coming into the league, Bush has missed just three games in three years compared to nine for starter Darren McFadden. Bush grades out as above average in running, blocking, and receiving in Pro Football Focus' player ratings. Also a fine short-yardage hammer, Bush is key backup capable of carrying a starter's workload in case of emergency.

Availability: There was some confusion as to whether the four-year veteran's rookie season counts toward free agency since he spent the year on the Non-football Injury list with a broken leg. The Raiders moved to cover their backside regardless, assigning a prohibitive first- and third-round tender to the power back. Owner Al Davis has no intention of losing Bush, new free-agent rules or not.

Prediction: Raiders on his one-year restricted tender.

5. Mike Tolbert, Chargers

Scouting Report: A throwback to the days of running fullbacks, Tolbert was a godsend for the Bolts' ground game with rookie Ryan Mathews nursing an assortment of injuries. At 5'9/245, Tolbert has the bowling ball effect down pat, bouncing off and rolling over defenders. Tolbert racked up 735 yards and 11 scores on 182 carries (4.0 YPC) while chipping in 25 receptions last season for career bests across the board. Mathews figures to get the starting nod in 2011, but he should give way to a stronger Tolbert on passing downs and short-yardage situations.

Availability: As a three-year vet, Tolbert's free agency is restricted regardless of the CBA outcome. The Chargers' second-round tender is sufficient enough to scare away potential suitors following the smash-mouth runner's emergence as a capable timeshare back. Tobert will return to San Diego as a complement to Mathews.

Prediction: Chargers on his one-year restricted tender.


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



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