4. Cedric Benson, Bengals
Scouting Report: Benson does fit the description of a one-dimensional power back and must be paired with a complementary runner who plays in passing situations. He struggles mightily as a receiver and has never learned to block. Benson does well to stay north-south and finishes his runs, but he's exceeded 4.0 yards per carry in just one of the past four seasons. Now 29, Benson is in the twilight of his career. He also has a checkered off-field history and openly criticized the Bengals' coaching staff after the season. Benson is not expected back in Cincinnati.
Availability: The Bengals have two first-round picks following last October's Carson Palmer trade, and are tentatively expected to use one of them on a new starting tailback. Benson has never taken well to playing second fiddle in a backfield, but he's going to have to suck it up in order to continue his playing career. Benson's skill set is so limited and his character so unsavory that he'll have very little market appeal. He may struggle to find a new home before training camp.
Prediction: Chargers on a one-year, $2 million contract.
5. Mike Tolbert, Chargers
Scouting Report: Tolbert is the anti-Benson. He runs with power and purpose and can play in all phases of the game. In San Diego, the Chargers were comfortable bringing former No. 12 overall pick Ryan Mathews along slowly because Tolbert was so sound in the pass game and chews up every blocked yard. He excels in short-yardage and goal-line situations. A 5-foot-9, 243-pound bowling ball, Tolbert is only 26, can function as a third-down and powerful change-of-pace back, and even made ten special teams tackles in 2011. He's going to have many suitors.
Availability: The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that Tolbert will test the market, seeking to max out his worth after four solid seasons as a Charger. While Tolbert's lack of explosiveness will prevent him from signing for feature back money, the market should be kind because he's a major passing-game asset in a pass-first league. The Ravens make some sense as a team that runs an offense similar to San Diego's, though they are expected to be in on free agent FB/RB Le'Ron McClain. The Cowboys and Rams also run Norv Turner-style offenses.
Prediction: Cowboys on a four-year, $12 million contract.
6. Kevin Smith, Lions
Scouting Report: At 6-foot-1, 217, Smith is a well-built runner with some lateral hops and elusiveness. He ran 4.43 at the 2008 Combine. Smith's bread and butter is the passing game, where he is a sure-handed check-down receiver and can make defenders miss in space. Since entering the NFL following a 450-carry season at Central Florida, however, Smith's biggest obstacle has been health. The 25-year-old suffered a recurring shoulder injury as a rookie, then tore his ACL in December of 2009. He underwent season-ending thumb surgery the next season, resurfaced with the Lions late in 2011, and suffered a high ankle sprain in his second game back.
Availability: The current Lions regime did not draft Smith, but they are familiar with his injury history and potential. He just can't stay healthy. The Lions are also nursing back Jahvid Best from two concussions, however, and Mikel Leshoure from a torn Achilles' tendon. Taking one more shot on Smith makes sense because he knows OC Scott Linehan's offense and is at the very least insurance for Detroit's other injury-plagued backs. Smith should also come cheap.
Prediction: Lions on a one-year, $2 million contract.
7. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots
Scouting Report: Originally undrafted out of Ole Miss, Green-Ellis has parlayed pedestrian talent into a productive career through reliability, durability, and a bruising running style. Green-Ellis has not fumbled in 536 career touches and has never missed a game due to injury. One of the NFL's better goal-line backs, Green-Ellis has scored 22 of his 29 career rushing touchdowns from inside the five-yard line. Just one has come from beyond the opposing 16. Green-Ellis lacks big-play ability and offers little in the passing game. He is a system back, converting short-yardage scoring opportunities that wouldn't be available in offenses less potent than New England's. In 2011, he did not hit a single run of longer than 18 yards on 181 carries.
Availability: The Pats used 2011 second-day picks on more explosive youngsters Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and won't overpay to retain Green-Ellis. Because Green-Ellis is still relatively young (27 before the season) with a productive track record, he may be overvalued on the open market by running back-needy teams. Green-Ellis has history with Chiefs GM Scott Pioli and knows the ins and outs of new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense. Chiefs starter Jamaal Charles is coming off a torn left ACL, while Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones are both free agents.
Prediction: Chiefs on a four-year, $11.5 million contract.
8. Justin Forsett, Seahawks
Scouting Report: Still the holder of an impressive 4.63 yards-per-carry average in his four-year career, Forsett's production sagged in 2011 as his role diminished. According to Pro Football Focus, Forsett's snaps played fell from 492 in 2010 to 294. Seahawks coaches wanted Leon Washington more involved on offense, and a streaking Marshawn Lynch became impossible to take off the field down the stretch. Forsett does hold his own in blitz pickup despite modest size (5'9/198), and the 26-year-old excels as a receiver out of the backfield. As a ball carrier, Forsett lacks pop and struggles inside the tackles, but displays elusive qualities and has primarily played in zone-blocking schemes dating back to college. He is a shifty, change-of-pace/third-down back.
Availability: Forsett's decreased usage suggests the Seahawks don't envision him as part of the long-term plan. The current regime did "inherit" Forsett, after all, and aggressively pursued Washington before signing him to an extension last March. Forsett has ties to Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, as well as new Bears quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates.
Prediction: Raiders on a two-year, $5 million contract.
Other running back free agents: Tim Hightower, Jason Snelling, Le'Ron McClain, Jacob Hester, Steve Slaton, Cadillac Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant, Jackie Battle, Michael Robinson, Sammy Morris, Mewelde Moore, Maurice Morris, Tashard Choice, Jerome Felton, Derrick Ward, Thomas Jones, Spencer Larsen, Jerious Norwood, Chester Taylor.