Restricted Free Agent Running Backs
1. Arian Foster, Texans
Scouting Report: The NFL's premier one-cut zone runner, Foster's acceleration after he sticks his foot in the ground separates him from productive backs who play in similar schemes. A 25-year-old self-made player, Foster has climbed football's steepest ladder from undrafted free agent, to the practice squad, to the league's leading rusher. He is a true every-down back, ranking second in the NFL in receptions among running backs in 2010 and fifth in 2011 despite missing three games. Foster is averaging 4.70 yards per carry for his career.
Availability: While Foster has shown enough that he likely could produce in any scheme, he has the most value in Houston because he's fully grasped the system and is the offense's lynchpin. The Texans tied for first in the league in 2011 rushing attempts and ranked second in rushing offense. At very least, GM Rick Smith will slap a first-round tender on Foster and require any team interested in signing him to an offer sheet to fork over a top-32 draft pick. Smith could even consider franchise tagging Foster. The bottom line is he isn't going anywhere.
Prediction: Texans on a five-year, $45 million contract.
2. Kahlil Bell, Bears
Scouting Report: Bell went undrafted after running 4.74 at the 2009 Combine, but he's been a more effective NFL back than the measurable suggests. The 25-year-old is averaging 4.68 yards per career carry and racked up 19 catches in four late-season spot appearances in 2011. Bell goes 5-foot-11, 219. He can get what's blocked and is not a liability in pass protection.
Availability: Bell was originally undrafted out of UCLA, so he wouldn't be safe with an "original pick" tender because a team could sign Bell away without coughing up a draft choice. Look for the Bears to extend Bell the second-round tender and re-sign him to a one-year deal.
Prediction: Bears on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.
3. Marcel Reece, Raiders
Scouting Report: Reece played wideout at the University of Washington, where he averaged over 20 yards per career reception. Despite a 4.42 forty at the Huskies' 2008 Pro Day, Reece was viewed as a "tweener" by NFL evaluators and went undrafted. In parts of four seasons with Oakland, Reece has flashed explosive ability as a fullback, averaging 4.98 yards per carry. He's scored five receiving TDs over the past two seasons. Reece is not a true lead blocker, so he needs a creative playcaller to find ways to get him the rock and capitalize on his playmaking skills.
Availability: New Raiders coordinator Greg Knapp runs a West Coast offense and has utilized backs similar to Reece in the past. Knapp oversaw T.J. Duckett and Justin Griffith's best seasons in Atlanta, and William Floyd was a versatile weapon at fullback with Knapp on the 49ers' staff in the late 1990s. Reece may not quite be headed for a breakout year, but staying with the Raiders could be a good situation for him. Expect Reece to stick on a second-round tender.
Prediction: Raiders on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.
Other restricted free agent running backs: La'Rod Stephens-Howling, Tony Fiammetta, Lex Hilliard, Lorenzo Booker, Kregg Lumpkin, Chris Pressley, Brock Bolen, Brit Miller.
1. Darren McFadden, Raiders
Overview: We don't expect McFadden to be traded, but the possibility has been floated by beat writers in Oakland. Though injury prone and only moderately expensive ($5.65 million salary), McFadden is the Raiders' single biggest offensive difference maker. It's worth noting that Oakland is implementing a zone-blocking scheme, and McFadden struggled in a similar system under ex-coach Tom Cable. Still, trading McFadden isn't worth it for the Raiders. His trade value is adversely affected by a season-ending Lisfranc injury, and the team won't be willing to hitch its wagon to 28-year-old free agent Michael Bush. New OC Greg Knapp is one of the most run-minded playcallers of the modern era. He's going to want to keep his best back.
Prediction: Stays with Raiders.
2. Felix Jones, Cowboys
Overview: Unlike college teammate McFadden, Jones is entering a contract year and makes sense as a trade candidate after DeMarco Murray's 2011 emergence. While Jones has averaged an impressive 5.08 yards per career carry, he's blown repeated opportunities to be Dallas' feature back, due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness. Only 24, Jones is a dynamic home-run threat best cutout for a change-of-pace role. More negatives include ball security (ten fumbles 2009-11), poor pass protection, and suspect instincts when running inside the tackles. Ultimately, it's more likely Jones stays with the Cowboys as the lightning to Murray's thunder. Interested teams won't offer more than a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and Dallas views itself as a contender.
Prediction: Stays with Cowboys.
3. Ben Tate, Texans
Overview: The Texans almost certainly won't trade Tate because he's a starting-capable back in the league's most run-heavy offense, and costs a meager $490K. They're going to get phone calls, though. Houston intends to sign Arian Foster to a long-term contract, and the 23-year-old Tate emerged as one of football's top young power backs in 2011 by averaging 5.38 yards per carry and finishing as a top-20 NFL rusher despite making only two starts. Tate is still developing in the passing game, but has flashed vicious ability as a pass blocker. If the Texans do listen to offers, don't expect them to budge off a first-round asking price. Tate is a big-time player.
Prediction: Stays with Texans.
4. Chris Ivory, Saints
Overview: A north-south collision runner completely devoid of passing-game value, Ivory has flourished whenever given opportunities to be the Saints' early-down back. Appearing in 18 games through two years, Ivory has averaged 5.05 yards per carry with six touchdowns. The relentless, take-no-prisoners style has led to an array of injuries, however. Ivory blew out a knee five games into his senior college season. Undrafted in 2010, he missed time as a rookie with an MCL injury, concussion, separated shoulder, and a hamstring strain. Ivory suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot in Week 17. He also underwent hernia surgery during the 2011 offseason and missed one game with another hamstring injury last season. Ivory is only two years into the league, and he's already got a laundry list of medical flags. The Saints will be all ears in regard to trade offers because he's fourth string behind Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram.
Prediction: Elsewhere before 2012 trade deadline.
5. Anthony Dixon
Overview: Dixon has a power back's build at 6-foot-1, 248, but he has frustrated two separate coaching staffs with a tendency to dance around the line of scrimmage. He quickly fell behind rookie Kendall Hunter in 2011 training camp, playing only 52 regular season snaps. Dixon did contribute six tackles on special teams. While Dixon remains a work in progress entering his third NFL season, there is still some potential for him to emerge as a poor man's Michael Bush. The 24-year-old entered the league with polished receiving skills coming out of Mississippi State, and Dixon has pass blocked effectively when called upon. With Hunter and Frank Gore both signed through 2014, Dixon may be deemed expendable this offseason.
Prediction: Traded to Buccaneers for sixth-round pick.
More Running Back Trade Candidates: Mike Goodson, Rashad Jennings, Javon Ringer, D.J. Ware.
1. Michael Turner, Falcons
Overview: The wheels are coming off. Turner's 2010 finish sent up red flags when he managed 436 yards on 121 carries (3.60 YPC) in the last six games against perhaps the NFL's softest run-defense schedule. The decline began sooner in 2011. Turner was bottled up for 280 yards on 84 carries (3.33 YPC) in Weeks 12-16 before a fluky 172-yard Week 17 game against a Bucs defense that gave up in November. Burned out and prone to negative runs, Turner was held to 15 rushes for 41 yards in the Falcons' playoff loss. Turner has a limiting effect on the offense because he can't play in the hurry-up without passing-game skills. He turned 30 this week and is owed a $5 million salary. The team has already spoken openly of limiting Turner's role in 2012.
Prediction: Released after the draft.
2. Brandon Jacobs, Giants
Overview: Jacobs agreed to a restructured contract to stay in New York after a surprise 2010 renaissance, averaging a career-best 5.60 yards per carry with nine TDs. Jacobs' per-play production slipped dramatically at age 29, posting a 3.76 YPC mark while forced into a larger role due to Ahmad Bradshaw's four missed games. Jacobs isn't a featurable back and is now going on 30 with $4.9 million coming due in bonuses and salary. Outed by ESPN's Jerry Rice for tip-toeing behind the line and getting tackled by "190-pound defensive backs" in 2011, Jacobs often runs as if he's more concerned with his long-term well being than extra yards. Jacobs is a negative in the passing game as well as the running game when he's not playing hard. He may have to accept a pay cut all the way to the eight-year veteran's minimum to stay with the Giants.
Prediction: Released in early March.
3. Joseph Addai, Colts
Overview: Scuffling through another injury-plagued year, Addai missed four games with a right hamstring strain in 2011 after sitting out eight the previous season with a severe neck injury. By the end of last season, former first-round bust Donald Brown had overtaken Addai as the Colts' best option at tailback. Peyton Manning was behind Addai's re-signing in late July, and the face of the franchise is now moving on. Addai is a sluggish, injury-prone ball carrier whose value lies almost strictly in his pass-protection skills. He's probably not much longer for the NFL.
Prediction: Released, resurfaces with team that signs Manning.
4. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos
Overview: Moreno was pushed as an aggressive, competitive runner with every-down tools coming out of Georgia in 2009, but his poor Speed Score forewarned of an ordinary back lacking big-play ability. Replacing Donte' Stallworth as the NFL's Human Hamstring Pull, Moreno suffered multiple leg injuries in his first two seasons before tearing his right ACL last November. In the meantime, Moreno lost his starting job to 30-year-old Willis McGahee and played sparingly under Denver's new coaching staff. On February 1, Moreno was pinched for DUI in a Bentley with a license plate that read "SAUCED." He is due an $855,000 salary in 2012.
Prediction: Waived at final cuts.
5. Marion Barber, Bears
Overview: Barber couldn't overcome lower-leg injuries during his final few seasons in Dallas, and they reappeared in 2011 training camp with the Bears. He missed the first three games with a calf injury, as well as the final two with a similar ailment. It stands to reason that Barber wasn't 100 percent all season, and he hasn't been at full health since 2009. Barber's passing-game skills are eroding and he's not nearly the tackle breaker he once was. After 1,335 career touches, many of a high-velocity collision variety, Barber's body is breaking down at age 29.
Prediction: Released in March, catches on in a camp.
More Running Back Release Candidates: Greg Jones, Brandon Jackson, Ovie Mughelli, Mike Sellers.