Evan Silva

Offseason Low Down

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Running Backs: On the Move?

Monday, January 07, 2013

Accessible via Nick Mensio's Master List, this year's free agent running back class is topped off by three or four capable starters and roughly ten viable No. 2 backs. Cap cuts and trade candidates can strengthen the 2013 running back market. When attempting to pinpoint backs that might be on the offseason move, we begin with high-salaried players and progress toward running backs nearing the end of contracts, on teams who likely have no intention of extending them long term.

Release Candidates:

Chris Johnson -- $9 million of Johnson's $10 million 2013 base salary will become guaranteed on February 9. While the Titans could theoretically cut Johnson before that date and take themselves off the hook for the remainder of the guarantees in his contract, the Nashville Tennessean has reported that they'll keep Johnson and pay him in full. Despite maddening inconsistency, the Titans view Johnson as a core offensive player and have plenty of 2013 cap space to retain him.

DeAngelo Williams -- Signed to one of the worst running back contracts in league history two offseasons ago, Williams turns 30 in April and is owed $4.75 million in 2013 base pay after averaging a full yard less per carry than he did in 2011. All of Williams' guaranteed money has been paid, but the $4.85 million hit to release him may be prohibitive for cap-strapped Carolina.

Ahmad Bradshaw -- Bradshaw's feet and knees have become unreliable to the point that he can barely practice anymore leading up to games. Although still effective on the field, the Giants may deem Bradshaw's $4 million in salary and bonuses too costly for a likely timeshare back lacking durability. They could save $1.5 million versus the cap by releasing Bradshaw after the season.

Michael Turner -- Turner is the surest big-name veteran running back to be released this offseason after first-year Falcons coordinator Dirk Koetter progressively phased him out of the offense as the 2012 season moved along. Lacking short-area burst and passing-game value, Turner turns 31 in February and is owed a $5.5 million salary, none of which is guaranteed.

More Murky Futures:

Maurice Jones-Drew -- MJD skipped all of 2012 training camp due to a contract dispute that went unaddressed by the Jaguars. Now coming off major foot surgery, Jones-Drew definitely won't get the pay raise he wants. Turning 28 in March, Jones-Drew is owed $4.95 million in 2013 base salary. Jacksonville could free up over $3 million in cap space by shipping him to a contender.

Darren McFadden -- McFadden proved a square peg in a round hole for Oakland's new zone-run scheme, averaging a career-worst 3.27 yards per carry while failing to play more than 13 games for a fifth straight season. The 25-year-old is owed $5,856,250 in 2013, the final year of his rookie contract. If GM Reggie McKenzie decides McFadden is a poor long-term fit for the Raiders and won't be extended, Oakland could look to salvage an early- to mid-round draft pick via trade. The firing of playcaller Greg Knapp does increase the chances McFadden will return to the Raiders.

Ben Tate -- 2013 is the final year of Tate's rookie contract, so this is the offseason to do it if the Texans are ever going to trade him. Considering Houston's vehemently run-heavy approach and Arian Foster's overwhelming 2012 workload, however, Tate wouldn't be available for cheap. The Texans might hold out for a first-round pick as trade compensation. Tate probably isn't going anywhere.

Ryan Mathews -- The Chargers have yet to hire a general manager or coaching staff, and it'll be they who determine Mathews' future. Outgoing Norv Turner determined Mathews was incapable of being a franchise running back due to concerns over durability, vision, and lack of versatility. Mathews is still a big-time talent with a small-beans 2013 base salary ($1,195,500), so in all likelihood he'll return to San Diego unless a team blows off the Chargers' socks with a trade offer.

Chris Ivory -- Restricted free agent Ivory will likely receive a second-round tender worth $2.023 million. Underutilized the past two seasons in a crowded backfield, Ivory has made the most of his chances with a 5.11 career yards-per-carry average. He could be a difference-making power back addition for a team willing to take a chance on Ivory staying healthy. The Saints likely have no intent of signing Ivory long term, so this offseason is their opportunity to get something for him.

Pierre Thomas -- If the Saints prefer to hold onto Ivory, Thomas could be the odd man out of the backfield. New Orleans would absorb no cap hit to release Thomas while freeing up $2.5 million -- $2.1 million in base salary and $400,000 in offseason bonuses. He's due a $300,000 roster bonus in early March. Thomas, 28, is one of the better screen-play backs in the game and has averaged 4.81 yards per carry the past two seasons, so there would be a solid market for his services.

Beanie Wells -- The days of two-down thumper backs who possess zero passing-game value are nearing an end in the NFL, boding poorly for the likes of Wells, Shonn Greene, and LeGarrette Blount. Thoroughly ineffective when healthy in 2012, Wells was benched for the season finale, with the Arizona Republic suggesting his relationship with the team is "beyond repair." Due $1.158 million in the last year of his rookie contract, Wells might be available for a late-round pick.

Shane Vereen -- Vereen was the Pats' 2011 second-round pick and is signed cheaply through 2014, but the fact that he's fourth on the depth chart creates an air of uncertainty. Vereen was outplayed by undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden this season, and is also buried behind Stevan Ridley. On the field, Vereen has not had the look of an impact runner. It's worth noting that Danny Woodhead is a free agent. There is an outside chance Vereen could inherit his passing-back role.

LeGarrette Blount -- Doug Martin ran laps around Blount in 2012, and D.J. Ware's passing-game value pushed him to third on the depth chart by season's end. Blount played double-digit snaps in just one of Tampa Bay's final eight games. Now a restricted free agent, Blount may be deemed by the Bucs unworthy of the $1.323 million right-of-first-refusal tender required to retain him.

Donald Brown -- A poor fit for Bruce Arians' power-running offense, Brown lost his lead back job to fifth-round rookie Vick Ballard before knee and ankle injuries sent him to injured reserve in early December. The former first-round pick runs fast in a straight line, but dances in the backfield and makes no one miss. Brown is due $1.705 million in the final year of his rookie deal. If aggressive GM Ryan Grigson could salvage a mid- to late-round pick, he'd probably jump at the opportunity.

James Starks -- Injury prone dating back to the University of Buffalo, Starks has missed 26 of a possible 48 games since entering the league three seasons ago. Also a plodder on the ground, Starks managed just 3.59 yards per carry in six 2012 appearances and now enters the last year of his rookie deal. Turning 26 in February, Starks is not the answer for Green Bay's run-game woes.

Dexter McCluster -- McCluster is a contract-year back who's struggled for an NFL fit. It's perhaps notable that ESPN's Sal Paolantonio and Sirius Radio's Adam Caplan reported before the 2010 draft that Andy Reid was "smitten" with and "really high" on McCluster. The Chiefs' new coach could buy McCluster another year in Kansas City as a pass-game asset in a pass-first offense.

Anthony Dixon -- Dixon played just 30 offensive snaps all season in San Francisco, although he did contribute four special teams tackles. He was still buried on the running back depth chart, and that won't change in 2013 with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James all returning. 233 pounds and 25 years old, Dixon might attract seventh-round pick offers on the trade market.

Dion Lewis -- The Eagles were willing to part with Lewis ahead of October's trade deadline, but found no takers. Lewis fell behind seventh-round pick Bryce Brown, and was used sparingly in a change-of-pace role when LeSean McCoy missed four games. Undersized at 5-foot-8, 195 and lacking power, Lewis won't be assured of a roster spot under the Eagles' new coaching staff.

Taiwan Jones -- The Raiders' coaching staff didn't trust Jones to hold onto the football or pass protect, so his 4.3 straight-line speed went to waste on the bench in 2012 as Marcel Reece and Jeremy Stewart carried the mail when Darren McFadden got hurt. Jones is a holdover from the Al Davis Era, and even offered late in the season to change positions to cornerback in order to get some playing time. The rebuilding Raiders might listen to seventh-round pick offers if any come.

Delone Carter -- A Polian Era fourth-round pick, Carter has trudged his way to a 3.75 yards-per-carry average through two seasons. He's an asset only as a short-yardage back. Carter is a zero in the passing game and has no big-play ability, so he'd surely be available in the unlikely event a team wanted to trade for him. More likely, he'll head to Colts camp competing for a roster spot.

Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
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