If history is any guide, then teams without a franchise quarterback will be more likely to sign their primary running back to an extension. That is easier to say generally than predict specifically. Rookie backs from the front half of the draft tend to sign four-year contracts that become team-friendly if the back becomes a workhorse. From those contracts, we have an end date. By then, the quarterback of the team and his contract situation are less clearly defined. However, with the information we have, we can make educated projections of which backs have a better chance of a new contract than others.
I selected 39 running backs still on their original contracts. For players with some NFL service time, I included only those that have played or look to have that opportunity before their contracts expire. For rookies, I was less selective. I included anyone I believed had a realistic chance to play and excluded my own opinions on which would be successful. For the purposes of this study, I am only interested in which players will be in the right situation at the right time to become a franchise back.
|Team||Player||UFA||Expected QB at UFA||QB Age at UFA||Contract||Cap at UFA|
|Arizona||Beanie Wells||2014||Kevin Kolb||30||Yes||$11,650,000|
|Arizona||Ryan Williams||2015||Kevin Kolb||31||Yes||$11,650,000|
|Atlanta||Jacquizz Rodgers||2015||Matt Ryan||30||No|
|Baltimore||Ray Rice||2013||Joe Flacco||28||No|
|Baltimore||Bernard Pierce||2016||Joe Flacco||31||No|
|Buffalo||C. J. Spiller||2015||Ryan Fitzpatrick||32||Yes||$10,400,000|
|Carolina||Jonathan Stewart||2013||Cam Newton||24||Yes||$6,000,000|
|Chicago||Matt Forte||2013||Jay Cutler||30||Yes||$10,370,000|
|Cincinnati||Dan Herron||2016||Andy Dalton||28||No|
|Cleveland||Trent Richardson||2016*||Brandon Weeden||32||No|
|Dallas||DeMarco Murray||2015||Tony Romo||35||No|
|Denver||Ronnie Hillman||2016*||Peyton Manning||40||Yes*||$19,000,000|
|Detroit||Jahvid Best||2015||Matthew Stafford||27||No|
|Detroit||Mikel Leshoure||2015||Matthew Stafford||27||No|
|Green Bay||James Starks||2014||Aaron Rodgers||30||Yes||$13,600,000|
|Houston||Ben Tate||2014||Matt Schaub||33||No|
|Indianapolis||Donald Brown||2014||Andrew Luck||24||No**|
|Indianapolis||Delone Carter||2015||Andrew Luck||25||No**|
|Miami||Daniel Thomas||2015||Ryan Tannehill||27||No**|
|Miami||Lamar Miller||2016||Ryan Tannehill||28||No|
|New England||Shane Vereen||2015||Tom Brady||38||No|
|New England||Stevan Ridley||2015||Tom Brady||38||No|
|New Orleans||Mark Ingram||2015||Drew Brees||36||No**|
|New York Giants||David Wilson||2016||Eli Manning||35||No|
|New York Jets||Shonn Greene||2013||Mark Sanchez||26||Yes||$10,350,000|
|New York Jets||Bilal Powell||2015||Mark Sanchez||28||Yes||$15,600,000|
|New York Jets||Terrance Ganaway||2016||Mark Sanchez||29||Yes||$13,800,000|
|Oakland||Darren McFadden||2014||Carson Palmer||34||Yes||$18,900,000|
|Pittsburgh||Rashard Mendenhall||2013||Ben Roethlisberger||31||Yes||$19,600,000|
|Pittsburgh||Isaac Redman||2013||Ben Roethlisberger||31||Yes||$19,600,000|
|Pittsburgh||Chris Rainey||2016||Ben Roethlisberger||34||No|
|San Diego||Ryan Mathews||2015||Philip Rivers||33||Yes||$19,500,000|
|San Francisco||Kendall Hunter||2015||Alex Smith||31||No|
|San Francisco||LaMichael James||2016||Alex Smith||32||No|
|St. Louis||Isaiah Pead||2016*||Sam Bradford||28||No|
|Tampa Bay||LaGarrette Blount||2013||Josh Freeman||25||Yes||$10,430,000|
|Tampa Bay||Doug Martin||2016||Josh Freeman||28||No|
|Washington||Roy Helu||2015||Robert Griffin III||25||No**|
|Washington||Evan Royster||2013||Robert Griffin III||23||No**|
Fewer than half of the quarterbacks I expect to be the starters when their backs become unrestricted free agents will still be under contract. However, not all quarterback contracts are created equally, and they can affect their backs in different ways.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Jonathan Stewart, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, James Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, and Isaac Redman will become free agents while their franchise quarterbacks are still in their prime. Of those, only Stewart and Mendenhall have demonstrated the ability to be a feature back, and I believe that makes them the least likely to be resigned. If Stewart leaves for another team, that will likely be to his benefit in fantasy. His touches and touchdowns have been limited next to DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton. If Mendenhall leaves for another team, that will likely be to his detriment in fantasy. The Steelers are an ideal situation for Mendenhall, and few other teams will give their primary back close to 350 touches, which he had in his healthy 2010 season.
DeMarco Murray, Ronnie Hillman, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Mark Ingram, and David Wilson will all have franchise quarterbacks in or near their declines. Peyton Manning will be 40 when Hillman reaches free agency. By that time, his contract is year-to-year, and he will be near the end, if he has not retired previously. Based on their quarterbacks’ ages, Hillman is followed by Vereen and Ridley. The question for Brady, then 38, is the same as for Brees, then 36, and for Eli Manning and Tony Romo, then 35. How will their next contracts look? The Broncos have outs if Peyton Manning suffers neck injuries, but otherwise, he has a guaranteed contract to age 39. If that becomes the precedent for the other elite quarterbacks, as I expect, then Hillman is the only one of the set that will reach free agency late enough for his team to afford him a new deal.
To a lesser extent, Ben Tate, Chris Rainey, and Ryan Mathews are in the same boat. When Rainey reaches free agency, Roethlisberger will be 34, and while Roethlisberger is an atypical franchise quarterback, Rainey would be an atypical franchise back. Andrea Hangst (@FBALL_Andrea) believes he is of the Dexter McCluster mold, and if that is the case, he will not be a candidate for a major workload. Tate and Mathews are, but both will have franchise quarterbacks at age 33, likely still in their primes. And Tate is restricted by Arian Foster’s contract and Mathews by Philip Rivers’ contract, making it difficult for their teams to commit major dollars to either of them.
Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Matt Forte, Dan Herron, Trent Richardson, Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Daniel Thomas, Lamar Miller, Isaiah Pead, LaGarrette Blount, Doug Martin, Roy Helu, and Evan Royster have potential franchise quarterbacks. Rice and Forte are in the same situation that Houston was in with Arian Foster. I do not believe the Ravens and the Bears are convinced that Flacco and Cutler can win the Super Bowl, but each has shown it, if inconsistently—Flacco was positive-rated in PFF score in 2010 but not in 2011, and Cutler was the opposite—and each has been far enough in the playoffs that they have little choice but to commit to them. That creates a catch-22 for their backs. Neither Flacco nor Cutler is the kind of elite player that can compensate for major offensive holes, but if they resign Rice and Forte, that will lead to cap problems at other positions. Their teams will be stuck with major weaknesses whatever they choose. I expect them both to get deals, but if the Ravens allow Rice to walk after his franchise year, then Pierce becomes a real candidate for a deal in 2016 if Flacco is unable to raise his game while in his traditional prime.
Dan Herron was drafted into a situation similar to that of Jacquizz Rodgers. Behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Herron will likely not have the opportunity to prove himself a primary back until near the end of his rookie contract. Still, that could be better for him in the long run. Andy Dalton looks like he will become a franchise quarterback, and if he receives that kind of contract extension, the Bengals would be hard-pressed to pay Herron like a franchise back. However, if Herron shows flashes in only limited work, that could hold down his price tag and make him a viable long-term option for them. I see the same potential for Rodgers and for Isaac Redman.
The new rookie salary scale has changed the way freshman quarterbacks effect the rest of their teams. Sam Bradford was drafted into the top-10 in annual salary. Now, the teams that hit on their early quarterback selections will have several years of cost protection, and running backs that hit free agency during that window could become the beneficiaries. Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Daniel Thomas, Roy Helu and Evan Royster will likely fall into that scenario (I made the assumption that Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, and Robert Griffin III would sign four-year deals).
Meanwhile, Trent Richardson and Lamar Miller are rookie backs who will be paired with rookie quarterbacks. Their fates could be determined by the effectiveness of Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill. Should either quarterback struggle, their teams will be more willing to draft a replacement than in the past when rookie contracts were prohibitive. The Panthers set that precedent in 2011 by selecting Cam Newton a year after drafting Jimmy Clausen with their first pick. A similar scenario would push Richardson and Miller into that window with Brown, Carter, Thomas, Helu, and Royster.
Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman are not rookies, but they share that kind of uncertainty. Freeman has two years left on his deal and so has a limited time frame to duplicate his success (+9.0 overall) from 2010. An inability to do so would open the door for either LaGarrette Blount or Doug Martin to become the keystone of that offense. Bradford has four years before he is a free agent, the same as his new running back Isaiah Pead. The concern with Bradford is more with his health than his ability, but continued ineffectiveness, whatever the cause, could lead to a substantial pay cut for him. Pead looks to inherit the workload from Steven Jackson when he retires, and if 2011 becomes the norm for Bradford, Pead could find himself as the focal point of the team.
Finally, there are several teams without a potential franchise quarterback. To various degrees, the Cardinals are committed to Kevin Kolb, the Bills to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Jets to Mark Sanchez, the Raiders to Carson Palmer, and the 49ers to Alex Smith. For those teams to be successful, they will need to lean heavily on their running games, and without a quarterback in the top-10 in salary at his position, they should be able to sign any running back that becomes elite for them. Those potential backs are Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, C. J. Spiller, Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell, Terrance Ganaway, Darren McFadden, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James.
In summary, there are four major situations that I believe can provide a better chance of a long-term workload commitment for a running back still on his rookie contract. When he reaches free agency, he should prefer (1) a franchise quarterback nearing the end, (2) a cost-protected franchise quarterback, (3) a quarterback bust, or (4) an inexpensive, non-franchise quarterback. For situations 1, 2 and 4, we can already predict that will be a likely scenario for some backs. Personally, I would target Ryan Williams, Ronnie Hillman, Donald Brown, LaMichael James, and Roy Helu, all of whom I believe are undervalued in dynasty ADP given what I believe of their long-term potential. For situation 3, I want to closely follow the 2012 seasons of Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, and Ryan Tannehill, in particular. Their successes and failures will cascade to their backfields. Should any of them play poorly, you may have a window to acquire Isaiah Pead, Doug Martin, and Lamar Miller before their value is fully realized by the market.
Questions and comments are always welcome via Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt
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