2015 Top Free Agents: Running Backs
Running backs are still a physical force in today's NFL and Matt Claassen analyzes the top free agents that could possibly be available to improve your team.
2015 Top Free Agents: Running Backs
You’ve surely had a flip through the PFF Free Agent Tracker by this point, so this set of articles will build nicely on what you’ve already seen. This, our yearly effort to sort the top free agent options at each position, will present a position a day and offer a Top-10 of what’s available.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
1. DeMarco Murray – Signed with Philadelphia
2014 Grade: +15.3
2014 Snaps: 890
Summary: Our top ranked running back is the 2014 leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, who is coming off a career-year. Murray had the type of season the Cowboys had hoped for as they committed to the run game and Murray stayed healthy enough throughout the year. He had just one ‘red’ graded run game all year and finished with the second-highest run grade on the season. Murray also had the third-highest percentage (48.5%) of rushes go for four-plus yards among backs with at least 100 rush attempts.
The question is not whether Murray is worth signing, but instead how much he is worth. Murray ran behind our second-ranked run blocking offensive line last year and is unlikely to find another unit as good in free agency. Murray also stayed mostly healthy for the first time since his rookie year. He is due for a regression, but it should be because whichever team signs him will not want to give him 500-plus touches again. His effectiveness can still remain at a high level if his touches are at least somewhat limited to keep him fresh and from getting worn down.
2. Justin Forsett – Re-signed with Baltimore
2014 Grade: +11.1
2014 Snaps: 824
Summary: Justin Forsett didn’t demand a lot of attention during last year’s free agency period, but found a home in Baltimore being reunited with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. After being thrust into the starting lineup, he meshed well with the Ravens’ offensive line and excelled in their zone blocking scheme. Forsett set career-highs in nearly every statistical category and earned the eighth-best run grade at +6.9. His 17 runs of 20-plus yards tied for the league lead with Murray while no other running back had more than nine. Forsett also did so with significantly fewer carries.
One concern is that Forsett will turn 30-years-old this October, but that should be somewhat offset by having less mileage with less than 500 total touches in the last four seasons. The other concern is how much he benefitted from having the fourth-best run blocking offensive line in 2014, and if he can replicate his success while likely having a lesser line. Forsett can still be a significant contributor in the right system, and injuries should be less of a concern compared to nearly every other top free agent available.
3. Mark Ingram – Re-signed with New Orleans
2014 Grade: +1.3
2014 Snaps: 476
Summary: Despite using a first round pick on Mark Ingram, the Saints have typically limited his usage to ‘by-committee’ over his career. Ingram is a good, physical runner, but there is nothing in which he is excellent. The best stretch of his career came near the end of the 2013 season when he earned a +9.2 overall grade from Week 15 through the Wild Card round. He was on the field for only 69 snaps, but he forced 19 missed tackles on 42 total touches.
That success didn’t fully carry into last season though. Ingram missed multiple games due to injury for the third time in his four pro seasons, but he still played the majority of the year to set career highs several statistics. While he forced two more missed tackles than the previous season, he did so on nearly twice as many carries. Even with Darren Sproles no longer in New Orleans, Ingram still did not show to be much of a receiving threat out of the backfield and continues to be best suited as an early down back.
4. Ryan Mathews – Signed with Philadelphia
2014 Grade: +0.9
2014 Snaps: 165
Summary: Ryan Mathews has never quite lived up to his the expectations of his first round draft status, largely because of time missed due to various injuries. Regardless of whether if his injuries are of the unlucky variety or if his body is more susceptible, Mathews has participated in a full season just once in his five year career. He missed 10 games last season, but he did not get much help from his offensive line when he was on the field. Among players with at least as many rush attempts as Mathews, only Carlos Hyde was hit behind the line of scrimmage more often.
Over the course of any season, he has never graded more than above average with his highest overall grade coming in 2012 at +7.0. Mathews is just 27-years-old and the offensive lines he has run behind in San Diego have never been to his benefit. He could still be an every down back and carry the load for an offense, but the team that signs him should have a second option they feel comfortable with getting significant playing time if needed.
5. C.J. Spiller – Signed with New Orleans
2014 Grade: -5.9
2014 Snaps: 190
Summary: C.J. Spiller is one of the most intriguing free agent running backs because of how high he peaked in 2012. He ranked behind only Adrian Peterson in overall grade, run grade, yards per rush, and average yards after contact. Spiller also led the league with 3.9 rush attempts per missed tackle and his 94.6 Elusive Rating remains the highest regular season rating in eight years of PFF data.
As good as he was in 2012, his play trailed off the following season and he finished 2013 with a -7.8 overall grade, ranking 51st among 55 running backs. His struggles continued at the beginning of last season with averages of 3.4 yards per carry and 1.7 yards after contact through the first six games. A broken collarbone put him on the sidelines until the second to last week of the season, after which he gained 13 yards on nine carries. Injuries have always been somewhat of a concern for Spiller, whether it is just limiting his ability on the field or keeping him off the field completely.
Spiller has shown the talent to be an explosive back for an offense, but with his injury history and style of play, another bigger, more physical back would be needed to balance the load. Ultimately, the consideration of signing him comes down to his market demand and how his past performances, injury history, and perceived potential are reflected in monetary value.
6. Shane Vereen – Signed with New York Giants
2014 Grade: +2.5
2014 Snaps: 729
Summary: The first of two Patriots to make the list, Shane Vereen may be the most unique on this list in the respect that he has been heavily utilized as a receiver and has been a second or third option at running back for most of his career. Over the last two seasons (including postseason), Vereen has 1,093 receiving yards on 124 receptions while 671 rushing yards on 155 carries. As a rusher, he was fairly average in 2014 with just one ‘green’ and one ‘red’ grade game each and a -2.6 rush grade for the season. His receiving ability brings a different dynamic that many other players do not offer and that likely would be the primary reason for his signing.
7. Frank Gore – Signed with Indianapolis
2014 Grade: -0.8
2014 Snaps: 665
Summary: Many expected Gore to have a lessened role between being on the wrong side of 30-years-old and the 49ers drafting Carlos Hyde last offseason. However, Gore was still effective enough to eclipse 1,100 rushing yards for the fourth-straight year after fracturing his hip during the 2010 season. Gore will be 32 this fall, is clearly not the player he used to be, and unlikely to be a feature back. He would still be a good fit for a team looking for a power back to use in short-yardage and other key situations.
8. Knowshon Moreno
2014 Grade: –1.4
2014 Snaps: 74
Summary: Knowshon Moreno hits free agency for the second consecutive year after a dislocated elbow and torn ACL cut his first year with Miami short. An impressive 2013 season with the Broncos and a lackluster free agent market had Moreno as our top ranked free agent running back last offseason. Now coming off injury, another year older and a better free agent class have him down the list this year.
Moreno had a career year in his final year with the Broncos. He especially emerged as a receiver out of the backfield. He is still a couple years away from the age of 30 and only has a little over 1,000 career touches. If he bounces back well from the knee injury, he could still be able to be an effective player, although likely not one you want to trust as an every down player.
9. Stevan Ridley
2014 Grade: -0.8
2014 Snaps: 188
Summary: The other Patriots running back from the 2011 draft class, Stevan Ridley, also hits the free agent market this March. Ridley had a very good season in his second year, earning seven ‘green’ run grades in 18 games and a +9.1 run grade including the playoffs. He followed up in 2013 with a +6.1 run grade on significantly less playing time.
Unfortunately for Ridley, his 2014 season did not go as well. Even before his season-ending knee injury, Ridley was off to a slow start. While he did have two 100-yard games, both took at least 25 carries to reach. He finished with an average of just 3.6 yards per carry and 1.8 yards after contact, both well below his previous seasons.
Ridley may have been a spot or two higher on the list based on past production and age alone, but he will be entering training camp less than ten months removed from a torn ACL.
10. Roy Helu – Signed with Oakland
2014 Grade: +0.3
2014 Snaps: 382
Summary: Roy Helu falls into the category of “we like the little bit we have seen from him on a limited sample lately”. He has received significant playing time over the last two seasons as the No. 2 running back for Washington with 929 snaps. However, he has been given a fraction of the carries compared to Alfred Morris. Helu carried the ball just 40 rush attempts in 2014, but was impressive on the small sample size. Over 63% of his yards came after contact and he forced 17 missed tackles. Nineteen running backs had at least twice as many carries as Helu and did not reach 17 missed tackles.