Top 9 free agent running backs
The running back position in the NFL, perhaps more so than any other in the league, sees its value fluctuate yearly. It can be a position where players burn out quickly after a lot of carries, and obviously the quality of players in the NFL draft varies from year to year. This year, the draft doesn’t look to be as strong as it will be in future years, but thankfully, there are some solid players headed for free agency who will be attractive options for teams around the league, both in the long- and short-term.
(Editor’s note: This list was updated on March 3, 2016, following reports that the Texans had released Arian Foster.)
1. Doug Martin
2015 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin’s career has been an interesting one, with an impressive rookie campaign that he failed to build on in 2013 and 2014, with injuries holding him back. He’s coming off his best year since entering the league, though, and with a player grade of 87.8, the Buccaneer was the second-best running back in football in 2015. It also helps that he doesn’t have too much wear in terms of career carries, with 869 over the past four seasons. He’s only just turned 27, so as well as being a good short-term option, given how well he played in 2015, it’s not too far of a stretch to expect him to be able to put together several more impressive seasons.
While there will be some concern as to what happened in 2013 and 2014, injuries definitely played their part. After forcing 57 missed tackles on 288 carries this year, he’s one of the few options available that could be a lead back for his new team, whoever that may be.
2. Lamar Miller
2015 team: Miami Dolphins
Miller (85.6) was our fourth-highest graded running back this year, and heads into free agency with youth on his side; the former University of Miami star going to be just 25 when the 2016 NFL season begins. It also helps that he has graded higher than the year before every season since entering the league, and has even fewer carries to his name than Martin. Miller saw just 194 carries last year, something that irked many Dolphins fans who wanted to see him get more of the ball, and he’s topped 200 carries just once in his career.
As well as forcing 28 missed tackles as a runner this year, Miller improved his chances of being a three-down back somewhere in the NFL by catching 47 passes and dropping just two, after dropping six in 2014. The new regime in Miami might realize the errors of those that have come before them and make locking Miller up long-term a priority, but if not, he’s unlikely to be short of suitors when free agency rolls around.
3. Chris Ivory
2015 team: New York Jets
At 81.2, Ivory was our 11th-ranked running back, and while he might lack the upside of Martin and Miller, he does come with dependable stability, with a positive rushing grade in all six of the seasons he’s played since entering the league. He’ll be 28 when the 2016 season begins, but 2015 was the first season of his career where he saw more than 200 carries. Tough to bring down, he forced 47 missed tackles and averaged 2.6 yards after contact per carry. If the past is anything to go by, he’s unlikely to be viewed as a long-term option by anyone, but based on what we’ve seen, a team would be wise to lock him up for two to three years, where he can be a stable force at the position.
4. Matt Forte
2015 team: Chicago Bears
Forte (81.2) was our 10th-ranked running back, and while he is very much a more short-term option for whoever picks him up, he can definitely still help a team out. He turns 31 in October, and has 2,077 carries over the past eight seasons, but he did still average 4.1 yards per carry in Chicago last year. He’s also shown himself as a capable receiver, with 44 or more receptions every season since 2008, including 102 in 2014.
The problem with Forte is that his play has been up and down over the years, with some seasons where he really only picked up what the offensive line were creating for him, and no more. That being said, if you can get the level of play we saw from him in 2015, he’s a decent stopgap option for someone.
5. Arian Foster
2015 Team: Houston Texans
Injuries have limited Arian Foster, particularly in two of the past three seasons, but based on his performance when he was on the field in 2015, he still has something to offer a team in the NFL. Foster carried the ball 63 times last season, forcing 12 missed tackles; while he might have rushed for just for just 2.6 yards per carry, 2.0 of those yards came after contact. He also adds impact as a receiver, with eight missed tackles forced on 22 receptions in 2015.
6. LeGarrette Blount
2015 team: New England Patriots
Blount will turn 30 in December of the 2016 season, and was our 26th-highest graded running back at 76.0 last season, but makes a lot of sense for a team looking to add a powerful running back to the mix. He forced 34 missed tackles from 165 carries in New England in 2015, with 2.4 of his 4.3 yards per carry coming after contact, making him a really good fit for a team looking to incorporate a backfield-by-committee approach.
7. Bilal Powell
2015 team: New York Jets
Powell is unlikely to be someone signed as a lead back, but what we saw from him in 2015 was a player who can definitely fill the role as part of a committee backfield. Forcing 10 missed tackles and averaging 2.7 yards after contact on 70 carries this year, he has totaled just 402 carries since entering the league in 2011. A cost-effective option, he can add something to an offensive somewhere in the league if the Jets don’t bring him back.
8. Alfred Morris
2015 team: Washington Redskins
Morris is an interesting player to project. He’ll turn 28 in December, but based on his rookie season four years ago, he’s the type of player that you’d think could be a feature back for more than a few teams. The truth, however, is that he hasn’t really shown himself to be that type of player since his rookie year, with his PFF rushing grade dropping every season since then. Forcing just 15 missed tackles on 213 carries in 2015, he’s the type of player who might see a one year “prove it” type of deal to see if he can recapture that rookie form.
9. Stevan Ridley
2015 team: New York Jets
At just 27, he still has youth on his side, but Ridley needs to prove that he isn’t just the type of player who could find success in the New England scheme. Injuries have limited him to just 275 snaps in the past two seasons, but he did really impress in the second half of the 2013 season. Another candidate for a “prove it” deal, we have at least seen flashes from him in the past.
More PFF 2016 free agent lists