Top 9 free agent running backs

Doug Martin and Lamar Miller top our list of RBs set to hit free agency in the 2016 offseason.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

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

– Quarterbacks

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Offensive tackles

Interior offensive linemen

– Cornerbacks

– Safeties

Edge defenders

Interior defenders

Kickers and punters

– Free agent tracker

Top 75 free agents

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

  • Biebs

    Eh. I would think Ronnie Hillman and James Starks would be ahead of Steven Ridley.

    • Jack Casey

      Why would you think that about Hillman? Ridley put up over 1300 yards and 13 TDs his last full season as a starter… What has Hillman done that makes you think highly of him?

      • McGeorge

        Ridley was terrible with the Jets.
        Maybe he’s not fully recovered, and the Jets run blocking is poor, but he looked bad.

        • bobrulz

          If you’d seen the Broncos play at all, you’d realize that Hillman is terrible as well. He can’t break tackles, and he doesn’t have enough to speed to get to the 2nd level. It’s a joke that Kubiak kept putting him in an even rotation with the clearly superior CJ Anderson.

          • McGeorge

            I’m not saying anything about Hillman, just that Ridley was terrible with the Jets.
            I’m not convinced that Kubiak is a good HC either. I do think Wade Phillips is a talented defensive coordinator, and boy was he on top of his game in the playoffs.

  • Mark Erickson

    Alot of speculation about Forte going to New England at the right price, personally I can’t see New England coughing up more than 2-3 million/year for a 30 year old RB, even if he’s still playing at a high level. On the other side of this, I don’t see why Forte would settle for anything less than 5-6 million/year. Forte in New England’s scheme would be amazing, but I see him ending up with either Tennessee or NYG.

    • crosseyedlemon

      As a Bears fan I certainly appreciate what Matt has done for us. Unfortunately the front office jerked him around quite a bit a few years ago when he was trying to get a contract extension and he will be happy to move on now. I wonder if the Saints might have some interest since Matt has his roots in Louisiana.

    • Tim Edell

      There is no way any team is going to pay a 30 year RB with as many touches as Forte has 5/6 million a year!

    • McGeorge

      I wonder if New England would offer a deal with a base salary of 2MM, and incentives that could push him to 4MM or even 5MM (if he has an amazing year – 1500 combined yards or something like that)

      • Jack Casey

        You really think a team that has a legit shot at winning a Superbowl is going to give Forte $6 mill a season? Mark Ingram, a former first round pick, in the prime of his career coming off a break out season could only get $4 mill a year.

        • McGeorge

          The Pats wouldn’t give a RB 6MM.
          They structure contracts with incentive clauses, rather than big money or guarantees in some cases.

          They would give 2MM, and if the RB had an amazing year, they would happily pay more. So no 6MM up front, but if teh RB earns it, then yes.

  • Igor

    James Starks is definitely better than Steven Ridley.

    • Jack Casey

      I think when at full health, Ridley is a really solid back. His main weakness has been ball security. But he is a powerful runner who is hard to bring down and is a lot better than one would expect in the passing game. I really hope he can stay healthy and get another shot at a near fill time workload.

  • McGeorge

    From watching the Jets , I can see anyone paying Stevan Ridley more than the veterans minimum. Given his poor production, I think he may got get signed until after the season starts, then his contract wont be guaranteed for the entire year.

    Chris Ivory was tackled behind the line of scrimmage, and with a better run blocking team would have put up better numbers. But he gets dinged up, and can’t be a work horse.

  • Nikrizzi17

    Foster won’t get signed til he can pass a physical and workout for a team, Forte is consistent but a little washed up. Ivory’s running style won’t allow him to hold up for an entire season. Lamar Miller is decent but he’s a little bit overrated. If your team needs a RB you better hope the dougernaut doesn’t resign with Tampa he’s the only workhorse on here. Some team will overpay way to much for Miller, Ivory, and the production they get won’t even come close to their cap number. Happy hunting. If your team doesn’t get a guy on this list, and they still need an RB, the draft has some solid guys not named Elliott and Henry. Paul Perkins, Devontae Booker, Alex Collins can all be productive in the NFL given the opportunity. But obviously Elliott is the best and blows Derrick Henry out of the stadium. If he lands at NYJ or Indi, watch out fantasy fans he WILL be a beast

  • AdamT

    Morris has declined year over year but if you compare his first three years of production to all RBs you’ll find that many of his cohorts are or will be in the Hall of Fame