Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Running Backs

We begin our position-by-position breakdown of the best players available in free agency with a look at the top running backs - a list that begins with a seventh-rounder turned ...

| 4 years ago

Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Running Backs

Every day this week (and some of next) we’re going to be breaking down the top free agents at each position. 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.

We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of restricted free agency, so don’t expect to see names like Victor Cruz or Brian De La Puente in these pieces. Instead we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.

Instead, we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.

And now the running backs.

* Note: Isaac Redman was deemed unlikely to hit free agency, instead having his team use the restricted free agent tags on him.

1. Ahmad Bradshaw

2012 Grade: +14.2
2012 Snaps: 611

Summary: When healthy I’d go as far as to say there isn’t a more complete back in the league than Bradshaw. He runs with a style that sees him get more than his blocking gives him, he’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, and he’s about as good a blocking back as you’ll see in the league. However, there’s an obvious reason why the Giants released him and why he’s more of a gamble than some others. Despite being 26, Bradshaw has had a number of surgeries on his troubling ankles, and that is a huge concern.

So while you are absolutely getting a player who is capable of starting and being an every-down back, you have to weigh that against the probability that he might miss an extended period of time with his recurring issues. A tough decision to make, but it’s worth noting Bradshaw has finished in the Top 10 of our running back rankings the past three years.

2. Steven Jackson – to ATL: 3-year, $12m

2012 Grade: +9.2
2012 Snaps: 733

Summary: Jackson will turn 30 during the 2013 season which will scare a lot of teams off, especially given his high workload the past five years (averaging 285 carries a year in that period). But on the evidence of his 2012 year, Jackson still has something to offer, finishing the year with our 11th-highest rushing grade of all running backs.

Not a threat to take it the distance (just 20.4% of Jackson’s yardage came on runs over 15 yards, 13th-lowest of all running backs with at least 100 carries) and he’s not the most elusive back in the league (31st out of 48 in our Elusive Rating). But his 2.7 yards after contact per carry highlight a player that can still push the pile. Paired with a more explosive option, there’s no reason to think he can’t carry on doing the hard work for a team.

3. Chris Ivory – traded to NYJ: 3 year, $12m

2012 Grade: +3.9
2012 Snaps: 68

Summary: I must admit to having something of a running back crush on Ivory, so one of my big hopes for the offseason is the Saints don’t exercise the right to tender him, and instead let him find a home where a team takes advantage of his talents.

Here’s a guy who has a career average of 5 yards per carry and who has forced a missed tackle on one of every 4.9 touches since entering the league. This year Adrian Peterson only managed one for every 5.4 touches. Sure, he doesn’t contribute much in the passing game, but not every running back has to. With the Saints souring on him, he’s got plenty of tread left on his tires and is one of these guys who makes something out of every opportunity handed to him.

4. Reggie Bush – to DET: 4-year, $16m

2012 Grade: -2.6
2012 Snaps: 582

Summary: If nothing else, the time Bush has spent in Miami has proved he can hold up to the strain of being an every-down back. Still, old habits die hard and Bush remains a back for whom bouncing it outside is the guiltiest of pleasures. It’s a large part of why he was ranked only 35th (out of 60) in our pure rushing grades for 2012.

In essence, Bush continues to be the player the Saints realized they had drafted. Better in space, and not all that elusive when working in crowded areas. His 2.1 yards after contact per carry were only 0.4 better than the lowest mark in the league. If you can get him space he is dangerous, as his 16 runs over 15 yards (sixth highest in the league) attests.

5. Rashard Mendenhall – to ARZ: 1-year, $2.5m

2012 Grade: -2.6
2012 Snaps: 104

Summary: The soon-to-be former Steeler is young enough (25) and far enough removed from his end-of-2011 injury, that his upside makes him an intriguing proposition. After flattering to deceive in the early portion of his career he was really finding his stride behind a poor offensive line when injury struck at the end of 2011. Then he had our 12th-highest grade of all running backs for rushing and forced 37 missed tackles from scrimmage.

The problem for him is that injury and what it has meant. In a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” league Mendenhall made more noise for his actions and comments off the field, than he did for his play on it. That may have been due to health, but it offers little solace for a team who want to spend their free agency money on a sure thing.

6. Michael Turner

2012 Grade: -3.4
2012 Snaps: 481

Summary: Everyone likes to rag on Turner for what he has become, probably themselves forgetting what he never was. A few runs aside he was never a true break away threat with the ball in hand and did most of his damage taking more than his offensive line gave him. Now he’s not the player he was during his heyday, but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s not useful. His 38 forced missed tackles were eighth of all running backs while his 10 touchdowns show a nose for the endzone.

He’s not a feature back any more, but he should slot in nicely to someone’s rotation, and while he may struggle to get 200 carries, he’ll still pick up some hard yards.

7. Cedric Benson

2012 Grade: +0.3
2012 Snaps: 201

Summary: Working behind a Packers line that was getting little push, Benson could manage only 3.5 yards per carry before his season was cut short. On the positive side, 156 of his 248 yards came after contact, and he him also broke seven tackles. That left him with a 20.7 Elusive Rating that was an improvement on the 15.8 he managed in his final year with the Bengals.

So he’s far from done, but at the same time how much do you trust a 30-year-old running back coming off an injury?

8. Danny Woodhead – to SD: 2-year, $3.5m

2012 Grade: +10.4
2012 Snaps: 424

Summary: The diminutive Woodhead has used his time with the Patriots to establish himself as one of the premier third-down backs in the league. He’s not going to push a pile, but his nose for the first-down marker is what separates him from the rest. Indeed, of all running backs with at least 75 carries, his 26.3 conversion percentage on runs into first downs or touchdowns, is the third-highest mark.

What’s more, he offers a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. In fact, 44% of his targets turned into first downs, the second-highest percentage of any running back. You need to commit to him in a way the Patriots have, but Woodhead is an incredibly productive player.

9. LeGarrette Blount – traded to NE: 1-year, $1.75m

2012 Grade: -3.2
2012 Snaps: 93

Summary: What to make of Blount. In his rookie season he was a revelation. Finishing the year top of the charts with an Elusive Rating of 89.2 after breaking 50 tackles and averaging 3.7 yards per carry … after contact.

Since then it’s all gone wrong. His struggles in the passing game mean the Bucs have been loathe to trust him, to the point that he was given only 41 carries on his 93 snaps in 2012. Still, the big back may benefit from a change of scenery which may doubly act as a kick of the backside. He’s got some major character question marks to overcome, and he’s entering a now or never stage of his career. He need only run like he did as a rookie and all of a sudden he’s one of the best in the league at turning nothing into something.

10. LaRod Stephens-Howling – to PIT: 1-year, $1.9m

2012 Grade: -0.6
2012 Snaps: 346

Summary: Initially a special teams ace, “Hyphen” has always been up to the task of delivering when the Cardinals have called his number. Unfortunately, a woeful offensive line made life extremely hard on Stephens-Howling , who struggled to get much going despite forcing 28 missed tackles on his 128 touches.

Therein lies his problem. He’ll always need a degree of help in getting into space where his speed and deceptive power can help him create things. At a listed 180lbs he’s just not cut out for a hugely significant role, but then you look at the success a guy like Danny Woodhead has had, and wonder, why can’t he have something similar?



Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled

  • Jared

    Shonn Greene? I mean the guy is much better than peyton hillis. Still reached 1,000 yards with no passing offense. Safties were consistantly down in the box on almost every play. Imagine his potential if the jets could actually throw the ball. You all usually have a method for your madness which i always respect but this is wrong

    • PFF_Pete

      Greene is near the bottom of nearly every Signature Stat we have. He doesn’t elude tackles, doesn’t break big runs, isn’t a receiving threat, and drops too many of the few passes thrown his way. His production seems completely tied to the amount of times the Jets decide to hand him the ball. On any other team he’d be a change-of-pace backup.

      • Jared

        Pete, in all respect if you watched any film on the Jets games you would know that on most of greenes carries he is either being hit at the line of scrimmage or after. A good stat for you all to show would be which backs that faced contact the most behind the line of scrimmage and i promise you he is one of them. It’s alittle tough to show your true potential whenever you are getting hit before the play even starts. My point is he faced defenses who stacked the box constantly and where able to get to him before he got started. Shonn has great skills but no one is good if they can’t get some protection. It goes alittle beyond stats, and you have to take into consideration the scenerios as well. A nice example is the playoff game his rookie year, their offensive line actually blocked then and he was able to operate with some space and exploded through two pro bowlers to end a touchdown run.

        • Jared

          *before line of scrimmage

          • Richard L.

             PFF’s stats show him to be an unimpressive running back, who fails to break tackles, make defenders miss, consistently catch passes, or break off long runs.

            The raw stats – 3.9 yards per carry and 4 fumbles – show him to be an unimpressive running back.

            There’s really no argument here to be made.

        • PFF_Pete

          Thanks for the reply, Jared. I’ve watched Jets film, and I’ve watched film of plenty of other teams too. I could understand your argument if the Jets weren’t the 3rd-best run-blocking team in the league this season. (Sidenote: You can find our o-line rankings here:


          And Greene’s average of 2.1 Yards After Contact per carry was 44th out of 60 qualifying RBs. Other RBs are contacted behind the LOS more often than people realize. But I like your suggestion, I’ll see if we can add that as a signature stat at some point.

          Greene isn’t a BAD running back. He gets what his O-line gives him, and doesn’t cost his team a lot with unnecessary cutbacks and negative plays. But he isn’t a special talent, and certainly doesn’t deserve the 250+ carries per season the Jets have given him.

          • John Kearns

            I’m a huge jets fan and I can say the reason he is hit at the line or behind is he has no vision or burst, he doesn’t get to the holes when they are there and will often stutter behind the line trying to find holes, I can’t explain how frustrating it is to watch him shuffle around seemingly look for a hole that is right there. In addition, when he does realize the hole closed up, he just runs into the back of his linebackers with little push cause of lack of acceleration. There are few times where he gets a hole so big he can’t miss it and when he gets 7-8 yards downfield (which is rare) and he has his legs moving and is going at top speed (which is still quite slow) he will barrel most cornerbacks and some safeties over, but he simply can’t make them miss, nor does he try to, he just runs straight into them. To me, it is safe to say he is the least exciting and one of the least explosive backs in the league.

    • Kyle

      He’s a power back that doesn’t break tackles. That’s about as simple as I can put it. What do you see in Greene? I live in Iowa too, so I saw him in college. None of his production is a surprise to me. Was a product of a good line here just like he was for the Jets

    • Izach

      yea shonn greene is basically the most average back i have ever seen, slow, and not very powerfull for heavier back, id compare him to a bowling ball, but a bowling ball that was rolled by a 3 year old, just barely moving down the track, the only reason he does anything his that OL, just like the bowling lane with bumpers.

  • BPP

    Felix Jones isn’t a RFA…

    • RickDrummond

      Thanks for the catch BPP. Note removed.

  • BPP

    Would have also liked to have seen DeAngelo Williams in here, but I could see the point in waiting until more is known about his possible release.

  • Chris

    What about Justin Forsett? He did a fine job standing in for Ben Tate, could probably add something to a team … certainly more than Peyton Hillis!

    • John Kearns

      He’s a good player, solid pass catcher out of the backfield, very quick and pretty good top end speed, decent blocker for his size, would be a good backup on most teams.

  • Adam Kern87

    How come woodhead is ranked 7th yet his 2012 grade is +10.4? That 2012 grade being good enough on this list to be placed second behind Bradshaw.

    • pbskids4000

      Danny Woodhead is obviously not better than the players ranked ahead if him. Even with the higher grade.

    • Richard L.

      Rankings are a reflection of grade and role.

      Woodhead isn’t on the field that much. He does good things when he’s on the field, but he’s third on the depth chart behind Ridley and Vereen in New England.

  • John Kearns

    Love Chris Ivory, he’s just a flat out good runner who didnt get a chance in New Orleans because they had too much pride to let him play over guys who were SUPPOSED to be better backs. I think I would replace Hillis and LSH with Cedric Peerman and Mike Goodson though, just my personal opinion.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jared-Borne/100000961838526 Jared Borne

      Ivory can’t stay healthy.

  • Jackjerry5

    Still think that in the right setting, Hillis can be effective…blocking for TR in Cleveland and he can catch the ball well….just cannot give up on him yet….

  • RS

    I like Jonathan Dwyer from Pitt.  Behind a good OL, he’d be a load.  If his pass protection is up to par, he would be a great pick up for Denver