Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Running Backs
Mike Renner runs through the top free agent runners, naming the best of an intriguing group.
Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Running Backs
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
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. Knowshon Moreno
2013 Grade: +9.9
2013 Snaps: 724
Summary: The No. 1 running back, almost by default, comes from this year’s Super Bowl runner up. Knowshon Moreno is the only back on this list without injury, workload, or age concerns. This last season Moreno proved that he can produce effectively in an every-down role over the course of the season. In terms of pure ability, there are probably six or seven free agents I’d prefer, but none are proven commodities at this point in time. At just 27 years old, and with just 992 career touches to his name, Moreno is sure to have at least a few more productive seasons in his legs before the dreaded running back decline sets in.
2013 was by far Moreno’s most accomplished as a pro. He set career highs in snaps (724), rushing yards (1,038), receiving yards (548), touchdowns (13), and PFF grade (+9.9). His 241 carries were more the most Moreno’s had in a season since his rookie year and his 60 receptions were a career high by a wide margin. With his rushing (+4.2 grade), pass catching (+7.0 grade), and adequate pass blocking (0.0 grade) ability, Moreno provides the ability to plug and play 600+ snaps immediately.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew
2013 Grade: +3.9
2013 Snaps: 664
Summary: If this were two offseasons ago Maurice Jones-Drew would be the unquestioned number one back available. As it stands now though, teams will likely give the other members of this Top 10 a closer look than the former All-Pro. I like MJD’s chances of having something left in the tank, though.
2013 was a frustrating year for the Jaguars and an even more so for Jones-Drew. He battled ankle and hamstring injuries all year and ran behind the worst run blocking in the NFL per our grading. It all led to a career-low 3.4 yards per carry and a PFF-era-low 2.2 average yards after contact. Lost in his poor rushing, however, was an utterly incredible pass blocking season. In 110 pass blocking snaps he didn’t allow a single pressure. That’s the most unblemished set of pass blocking snaps we’ve ever seen. If he can get his legs healthy, MJD is as complete a running back as they come.
The big question is can his legs return to form at 29 years of age with 1,804 carries to his name? Maybe not all the way back, but he doesn’t have to be in the upper echelon of running backs in the league.
3. Ben Tate – Signs with Cleveland
2013 Grade: -3.6
2013 Snaps: 491
Summary: Of all the running back free agents to be, Ben Tate might command the largest contract. At a youthful 25 years of age (26 by start of next season) with 421 career attempts, Tate is poised to play at a high level over a full four-to-five year contract. The Texans’ back has a career 4.7 yards per carry average and an elite size/speed combination (5-foot-11, 220-pounds, 4.43 combine 40-yard dash). The only problem is that Tate’s best season came all the way back in 2011. In that season he ran for 987 yards at 5.4 yards per carry with an average of 3.3 yards after contact.
He’s been no slouch since then, with +4.6 rushing grades in each of the past two seasons, but he didn’t blow the doors off in a full-time role last season like some expected. From week 7 on, Tate took 130 carries for 504 yards for a yards per carry of 3.9 and a yards after contact of 2.0. He also dropped three passes and had a receiving grade of -5.3 in those eight games. While he did play with four broken ribs for some of that time, it tempered my enthusiasm of his impending free agency a tiny bit. Still, if I had to choose the most talented free agent running back it would be him.
Tate’s contract is the one out of this group I am most curious to see. With Arian Foster’s $8.5m cap hit next season and virtually unreleasable contract, Tate will hit the open market for all to bid. Reggie Bush’s four-year $16m from last offseason is the barometer I’m looking at with Tate. With his age and talent, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got more.
4. LeGarrette Blount
2013 Grade: +10.1
2013 Snaps: 289
Summary: He may look more like a linebacker, but Legarrette Blount has proven in his four seasons that he can flat out run with the rock in his hands. Over his career he’s averaged a missed tackle once every 5.4 carries and 3.06 yards after contact per attempt. To illustrate how insane that is, only one running back last season had a better yards after contact than Blount’s career average (Andre Ellington). His rookie season was one of the more under-appreciated seasons in recent memory. In 2010 he led the NFL with 50 broken tackles on just 201 attempts (22nd-most in the NFL) and averaged 5.0 yards per carry behind our 30th-ranked run blocking unit.
Blount’s talent has never been the issue, though. Ever since his infamous punch his final year at Oregon, Blount has been followed by character concerns that won’t cease now. It caused him to go undrafted and will likely cause some teams to pass without thinking twice again this time around. Even after a tremendous bounce-back season in New England where he had the ninth-highest rushing grade at +7.8 (highest of all free agents) on just 153 attempts, don’t expect Blount to command top dollar in free agency. He’ll likely still have to prove he’s matured and won’t put up a season like in 2012 where he failed to break a tackle on 41 attempts and averaged just 1.8 yards after contact.
5. Donald Brown – Signs with San Diego
2013 Grade: +6.9
2013 Snaps: 379
Summary: Taken 15 picks after Moreno in the first round of the 2009 draft, Donald Brown had similarly failed to live up to his lofty draft status until this past season. Brown’s struggles may have had more to do with opportunities than anything else. In his five seasons, the Colts’ running back amassed a mere 551 carries and averaged over 10 carries a game in just one season. That could be a gift and a curse for potential free agent suitors. On one hand, Brown should be fresh at just 27 years of age with so few carries under his belt, but on the other, he may not transition well into a full-time role.
One thing you can be certain of with Brown, though, is that you’ll be getting a talented running back. The former Connecticut standout’s 2013 season proved once and for all that Trent Richardson’s struggles weren’t just the offensive lines fault. Brown averaged a whopping 2.4 yards more per carry than Richardson (5.3 vs. 2.9) and had an elusive rating 25.4 points higher (73.8 vs. 48.4). By our metric, Brown calculated out as the most elusive back last year with at least 100 touches. He also was one of the biggest breakaway threats, achieving eight runs of 15 yards or more and 40% of his total yards on those runs.
The biggest question for the former first-rounder is: was last season an aberration or the norm? Brown set career highs in almost every category and it would be safe to expect some sort of regression. The Colts’ slew of coaches have also never been confident enough in Brown’s ability to give him the full-time role. It’s also worth noting that he got all his production behind our 23rd-ranked run blocking unit. He may not command top dollar in free agency, but Brown will be a quality back wherever he ends up next season.
6. James Starks – Re-signs with Green Bay
2013 Grade: +5.6
2013 Snaps: 224
Summary: If a team is looking for high risk-reward potential in free agency, James Starks is your man. Starks won’t command anything too pricey on the open market, due in large part to his vast injury history. In four NFL seasons, he has missed 29 total games due to injury. That’s not a great omen for a back that will already be 28 years old by the start of the 2014 season.
With all that said, Starks’ talent is undeniable. At 6-foot-2 and 218-pounds, the former sixth-round pick out of Buffalo resembles a poor man’s Adrian Peterson. Including the playoffs, Starks had the highest yards per carry of any back with at least 75 carries at 5.6. He also tied for the second highest yards after contact per attempt at 3.0.
Starks shares quite a few similarities to Donald Brown in that both are coming off of career years with inconsistent production previously and limited attempts. Neither have ever taken handoffs behind quality run blocking either. It’s hard to imagine any team going into the 2014 season with Starks as their featured back because of his injury history and you’ll most likely see him perform in a tandem next year. Outside of Ben Tate, I’m probably most excited to see what Starks can do with if he gets any sort of an increased role.
7. Rashad Jennings – Signs with the New York Giants
2013 Grade: +6.0
2013 Snaps: 567
Summary: In his fifth season in the NFL Rashad Jennings thrived in a full time role. After playing four seasons in Jacksonville with mixed results, Jennings signed in Oakland for just $630k and had a fantastic year. From Week 9 on Jennings was given the bulk of the Raiders’ carries and did not disappoint. In the last eight games he played, Jennings gained 593 yards at 4.7 yards per carry and averaged 2.9 yards after contact. He outperformed former No. 4 overall pick Darren McFadden by leaps and bounds with an overall grade 15.8 points higher.
Jennings is still fairly close to a one-hit wonder, though. His 2012 season was absolutely dismal. Then with Jacksonville he averaged 2.8 yards per carry and broke just six tackles on 101 carries. Hopefully that can just be chalked up to lingering effects from his 2011 knee injury that cost him the whole season. Whatever the reason may be, Jennings likely won’t command too much on the open market with the valid question marks about his inconsistency and his age (will be 29 by training camp).
8. Rashard Mendenhall – Announces his Retirement
2013 Grade: -3.5
2013 Snaps: 470
Summary: Running behind an offensive line as porous as the Cardinals’ was last season always makes for a difficult evaluation. Averaging the fifth-worst yards per carry (3.2) when the league leader in yards per carry is your teammate doesn’t help your cause, though. Rashard Mendenhall’s career stats and grades paint the picture of a quality back, but never much more. The alarming thing is that Mendenhall has been trending precipitously downwards as of late. From 2009-2011 Mendenhall had running grades of -2.1, +0.5, and +6.1 along with elusive ratings of 36.6, 35.3, and 37.1. In 2012-2013 his running grades were -4.5 and –4.7 while his elusive ratings were 31.9 and 26.1. Mendenhall still has his flashes, and there is no doubt he was limited by the run blocking struggles in Arizona. It’s just that there isn’t too much to get enthused about for the type of contract he might demand as a four year starter ($2.5M last offseason).
9. Toby Gerhart – Signs with Jacksonville
2013 Grade: +3.0
2013 Snaps: 199
Summary: Toby Gerhart is another one in the group of highly-talented free agent backs that never really got a chance at full-time snaps. A former second-round selection, Gerhart served as a sort of ‘insurance plan’ to Adrian Peterson that only had to be cashed in for a few games in 2011. His career stats are still mighty impressive, though: 276 carries for 1,305 yards at 4.7 yards per carry and 2.8 yards after contact per attempt.
While, in retrospect, the Vikings would have been better off using their 51st overall pick in the 2010 draft on a different position, Gerhart played up to his draft status when given the chance. At 6-foot-1, 231-pounds, Gerhart appears well suited for a heavy workload. It will be interesting to see if a team takes a flier on the 27-year-old running back and gives him those carries.
10. Andre Brown
2013 Grade: -4.6
2013 Snaps: 369
Summary: If deemed healthy, former teammate Ahmad Bradshaw would be more deserving of this spot, but Andre Brown is a quality option in his own right. Injuries soured a promising 2013 campaign and could limit his potential in free agency, but he’s still an intriguing option. It’s not his 2013 season, but his 2012 season that I’m talking about, though. In 2012 Brown had a PFF grade of +5.4 in 225 snaps with 5.3 yards per carry and 3.4 yards after contact per attempt. Mix that with the fact that Brown is six feet tall, 227-pounds, and ran a 4.49 40 at the combine and there is reason to take a long look. The problem is that’s all the numbers we have to base Brown off of. After he put up those numbers he broke his leg twice and never looked the same. Brown should come cheap, but it will likely be a roll of the dice on what kind of production you’ll get based on his history.
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