2005 free agency: Running backs

The 49ers thought they were locking up their featured tailback of the present and future when they signed Kevan Barlow to a $20 million deal at this time a year ago. That might still be the case, but the team has other options if new coach Mike Nolan and his staff - after they evaluate team personnel this month - don't feel Barlow is the man they want for the job. One of those options is free agency, which presents several intriguing possibilities if the Niners indeed decide to dump Barlow.

The Niners also could draft one of the several top running backs available with a high pick in the first round, which they might be able to do even if they are able to trade down a few slots from their current No. 1 overall selection.

However, the 49ers will worry about that option later. At the foremost of their thoughts now is determining whether to stay with Barlow as their franchise workhorse in the backfield. The team will at least entertain offers for Barlow if they are out there, because the Niners can unload a $6.5 million roster bonus that is due Barlow in March if he is traded to another team. In that scenario, the 49ers would be off the hook for all but $2 million of the five-year deal Barlow signed last February.

But that decision won't come down to money. It will come down to Barlow's performance and projected potential, and if Nolan and his crew project that Barlow can get it done in the future better than he did in 2004 in his first full season as a NFL starter.

If the Niners do part ways with Barlow, they almost certainly will look to bring in an established veteran free agent - even if they use a high pick on a running back in the draft.

In that case, they Niners could go several different ways, depending on what they decide to do in other areas of their roster. They could take a shot at one of the premier free agents available - such as a Shaun Alexander or a Lamont Jordan - or go for a second-tier free agent such as Derrick Blaylock who could thrive in a featured role and might be able to beat out Barlow straight up.

Another intriguing possibility is Chester Taylor, a quality backup to Jamal Lewis in Baltimore last year who may be interested in following Nolan to San Francisco for the right price.

Even if the Niners keep Barlow, they could bring in Taylor to share carries and push Barlow for the starting job. Taylor also would be a nice option to share carries with a top rookie if the 49ers opt to go that route.

The 49ers also have a decision to make about sixth-year veteran Terry Jackson, a solid backup running back and special teams captain who also becomes an unrestricted free agent in March. Despite his versatility, it is unlikely Jackson will be asked back.

Here is a list of more than 50 NFL backs set to hit the open market in March, with the top players ranked and updates on the unrestricted free agents:

2005 Free-Agent Running Backs

A listing of the running backs scheduled for NFL free agency in 2005. UFA=Unrestricted Free Agent; RFA=Restricted Free Agent; ERFA=Exclusive Rights Free Agent. 

BEST OF THE BUNCH
Player Free-Agent Type 2004 Team
Shaun Alexander UFA Seahawks
Comment: One of many solid unrestricted free agents for Seattle, he fell 1 yard short of Curtis Martin's rushing title. Extremely valuable, but still isn't world's best pass protector.
Edgerrin James UFA Colts
Comment: All-around prized back. Likely to receive the franchise tag, costing the Colts $5.167 million.
Rudi Johnson UFA Bengals
Comment: Set the single-season franchise record for yards (1,454) and attempts. Another player that could get the franchise designation if not signed long-term before March.
Lamont Jordan UFA Jets
Comment: Wants to play more, but being a backup to Curtis Martin won't help that request. But even with Martin's rushing title, some in the Jets organization like Jordan better.
Brian Westbrook RFA Eagles
Derrick Blaylock UFA Chiefs
Comment: Had some very solid performances in spot duty while replacing Priest Holmes with 539 yards last year and a 4.6-yard average.
Chester Taylor UFA Ravens
Comment: Became a shining backup for Jamal Lewis in Baltimore, garnering a few 100-yard games and 714 rushing yards in 2004.
Dominic Rhodes UFA Colts
Comment: Excellent backup and excels at kickoff returns. Set a franchise record with 236 yards on six kickoff returns in one game last year.
Emmitt Smith UFA Cardinals
Comment: NFL's career rushing leader expected to retire, but still managed 937 yards in 267 attempts in 2004.
Anthony Thomas UFA Bears
Comment: One of the best bets to change teams this offseason, due to a late-season demotion to third string. A 1,000-yard rusher in 2001 and 2003.
Najeh Davenport RFA Packers
Verron Haynes RFA Steelers
Antowain Smith UFA Titans
Comment: Chris Brown's injuries make parting with Smith a risky proposition in Tennessee. Last time he didn't have at least 500 yards was in 2000.
Correll Buckhalter UFA Eagles
Comment: Torn patella tendon in his right knee ended his 2004 campaign before it started, but was expected to share carries with Brian Westbrook heading into the season.
Dorsey Levens UFA Eagles
Comment: Signed in August 2004 and averaged 4.4 yards a carry. A decent veteran backup.
Eddie George UFA Cowboys
Comment: Moved to 16th on the NFL rushing list, but may never reach the top 10. His body appears to be in its last productive phase.
Ron Dayne UFA Giants
Comment: The first-round pick from the 2000 draft hasn't been a productive back in years. Almost certainly headed to another team after frustration in New York.
Troy Hambrick UFA Cardinals
Comment: Signed an extension during the season that was voided by the NFL. Cardinals will likely try to keep him again before free agency starts.
Brandon Bennett UFA Panthers
Comment: Former Dolphin, Bengal and Panther is a serviceable, versatile backup, with his forte as a return man.
Jesse Chatman RFA Chargers
Garrison Hearst UFA Broncos
Comment: Went on IR late in the season and isn't likely to be back in Denver. Four-time 1,000-yard rusher gained only 81 yards rushing last year.
REST OF THE BUNCH
Player Free-Agent Type 2004 Team
Terry Jackson UFA 49ers
Comment: Special teams captain could be on the bubble in San Francisco, but led the team with 3.9-yard average.
Kenny Watson UFA Bengals
Comment: Productive third-down back, rushing and receiving. Also a good blocker.
Greg Comella UFA Buccaneers
Comment: Moved from the Giants to Bucs last year, and the fullback could be in line for another relocation.
Jameel Cook UFA Buccaneers
Comment: Unspectacular back rarely gets a carry, but can be a serviceable receiver out of the backfield.
Leon Johnson UFA Chargers
Comment: Foot injury kept him on the sidelines during 2004.
James Mungro UFA Colts
Comment: Injuries and a limited role the last two years. Status with Colts could depend on moves with James and Rhodes ahead of him.
Travis Minor UFA Dolphins
Comment: Productive for Miami, but Dolphins' interest in acquiring feature back leaves Minor's status in precarious position.
Jon Ritchie UFA Eagles
Comment: Fullback put on IR in September after a torn ACL, but Eagles like his talent and leadership.
Fred McCrary UFA Falcons
Comment: Journeyman fullback signed in December with Falcons.
Stanley Pritchett UFA Falcons
Comment: After nine years and four teams, fullback will likely find NFL employment again in 2005.
Jim Finn UFA Giants
Comment: Giants are expected to make him a decent offer to keep him off the market.
Michael Cloud UFA Giants
Comment: Decent backup, but not a starter. Could get an offer from the Giants.
Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala UFA Jaguars
Comment: Short-yardage back was injured much of the first half of 2004. Hasn't come close to duplicating his 452-yard season with the Steelers in 2001.
Stephen Trejo UFA Lions
Comment: Backup fullback's best chance of staying in NFL is with the Lions.
Rod Smart UFA Panthers
Comment: Got a one-year deal from the Panthers last year, but he hates this time of uncertainty.
Patrick Pass UFA Patriots
Comment: Fullback can do it all, but isn't asked to carry the ball too often.
Rabih Abdullah UFA Patriots
Comment: Limited action with the Patriots in an on-again, off-again season in 2004.
Amos Zereoue UFA Raiders
Comment: Career has leveled off after promising start in Pittsburgh.
Chris Hetherington UFA Raiders
Comment: Besides special teams, fullback didn't get much opportunity.
J. R. Redmond UFA Raiders
Comment: Showed some versatility in Oakland, with more yards receiving (233) than rushing (119).
Jamel White UFA Ravens
Comment: Career just hasn't taken off. Limited to only 82 yards rushing in 2004.
Mike Sellers UFA Redskins
Comment: A special teams standout that is appreciated by the Redskins.
Fred McAfee UFA Saints
Comment: A special teams standout, but after 12 years his value is declining.
Heath Evans UFA Seahawks
Comment: Low priority for the Seahawks amid a host of pricier free agents they want to sign.
Moran Norris UFA Texans
Comment: Blocking fullback is expected to return to Houston.
Adrian Peterson RFA Bears
Joe Burns RFA Bills
Omar Easy RFA Chiefs
Darian Barnes RFA Cowboys
Leonard Henry RFA Dolphins
Jamal Robertson RFA Panthers
Nick Maddox RFA Panthers
Joey Goodspeed RFA Rams
Rock Cartwright RFA Redskins
Jonathan Wells RFA Texans
Jarrod Baxter RFA Texans
Cecil Sapp ERFA Broncos
Santonio Beard ERFA Broncos
Ian Smart ERFA Buccaneers
Calvin Murray ERFA Chargers
Ronnie Cruz ERFA Chiefs
Reshard Lee ERFA Cowboys
Eric Bickerstaff ERFA Cowboys
Kaylon Kincade ERFA Cowboys
Lousaka Polite ERFA Cowboys
Derrick Ward ERFA Giants
Joey Harris ERFA Panthers
Kory Chapman ERFA Patriots
DeJuan Green ERFA Raiders
Arlen Harris ERFA Rams
B. J. Sams ERFA Ravens
John Simon ERFA Redskins
Jason Anderson ERFA Texans
Jarret Payton ERFA Titans
Butchie Wallace ERFA Vikings

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