The mythology of NFL free agency suggests that changing a team's fortune is as simple as signing a few high profile players. Unfortunately in reality, seldom is this situation apparent. Or in the most absolute terms, the reality of landing championship talent like Reggie White and Drew Brees is a fleeting vision – one that is more easily replaced by a fruitless – and insanely expensive – pursuit of marginal players such as Ray Edwards and Matt Hasselbeck.
Too often, NFL free agency has served as both an inept substitute for poor drafting and an indicator of a team's overall progress. In this respect, think of free agency as a barometer for an NFL team's stability. Teams who draft well within the framework of a self-reliant system use free agency to fill in small roster cracks – while other teams attempt to use the process as a means of implementing wholesale change.
Naturally, only one process works. Besides the inflated costs associated in the free agent process, NFL teams are chasing unfamiliar veteran talent who may have already reached the peak of their careers. Both in terms of financial incentive and overall desire, signing a huge free agent contract often represent the pinnacle of a player's career – rather than the beginning of some mythical new era.
In Cleveland, Team President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert have committed to rebuilding the Browns via the draft – a claim that has largely been supported over the past couple seasons. Despite having a sizeable surplus of salary cap room, the Browns have remained minor players in the free agency process. The rationale behind this strategy appears genuine, but could also point towards the realization that the Browns will eventually feature a roster worthy of being complemented by a few prime free agents.
Perhaps 2012 could be the start of this process.
2012 Free Agency Outlook – Running Backs
Again, let's throw out a familiar Cleveland refrain – what a difference a year makes.
Heading into the 2011 season, running back was considered both a team strength and point of civic pride for the Browns. Fresh off a nearly-season long emergence in 2010, Browns' fans thrust Peyton Hillis upon the nation as an inexplicable winner of Madden 2012's heralded cover. Naturally, the vindictive forces that have plagued Cleveland sports for generations combined with Madden's own cruel curse to render Hillis an afterthought by mid-October.
Hillis' lingering bouts with a testy hamstring and clumsy brushes with his burgeoning fame were enough to completely derail any momentum the Browns' running back corps appeared to possess. Veteran back Brandon Jackson landed on injured reserve before the season began. Following Hillis, Montario Hardesty received a handful of starts before disappearing in November, while Houston Texans castoff Chris Ogbonnaya proved to be the most reliable Browns' back in 2011.
As the season ended, Hillis made a subdued comeback, highlighted by a 100-yard effort against Baltimore. However, the once immaculate reputation gained by Hillis was severely tarnished – to the point that Browns' management appeared cold towards the idea of their primary running back returning in 2012. After ending contract negotiations with Hillis' agent earlier in the season, Team President Mike Holmgren seemed to hint that the Browns were heading in a direction far different than the one present a year ago.
As such, the question now becomes, if not Hillis, then who? Or where – especially given the idea that the Browns have a multitude of other roster needs to target in April's draft. Assuming that a bare bones projection for 2012 would include a returning Jackson, possibly Ogbonnoya and Hardesty, more talent in needed.
NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
Usually, it's fool's gold for teams to chase after running backs in free agency. Considering the high-mileage nature of today's running backs, investing in a fifth-year running back doesn't make solid financial sense. However, the above trio appears to be exceptions to the rule. Rice is a classic example of a durable running back, based on his stealth ability to avoid big hits. Foster has enjoyed the luxury of splitting carries with various backs during his Texans' tenure, while Forte is simply blessed with amazing elusive running skills.
However, it's not likely that any of the three backs even reach full free agency. Each of the three will either receive a mega-contract or be franchised. So let's move on.
Lynch is an insanely fun personality and has the kind of competitive drive that is contagious to an entire team. However, Lynch is also a classic NFL free agent in the sense that his career-best numbers with Seattle in 2011 came during a contract year. But then again, evidence points to Lynch being historically productive when given opportunities. In the three seasons in which Lynch carried the ball more than 250 times, he gained over 1,000 yards and averaged more than 4 yards a carry.
After Lynch, the "big-name" market dries up. Bush is an intriguing player simply based on his size (245 lbs.) and power rushing style. However, much like Hillis, Bush has never experienced a full season of starting duty. Bush's best effort came last season as he replaced injured Oakland starter Darren McFadden. Yet, Bush appeared to physically wear down as the season progressed. Like Hillis, Bush comes with a limited warranty of sorts – one that is not conducive to a rich free agent deal.
All three backs have seen better days – which is also a good characterization for nearly every other veteran back available in free agency.
FOR THE RIGHT PRICE
Again assuming that the Browns are finding players to replace Hillis – and not the likes of Jackson and Ogbonnaya, the above three players make a lot of sense. New England's Green-Ellis is the epitome of a back who can get tough yards and provide the type of toughness the Browns' offense has lacked for years. While not a dazzling athletic running back, Green-Ellis can help provide a piece of the consistency and production previously expected of Hillis.Perhaps the same speculation can be applied to Tolbert, who at times overshadowed first-round pick Ryan Mathews in San Diego. Tolbert is a bowling ball-shaped runner who stays low and generates a lot of power from his legs. In some regard, Tolbert is a dollar store version of Atlanta's Michael Turner – minus the speed. In terms of free agency, Tolbert could be a relative bargain – especially for a team that is not seeking a true number one back. As for Bell, his star rose while filling in for the injured Forte in Chicago. Primarily because of the exposure from a nationally televised game against Green Bay, Bell should draw some free agent buzz. Of course, if Forte somehow slips away from the Bears, Bell's value then skyrockets. This is a far cry from a couple seasons ago, when Bell toiled on the Vikings' practice squad, before finding a home in Chicago. Yet, during Bell's limited action, he appeared to be a decisive, solid downhill runner.
THE PICKMuch like any other position that currently troubles the Browns' front office, running back could be targeted exclusively through the draft. Considering the short life span of most veteran running backs, such a strategy makes perfect sense. Although, GM Tom Heckert has also already been burned once in doing such a thing, as Hardesty would have to be currently be labeled a major draft disappointment. If the Browns do decide to visit free agency to shore up their suddenly depleted running backs corps, Forte could prove to be the all everything back that a pure West Coast offense is designed for. However, Forte's availability will come at a steep cost – if it arrives at all – leaving the Browns with cheaper options in either Green-Ellis, Tolbert or an injury reclamation.