Dime a dozen

Why it doesn't pay to shell out big bucks to free agent running backs

As the Packers prepare for the off-season – scouting combine next week, free agency and the draft – one thing they need to make sure they do is spend money wisely.

OK, that's not a revelation. To take it further – don't spend too much money at running back.

The top free agents in the NFL will be running backs Edgerrin James and MVP Shaun Alexander. Clearly, they are two of the top five at their position, but even their own teams are wondering if it makes good business sense to keep these star players.

This tells you all you need to know about running backs. They are a dime a dozen.

Running back, as we have seen over the years, is not a position where it is wise to spend big bucks. Look at Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh. Who was its leading rusher? Willie Parker? Nobody knew who he was before the start of 2005, but he got a chance and exploded.

Look at the Packers' past. Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens and Ahman Green (who was traded for) were picked in the third round or after of the NFL draft and each became quality players. Running back is the top position in the NFL where spending big money on a player make no sense – excluding specialist positions.

The Packers could be set up perfectly for 2006 at running back, not only in talent but money. Samkon Gado showed promise late last season and comes cheap as a Yugo. If the Packers retain either Green or the injury-prone Najeh Davenport, both are coming off injuries, meaning no team will be knocking their door down with a big deal. Then you have Tony Fisher, or whoever becomes the Packers' No. 3 back.

If Gado picks up where he left off, and Green or Davenport come back in good health, the running back spot is one the Packers don't have to worry about. The only worry here is knowing 100 percent if Gado can start, and that won't be determined until preseason or the regular season.

Furthermore, the new coaching staff isn't familiar with Gado, leaving the running back position in question, for now.

The Packers should re-sign Green to go with Gado and pick a running back in the third or fourth round to groom. Sometimes you have to take chances, and going with the Gado-Green combo for one season is worth it.

Last year, the Steelers didn't panic when Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley each were injured in the preseason. They felt confident Parker would step up. No question, Parker surpassed their expectations, but these stories happen every season.

Last season, Green's salary was $4.3 million and his salary cap number was $5.6 million. He was ineffective early and then injured. It became a waste of money. The position is too fragile to throw major money at a player unless his name is LaDainian Tomlinson.

Also, USC's Reggie Bush will be the top pick of the draft by Houston. Great athlete, but how great will he be behind an offensive line that's a sieve? Running backs obviously have a value in an offense, but the only running back I ever saw run well without a good offensive line was Barry Sanders.

Running backs are reliant on the five linemen in front. If they can't block, the running back can't run, which is why the Packers need to limit their spending at running back this off-season. Find a deal, take it, but otherwise go with Gado and Green, and it's not out of the realm of possibility the Packers' running game becomes effective again.

And then the Packers can concentrate on upgrading other positions, like defensive end, linebacker, the secondary and offensive line.

This is what I would do, if I was Packers GM Ted Thompson. I wonder what Ted will do?

Doug Ritchay

Editor's note: Doug Ritchay is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail at dritchay@sbcglobal.net.

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