NFL free agent preview: The RBs

Packer Report continues its free agent preview with a look at the running backs. The Giants' tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward and the Chargers' Darren Sproles lead this group.

Packer Report continues its position-by-position preview of free agency with the running backs. The deadline to name franchise players is Feb. 19, and free agency begins on Feb. 27.

The Packers' needs:

Presumably, the Packers will retain Ryan Grant, who was signed to a four-year contract early in training camp last summer. Grant is owed a $2.75 million roster bonus in March, and his base salary will be $1.25 million. That's a lot of money for a running back who averaged less than 4 yards per carry and isn't a threat as a receiver.

Nonetheless, Grant is a back capable of toting the ball 20 to 25 times a game, and his explosive 2007 showed the potential is there. With the Packers well below the salary cap, they'll probably give Grant another season and see what he can do if he doesn't have to battle a nagging hamstring injury.

Is there anyone capable of producing behind Grant? Brandon Jackson had his moments last season, but he touched the ball less than five times per game, which signals the coaching staff's questions about the 2007 second-round pick. DeShawn Wynn wasn't a factor until he ran roughshod over woeful Detroit in the season finale. Kregg Lumpkin is an intriguing talent if he can overcome the injury problems that dogged him last year and throughout his career at Georgia.

Big-ticket items:

— No back in this free agent group will cost more than the Giants' powerful Brandon Jacobs. He's the team's franchise player, so he'll cost a team a lot of money plus two first-round draft picks. Nobody will do that for a 265-pound running back with a limited shelf life. He's a flat-out stud, though, with 1,089 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5.0 yards per carry.

"He's a workhorse who leaves bruises on defenders week after week," Scout.com senior analyst Ed Thompson said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find many other running backs in the NFL who are as tough to bring to the ground."

— With Jacobs franchised, his tag-team partner in the Giants' backfield, Derrick Ward, should see a lot of attention. He's a 228-pound back with excellent productivity (1,025 yards, stunning 5.6-yard average and 41 receptions). He's ready to be the every-down back someplace.

Darren Sproles has just 544 rushing yards in his four-year career, but his 115-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 17 vs. Denver turned plenty of eyes, as did his 105-yard, two-touchdown output against Indianapolis in the playoffs. He had five receiving touchdowns in 2008 and three return scores over the last two seasons. Assuming he's not tagged by the Chargers, he's going to get a huge contract.

Bargain shopping:

— New to the list is Jacksonville's Fred Taylor, who was released on Monday. With a cap figure of $6 million, the Jags decide to go full speed ahead with Maurice Jones-Drew rather than share carries. Taylor, 33, ranks 16th in NFL history with 11,272 rushing yards. He had 566 yards last season as the Jaguars were plagued by injuries up front.

Dominic Rhodes' 1,110-yard, nine-touchdown rookie season of 2001 is a distant memory, but he helped keep the Colts afloat when Joseph Addai was injured. He's at his best as a hard-running, pass-catching part of a tandem backfield.

Cedric Benson, a huge bust as a first-round pick in Chicago, perhaps salvaged his career with back-to-back 100-yard games to end the season in Cincinnati.

— The Eagles' Correll Buckhalter, whose career was derailed by season-ending injuries which cost him all of the 2002, 2004 and 2005 seasons, has been healthy and productive the last three seasons. He rushed for 369 yards and had 26 receptions in 2008.

— DeShaun Foster averaged about 875 rushing yards during his previous three seasons in Carolina but rushed for just 234 yards behind powerful Frank Gore last year in San Francisco. He has 142 catches in six seasons.

— A leg injury limited LaMont Jordan to eight games, 363 rushing yards and four touchdowns with New England. He had 70 catches in 2005 in Oakland, when he rushed for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns.

— Seattle's Maurice Morris has three consecutive seasons of between 574 yards and 628 yards. His receiving skills, however, are limited.

Clearance rack:

Rudi Johnson, who rushed for more than 4,200 yards during a three-year period with Cincinnati, mustered just 237 yards and one touchdown last season for woeful Detroit.

— Cleveland's Jason Wright had 24 receptions in 2007 and 22 in 2008.

J.J. Arrington, a second-round pick by Arizona in 2005, had 29 receptions in each of the last two seasons.

— The Saints' Aaron Stecker, who grew up in the shadow of Lambeau Field, was slowed by leg injuries this past season after catching 36 passes in 2007.

— The Jets' Jesse Chatman missed the first four games with NFL suspension, then suffered a season-ending knee injury. A 5-foot-8 bowling ball, he rushed for 515 yards and had 27 receptions in 2007.

— Denver's Michael Pittman turns 34 before training camp. He didn't do much for Denver last season but averaged 36 receptions from 2005 through 2007 in Tampa Bay.

For a preview of the quarterbacks, click here

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.


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