You hear and see it all the time these days: Running backs just aren’t valued as they once were.
Whether that’s true or teams are just always looking for the younger, fresher prospect at the position, there could be some talented ones hitting the open market. Scout.com has five potential free-agent running backs rated with four stars, meaning they would be a starter for most teams. In all, 14 possible free agents at the position are considered “potential starters,” meaning they would plug-and-play nicely with a team that doesn’t have that obvious starter already on the roster.
Realistically, however, not many will be receiving big-buck deals, but there is a nice mix of experienced and productive backs that are just entering their prime earning years.
DOUG MARTIN, TAMPA BAY
Doug Martin came up 83 yards short of Adrian Peterson’s 2015 rushing title, but Martin’s 4.9-yard average per attempt was best among the top 15 rushers last year. He has the ideal mix of youth, versatility and production. However, there is the question about health and contract expectations. In his four NFL seasons, Martin has produced two year – his rookie year and in 2015 – with more than 1,400 yards rushing and 250 yards receiving. But sandwiched in between were two seasons in which he played a combined 17 games and averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Martin is reportedly seeking a long-term contract that averages more than $7 million per season, and he’s worth that relative to the top backs in the NFL if he stays healthy. If the Bucs don’t come up with a long-term contract agreement before March 1, they could slap the franchise tag on him for about $11.5 million and continue to negotiate a long-term deal throughout the spring.
CHRIS IVORY, NEW YORK JETS
The New York Jets have plenty of potential high-dollar free agents ready to hit the market, including QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and highly regarded defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison. They probably won’t be able to pay them all, and in addition fellow Jets backfield mates Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley are also free agents. Chris Ivory led the AFC with 1,070 yards, but he averaged 4.3 yards per carry, pretty average for a running back, and will turn 28 in March. If they have to choose with a tight salary cap, Ivory is probably the most expendable between Fitzpatrick and the two four-star defensive linemen.
MATT FORTE, CHICAGO
The Chicago Bears have already announced they won’t be bringing Matt Forte back, leaving the 30-year-old back for the rest of the NFL to contemplate how many productive seasons he has remaining. He finished 11th in the league in rushing yards and remained relatively productive in the passing game. But his 888 yards were also the lowest output of his career and the first time in four years he didn’t surpass 1,000 yards. He is still valuable, but he isn’t likely to get a long-term deal given he has more than 2,000 carries in eight season on his body.
C.J. ANDERSON, DENVER
Fortunately for the Denver Broncos, C.J. Anderson is a restricted free agent, meaning they can hold the right of first refusal on any outside offer he may receive. In what was essentially a time-share backfield with Ronnie Hillman, Anderson still finished 24th in the NFL in rushing and could project to a 1,000-yard back if given a featured role, and his 4.7-yard average in 2015 bodes well for his future. Hillman is an unrestricted free agent, so it seems logical that the Broncos, with other big-money free agents to re-sign, would keep Anderson with a restricted free-agent qualifying offer and allow Hillman to test the market.
LAMAR MILLER, MIAMI
The Miami Dolphins reportedly want Lamar Miller back, for good reason, but they aren’t expected to use the franchise tag to accomplish that goal. Miller hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons and has averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry in the last two years, with his high-water mark coming in 2014, when he averaged 5.1 yards and had 1,099 yards rushing. With less than 650 carries on his body and entering his first opportunity in unrestricted free agency, he and Martin could be two of the most sought-after backs in free agency … if they make it there.
In addition to the perception – and it seems to be reality – that running backs aren’t valued as highly as they once were, there is a strong market of potential free-agent starters, which could drive down the market in a supply-and-demand world like NFL free agency. Alfred Morris, Hillman and Powell aren’t just scraps pieces at the position, but they could be the victims of market conditions, along with several others looking for a shot at a starting job in the NFL.