NFL Free Agent Focus: RBs

      March 13, 2012 @ 00:01:51 PDT


The 2012 NFL free-agent market is just hours away from kicking off. NFL squads will look to fill holes by trying to steal talent away from other teams as they continue to build their roster before the NFL Draft takes place next month.

Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Ray Rice is the top free-agent running back, but he is unlikely to depart Baltimore

The running back position this year has plenty of talent available; unfortunately most of the key players will come at a cost. The Houston Texans took restricted free-agent Arian Foster off the market before it even opened, locking him up to a long-term deal. Other priority players have received the franchise tag, which will make them difficult to pry away from their respective team.

2012 NFL Free Agent Running Backs

Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens - UFA (Franchise tagged) - If you were to go all in on a running back in this year's free-agent class, Rice would be the guy you'd want to do it with. He does a little bit of everything incredibly well; he runs strong inside and out, catches the ball very well and has proven to be a solid enough blocker on passing situations. Rice, 25, is a game-changing back and has at least 1,200 yards rushing each of the last three seasons. He hasn't been a big touchdown guy, but he did score a career-high 15 times (12 rushing, three receiving) last season. While young, the team has used him a lot in the last three years - he has no less than 332 touches a season during that time and has posted better than 2,000-total yards two out of the last three seasons.

Potential landing spots - Rice won't be leaving Baltimore anytime soon. Signing him to a long-term deal is the goal, and he'll continue to post solid production moving forward.

Matt Forte, Chicago Bears - UFA (Franchise tagged) - Forte was limited to just 12 games last season, the first year he hasn't made it a full 16-game season. He has proven to be a very solid all-around threat, catching at least 50 passes every year he has been in the NFL. The biggest issue with Forte right now is affordability. He has wanted a long-term deal for over a year, and he and the Bears don't seem to be talking the same numbers. With Mike Martz out of Chicago, Forte may not be as successful in a different offensive system. For as much as we pick on Martz, his system is friendly to running backs capable of being an all-purpose back.

Potential landing spots - Much like Rice, Forte isn't going anywhere. He'll remain with the Bears and may land the long-term deal he is looking for. This one, however, is a bit more concerning to me; I wouldn't be surprised to see a holdout later this year if the numbers aren't to Forte's liking.

Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders - UFA - Bush, because he didn't get tagged and is free to change teams, is the most intriguing of this year's free-agent running backs. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also looked mediocre at times while serving as a No. 1 running back. He'll be 28 when the new season begins, but doesn't have a lot of miles on him - his career high in attempts came last year when he rushed 256 times for 977 yards. At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, he is a load for defenses to bring down and he has shown he is a capable receiver out of the backfield, posting 91 receptions in the last four years (37 came last season when he started a career-best nine games).

Potential landing spots - San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns are the most likely landing spots at this point in my mind. The New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts could also be on the radar. The Raiders may also remain in the hunt, as it is tough to depend on Darren McFadden giving them a 16-game season.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots - UFA - If you need legal help and a running back, the Law Firm seems to be the answer to both problems. All bad jokes aside, Green-Ellis, who will be 27 when the regular season begins, isn't flashy, fancy or a game-changing back. He is, however, someone you can depend on week in and week out for steady production. He is capable of doing a little bit of everything well, but doesn't stand out anywhere other than ball security -- he has yet to fumble once during his four-year career. In four seasons in New England, he rushed 510 times for 2,064 yards and 29 touchdowns. He has one thousand-yard season to his resume, but when you consider how pass-happy New England is that isn't a big surprise. As noted in his career stats, he does not have a lot of miles on him. He won't be a running back that joins another team and turns into an elite back, but he can be Mr. Steady for any team looking to shore up their ground game.

Potential landing spots - The Kansas City Chiefs, Lions, Vikings and Raiders make a lot of sense to me if he departs New England. With the Patriots investing a couple of picks in running backs in last year's NFL Draft, it seems unlikely that he will return. However, if Green-Ellis is OK playing a role and not being the guy, it's tough to rule out a strong team like the Patriots.

Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns - UFA - I'm by no means a big Hillis fan; however, he is going to draw attention on the open market. Hillis, 26, can play tailback and fullback and has shown to be an overachiever at times during his career. He exploded in 2010 with the Browns, rushing 270 times for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 61 balls for 477 yards and two more touchdowns. As fantasy football owners will tell you, last year was disastrous. Hillis played in just 10 games and only managed 587 yards on the ground, there were questions about his dedication and whether or not he was milking injuries because he didn't receive a contract extension.

Potential landing spots - Returning to Cleveland is possible, but it will be on Cleveland's terms more than his. He strikes me as the type of back that would fit in well with the Steelers and Giants, too.

Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants - UFA (cut) - If you can get past the attitude and the inability to use his size to his advantage, Jacobs is an ideal tag-team back in a two-back system. I don't believe he is capable of being a No. 1, every-down guy; but, if he can find a situation where he plays second fiddle to another quick, shifty back (much like his role with the Giants), Jacobs is capable of posting 800-1,000 yards and close to double-digit touchdowns. He does, however, have to be OK with that role and realize that is what he is signing up for.

Potential landing spots - There are a bunch of teams that could use a back like Jacobs. The New York Jets, Vikings and Raiders are teams I could see showing interest.

Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers - UFA - Tolbert might end being the best value on this year's free-agent market. At 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, Tolbert is a load to bring down. Despite being a big guy, he has incredibly soft hands and even served as the Chargers' third-down back over the last two years ... he has 109 receptions for 1,012 yards and six touchdowns during his four-year career. He is a strong pass blocker, has a nose for the end zone and can carry the load when you need him to. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not going to buy into him as an every-down back for the course of a year, but he can serve in that role when he needs to.

Potential landing spots - There are a lot of teams that could use a guy like Tolbert. The Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chiefs, Lions, Denver Broncos, Browns, Giants, Bears, Ravens and a handful of others could all step up to the plate.

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals - UFA - Benson quietly has three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Bengals, but it doesn't appear the team is interested in bringing him back. We all know about Benson's off-the-field drama, so I won't beat a dead horse. At 29 years of age, he doesn't have a tremendous amount of work on his legs (1,529 career carries), but his yards-per-carry has been below 4.0 the past two years and four out of the last five. He never has a lot of spark or pop to his game; he's a plodder that can carry the ball 20-plus times week in and week out if needed.

Potential landing spots - Oakland, Pittsburgh and maybe Cleveland could show some interest here. There isn't a lot to get excited about, but Benson can be a steady option to have in the backfield when times are tough.

The other guys ... There are a lot of backs this year who could fill a role with another team that I think will be picked up at some point this summer. These aren't players teams will be beating each other up over during the free-agent market, but they are all players who could provide an impact in the right situation.

LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets - UFA - While LT has a lot of miles on him, he still has a nose for the end zone and is a very capable third-down back. He'll be 33 when the new season begins, and it appears unlikely he returns to the Jets after some critical comments during the offseason. He caught 94 passes during the past two years with the Jets and is only a year removed from a 914-yard rushing season. Teams needing a veteran back to serve as a third-down option and the occasional fill in could do a lot worse.

Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers - UFA - All things considered, Grant did OK last year for the Packers, rushing 134 times for 559 yards and two touchdowns. He was never a special back, but he showed he could be a workhorse for the Packers previous to a significant leg injury. Two years removed, Grant, 29, will be a tandem back in the best-case scenario. The Packers are usually very loyal to their players, which could lead to Grant returning in the upcoming year. Either way, his days as a fantasy contributor are probably over.

Ronnie Brown, Philadelphia Eagles - UFA - Brown kind of kicks off the next five injury-prone backs. Maybe a year that saw just 42 rushing attempts can help him health wise, but I doubt many teams are willing to take that chance. Brown is a talented back, able to run, block and catch quite well. Staying on the field for him, however, is a challenge he has rarely shown he can overcome.

Cadillac Williams, St. Louis Rams - UFA - Cadillac has only one type of luck: Bad. He looked like an elite back a few times last year for the Rams, but nobody can count on him to stay healthy for more than a handful of games at this point in his career. He'll end up somewhere as a backup (possibly the Chargers); which is about the best he can hope for despite being able to do a little bit of everything really well.

Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts - UFA (cut) - Injuries have taken their toll on Addai over the years. He'll be 29 when the new season begins; but hasn't played a full 16-game season in the past five years. He catches well, but it seems the giddy-up in his step is gone, too -- he hasn't had a play longer than 46 yards in the past three seasons. There isn't much to get excited about with him at this point, but he could be a veteran third-down option for a team that desperately needs one (Tampa Bay possibly).

Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions - UFA - Smith looked fantastic at times for the Lions last year. The unfortunate thing here is durability. He has none. On the positive side, when he is healthy he can catch, pass-block, run inside and out. Unfortunately he is nothing more than a flier back at this point and when he gets an opportunity, if history holds true, he'll be on the injury report or Injured Reserve shortly later.

Steve Slaton, Miami Dolphins - UFA - I might be the last person in the world that still believes in this guy, but so be it. I'd love to see Slaton catch on with a team weak at running back that could eventually afford him the opportunity to gain significant playing time.

Where do you anticipate these free agents ending up? Sound off in the area below.

Fasten your seat belts, the free-agent market is about to kickoff and it will be a more enjoyable ride than dealing with the lockout nonsense from a year ago.

You can stalk me on Twitter @RyanBonini; don't forget to stay on top of all of the latest fantasy football information by following @KFFL.

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2012 NFL Free Agent Focus: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers

About Ryan R. Bonini

Founding KFFL in 1996, Bonini now serves as VP of Fantasy Sports Solutions for USA TODAY SPORTS, KFFL's parent company. Bonini was named 2009 Fantasy Football Writer of the Year by the FSWA, received honors with the Best Fantasy Football Series in '10 and was named into their Hall of Fame in '13.

His work has been found in USA TODAY Sports, Yahoo! Sports, FOX Sports, CBS Sports, NFL.com, and many others. He has also been featured on numerous radio programs around the country. Bonini is a member of the PFWA, FSWA and FSTA.

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