Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Running Backs
Khaled Elsayed | 2013/02/11
Every day this week (and some of next) we’re going to be breaking down the top free agents at each position. It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of the franchise tag, so don’t expect to see names like Joe Flacco or Ryan Clady in these pieces.
Instead, we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.
And now the running backs.
* Note: Isaac Redman was deemed unlikely to hit free agency, instead having his team use the restricted free agent tags on him. 1. Ahmad Bradshaw
2012 Grade: +14.2
2012 Snaps: 611
Summary: When healthy I’d go as far as to say there isn’t a more complete back in the league than Bradshaw. He runs with a style that sees him get more than his blocking gives him, he’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, and he’s about as good a blocking back as you’ll see in the league. However, there’s an obvious reason why the Giants released him and why he’s more of a gamble than some others. Despite being 26, Bradshaw has had a number of surgeries on his troubling ankles, and that is a huge concern.
So while you are absolutely getting a player who is capable of starting and being an every-down back, you have to weigh that against the probability that he might miss an extended period of time with his recurring issues. A tough decision to make, but it’s worth noting Bradshaw has finished in the Top 10 of our running back rankings the past three years. 2. Steven Jackson
2012 Grade: +9.2
2012 Snaps: 733
Summary: Jackson will turn 30 during the 2013 season which will scare a lot of teams off, especially given his high workload the past five years (averaging 285 carries a year in that period). But on the evidence of his 2012 year, Jackson still has something to offer, finishing the year with our 11th-highest rushing grade of all running backs.
Not a threat to take it the distance (just 20.4% of Jackson’s yardage came on runs over 15 yards, 13th-lowest of all running backs with at least 100 carries) and he’s not the most elusive back in the league (31st out of 48 in our Elusive Rating). But his 2.7 yards after contact per carry highlight a player that can still push the pile. Paired with a more explosive option, there’s no reason to think he can’t carry on doing the hard work for a team. 3. Chris Ivory
2012 Grade: +3.9
2012 Snaps: 68
Summary: I must admit to having something of a running back crush on Ivory, so one of my big hopes for the offseason is the Saints don’t exercise the right to tender him, and instead let him find a home where a team takes advantage of his talents.
Here’s a guy who has a career average of 5 yards per carry and who has forced a missed tackle on one of every 4.9 touches since entering the league. This year Adrian Peterson only managed one for every 5.4 touches. Sure, he doesn’t contribute much in the passing game, but not every running back has to. With the Saints souring on him, he’s got plenty of tread left on his tires and is one of these guys who makes something out of every opportunity handed to him. 4. Reggie Bush
2012 Grade: -2.6
2012 Snaps: 582
Summary: If nothing else, the time Bush has spent in Miami has proved he can hold up to the strain of being an every-down back. Still, old habits die hard and Bush remains a back for whom bouncing it outside is the guiltiest of pleasures. It’s a large part of why he was ranked only 35th (out of 60) in our pure rushing grades for 2012.
In essence, Bush continues to be the player the Saints realized they had drafted. Better in space, and not all that elusive when working in crowded areas. His 2.1 yards after contact per carry were only 0.4 better than the lowest mark in the league. If you can get him space he is dangerous, as his 16 runs over 15 yards (sixth highest in the league) attests. 5. Rashard Mendenhall
2012 Grade: -2.6
2012 Snaps: 104
Summary: The soon-to-be former Steeler is young enough (25) and far enough removed from his end-of-2011 injury, that his upside makes him an intriguing proposition. After flattering to deceive in the early portion of his career he was really finding his stride behind a poor offensive line when injury struck at the end of 2011. Then he had our 12th-highest grade of all running backs for rushing and forced 37 missed tackles from scrimmage.
The problem for him is that injury and what it has meant. In a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” league Mendenhall made more noise for his actions and comments off the field, than he did for his play on it. That may have been due to health, but it offers little solace for a team who want to spend their free agency money on a sure thing. 6. Cedric Benson
2012 Grade: +0.3
2012 Snaps: 201
Summary: Working behind a Packers line that was getting little push, Benson could manage only 3.5 yards per carry before his season was cut short. On the positive side, 156 of his 248 yards came after contact, and he him also broke seven tackles. That left him with a 20.7 Elusive Rating that was an improvement on the 15.8 he managed in his final year with the Bengals.
So he’s far from done, but at the same time how much do you trust a 30-year-old running back coming off an injury? 7. Danny Woodhead
2012 Grade: +10.4
2012 Snaps: 424
Summary: The diminutive Woodhead has used his time with the Patriots to establish himself as one of the premier third-down backs in the league. He’s not going to push a pile, but his nose for the first-down marker is what separates him from the rest. Indeed, of all running backs with at least 75 carries, his 26.3 conversion percentage on runs into first downs or touchdowns, is the third-highest mark.
What’s more, he offers a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. In fact, 44% of his targets turned into first downs, the second-highest percentage of any running back. You need to commit to him in a way the Patriots have, but Woodhead is an incredibly productive player. 8. LeGarrette Blount
2012 Grade: -3.2
2012 Snaps: 93
Summary: What to make of Blount. In his rookie season he was a revelation. Finishing the year top of the charts with an Elusive Rating of 89.2 after breaking 50 tackles and averaging 3.7 yards per carry … after contact.
Since then it’s all gone wrong. His struggles in the passing game mean the Bucs have been loathe to trust him, to the point that he was given only 41 carries on his 93 snaps in 2012. Still, the big back may benefit from a change of scenery which may doubly act as a kick of the backside. He’s got some major character question marks to overcome, and he’s entering a now or never stage of his career. He need only run like he did as a rookie and all of a sudden he’s one of the best in the league at turning nothing into something. 9. LaRod Stephens-Howling
2012 Grade: -0.6
2012 Snaps: 346
Summary: Initially a special teams ace, “Hyphen” has always been up to the task of delivering when the Cardinals have called his number. Unfortunately, a woeful offensive line made life extremely hard on Stephens-Howling , who struggled to get much going despite forcing 28 missed tackles on his 128 touches.
Therein lies his problem. He’ll always need a degree of help in getting into space where his speed and deceptive power can help him create things. At a listed 180lbs he’s just not cut out for a hugely significant role, but then you look at the success a guy like Danny Woodhead has had, and wonder, why can’t he have something similar? 10. Peyton Hillis
2012 Grade: +0.5
2012 Snaps: 218
Summary: Apparently we’re not ready to forget what Hillis was able to do in 2010, because he’s done very little in the past two years to convince anyone he’s worth as much as he thinks he is.In 2010 he finished second in our running back rankings, but injuries have meant that since then he’s been on the field for only 690 snaps, failing to do much in those games to inspire.
He did show he’s still got something to his case in forcing four missed tackles and picking up 101 yards against the Colts in Week 16. However, the question teams have to be asking themselves is whether he can consistently get the job done. He hasn’t done a good job of convincing them the answer to that is yes these past two years.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled