NFL

Top free agents: Running backs

Brian Billick breaks down free agent running backs
Brian Billick breaks down free agent running backs
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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1. Arian Foster: RB, Houston

In his first full year as a starter, Foster led the league in rushing with 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns. Going into his third year with the Texans, he is set to make just $480,000.

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Potential landing spot: Houston

Houston has placed an exclusive-rights tender on Foster, which means he'll most likely be a Texan this season and will probably be paid under market value. It will be interesting to see if he holds out for additional money.

2. DeAngelo Williams: RB, Carolina

With a 2010 season that only included six games and a total of 361 rushing yards, Williams had his most disappointing season as a professional. For a sixth-year player with two 1,000-yard seasons and a 5.0 average, there will be plenty of suitors.

Potential landing spots: Carolina, Denver, New York Giants

Carolina experienced the emergence of Mike Goodson and still has a premiere player in Jonathan Stewart, and that may make Williams expendable to the Panthers. I would look for Denver, led by former Carolina coach John Fox, to show considerable interest. Fox relies heavily on running and playing good defense, and landing Williams should improve the Broncos' 26th-ranked rushing attack from last season. The Giants would also be interested, especially if they are unable to re-sign Ahmad Bradshaw. Other possibilities for Williams could be Cincinnati or Washington.

3. Ahmad Bradshaw: RB, New York Giants

With more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage, Bradshaw enjoyed his most productive campaign since entering the league in 2007. But it was also last season that the Giants led the league in turnovers with 42, and Bradshaw contributed his fair share. He lost 6 of 7 fumbles.

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Potential landing spots: Miami, New York Giants

The Giants have Brandon Jacobs under contract through 2012 and he is set to receive nearly $10 million over the next two seasons. It may prove difficult to retain both Jacobs and Bradshaw under big contracts, but I believe Bradshaw will be their biggest priority. If Bradshaw does hit the open market, Miami would be a potential landing spot. The once-crowded Miami backfield is suddenly vacant with Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Patrick Cobbs set to become free agents. The Dolphins drafted Daniel Thomas of Kansas State in the second round, but they would certainly be intrigued by the 1-2 punch of Bradshaw and Thomas together.

4. Joseph Addai: RB, Indianapolis

Since coming into the league in 2006 and starting his career with two 1,000-yard seasons, Addai has turned in three subpar years. In 2010 he only appeared in eight games and finished with just four touchdowns.

Potential landing spots: Indianapolis, Washington

Indianapolis drafted Delone Carter of Syracuse in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, which means they'll most likely have to part ways with either Addai, Mike Hart, or Javarris James. The Colts finished 29th in rushing yards last season, but again led the league in passing yards. They value what Addai adds to that passing attack, whether it be running routes out of the backfield or stepping up and taking on a blitzing backer in pass protection. The Redskins tried a slew of veteran running backs last season in Larry Johnson, Willie Parker, and Clinton Portis and ended up cutting all of them. Now with Ryan Torain as the probable starter, Addai could add depth and production to Mike Shannahan’s zone-running scheme.

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5. Cedric Benson: RB, Cincinnati

Benson looked like a bust after his first three seasons in Chicago, but found new life in Cincinnati. He has posted back-to-back 1,00-yard seasons and has infused a sense of physicality into the Bengals' rushing attack.

Potential landing spots: Cincinnati, New York Giants,

The Giants could again be a possibility for Benson, but only if they lose Bradshaw. Just like the Giants should make Bradshaw a priority, the Bengals should do the same for Benson. The Bengals were at their best in 2009 when they relied most heavily on Benson and his downfield running style. With the unknown quarterback and wide receiver situation in Cincinnati, I find it hard to believe they part ways with their most steady offensive performer.

6. Michael Bush: RB, Oakland

In 2010, Bush rushed for 655 yards and eight touchdowns, all while sharing carries with a crowded Oakland backfield. Bush is a nice complement to Darren McFadden, but he may prefer to find a starting role elsewhere.

Potential landing spot: Oakland

While he may prefer to be a starter, Bush is best as a change-of-pace back to McFadden. With the majority of the NFL now using a two-back system, Bush would be smart to stick with his current partner and again push for the top rushing attack in the NFL. The Raiders’ 156 rushing yards per game last season were good for second-best.

7. Vonta Leach: FB, Houston

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Leach is the first-and-only fullback to appear on this list, and is well deserving. He's an athletic fullback that can catch passes out of the backfield and create running lanes up the middle, as proven by lead blocking for the NFL's leading rusher, Arian Foster.

Potential landing spots: Baltimore, Houston

Leach would like to be paid like the best fullback in the NFL, which would mean at least matching the Eagles’ contract to Leonard Weaver of $11 million over three years. It will be interesting to see if Houston values him that high, especially when the need to come up with the money to pay Foster what he is worth. If not, Baltimore could be interested as its current fullback, Le’Ron McClain is also set to become a free agent.

8. Ronnie Brown: RB, Miami

The Dolphins fell from being the fourth-best rushing team in the NFL in 2009 to the 21st in 2010. The team’s top three running backs are all slated to be free agents and Ronnie Brown may be the odd man out.

Potential landing spots: Miami, Philadelphia

Brown will not be a feature back whether he ends up with the Dolphins or the Eagles, but he can still provide some excitement in a limited role. While defenses have started to catch on to the misdirection of the “Wildcat,” he will need to play the more traditional role of a third-down running back with his next team. With proven starter LeSean McCoy, the Eagles could use depth in the backfield, and with only Jerome Harrison and rookie Dion Lewis on the roster, they could use the veteran experience.

9. Cadillac Williams: RB, Tampa Bay

Since running for 1,178 yards (his only 1,000 yard season) as a rookie, Williams has yet to settle in as a consistent contributor to the Buccaneers’ offense.

Potential landing spots: St. Louis, Tampa Bay

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With the emergence of LeGarrette Blount, who was able to rush for a 5.0-yard average this season, the Buccaneers would be completely content with losing Williams via free agency. That’s not to say they wouldn’t like to have him back, but he definitely will not be a top priority once the signing period begins. The Rams need to add depth behind steady producer, Steven Jackson, and Williams will not demand a high price tag, which could make for the perfect storm in St. Louis.

10. Darren Sproles: RB, San Diego

Darren Sproles was quietly productive last year, averaging 5.34 yards per carry and catching 59 passes for 520 yards, although he wasn’t able to produce a single touchdown from the line of scrimmage.

Potential landing spots: San Diego, St. Louis, Washington

San Diego was hoping Sproles would become even more explosive and dynamic when they released LadainianTomlinson, but with the emergence of Mike Tolbert and the potential of Ryan Mathews, they may deem Sproles expendable. St. Louis offers an intriguing situation, where Sproles could be a complete change of pace from Steven Jackson. The Rams would also find value in Sproles’ presence in the passing game. After drafting three new targets for Sam Bradford in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, Sproles could make for a unique option coming out of the backfield. Washington might make a play for Sproles for the same reason they find Addai attractive for their zone-running scheme.

ON THE BUBBLE

BenJarvus Green-Ellis: RB, New England
Mike Tolbert: RB, San Diego
Ricky Williams: RB, Miami
 

Tagged: Bengals, Colts, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Giants, Eagles, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Chargers, Texans, Ricky Williams, Steven Jackson, Vonta Leach, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Bush, Darren McFadden, Mike Hart, Mike Tolbert, Mike Goodson, Arian Foster, Sam Bradford

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