Friday, July 22, 2011

NFL Free Agent Preview - RB's (July 22)

So, guys...which of these overpriced FA's will you be wasting your money on this year?
Yesterday's tweet of the day goes to BDT friend and Colts blogger ( Nate Dunlevy. Nate tweets, "It's counter intuitive, I know, but the closer we get to a CBA deal, the less attention I'm paying. It'll happen eventually, so why sweat it?" Spot on Nate! Exactly how I feel.

At the beginning of this whole mess, I spent a good deal of time researching and learning as much as I could about the conflict. As this thing has wore on, however, fatigue has definitely set in. I don't want to think about the lockout, I don't want to talk about the lockout, and I really don't want to hear about the lockout. Just do me a favor and give me a wake-up call when all the signatures have dried, OK?

Still, even as I express my weariness and displeasure over the entire affair, and even as this lockout drags on into its (seemingly) 30th year, it's important to note one thing for all the disgruntled fans to remember. You have lost nothing. Nothing. Not a single thing. All the free agent signings will be made, all three low level trades will be made, all the positional battles will still happen, all the fluff training camp stories will still be written, and, most importantly, all the games will be played. People can (and will) play the hypocrite, chastising the players and owners alike for being "greedy," "selfish," and "money-loving;" but the fact of the matter is the fans have not been harmed in any way shape or form. End of story.

That having been said, let's continue to look beyond the last vestiges of this never ending labor struggle and into the upcoming free agency period. In case you missed it, we previewed (and mostly denigrated) the available crop of quarterbacks. Today, we'll briefly examine a similarly lackluster group of running backs that teams will almost assuredly waste precious cap space on.

I read an interesting article on Monday by Bill Barnwell (, formerly of Football Outsiders) entitled, "Free Agents You Meet in Hell." If you haven't read it yet, I strongly encourage you to as Mr. Barnwell provides some extremely valuable insights into NFL free agency. In his article, Mr. Barnwell talks specifically about the dangers of signing veteran running backs to big deals. I've long since had an inkling of this, but I've never thought extensively about it, and I've certainly never quantified it. Barnwell brings up specific examples (Derrick Ward, Ahman Green, Travis Henry, Dominic Rhodes, Lamont Jordan, Edgerrin James) to illustrate his point. Running backs take extreme amounts of punishment and their window of quality, starter level production is significantly smaller than that of other positions. Signing a 28 year old quarterback with 4 years of starting experience is probably a great idea (assuming he doesn't suck)! He could easily be your starter for the next half decade or more. Signing a 28 year old running back after 4 years of punishment? Ehh...not such a good idea. Simply put, good running backs almost never come through high price free agency. Don't believe me? Look at the rushing leaders from last season:

Arian Foster - Undrafted rookie free agent (not nearly the same as what I'm talking about)
Jamaal Charles - 3rd round pick (KC)
Michael Turner - FA signing (here's the exception...let's see how many more there are!)
Chris Johnson - 1st round pick (TEN)
Maurice Jones-Drew - 2nd round pick (JAX)
Adrian Peterson - 1st round pick (MIN)
Rashard Mendenhall - 1st round pick (PIT)
Steven Jackson - 1st round pick (STL)
Ahmad Bradshaw - 7th round pick (NYG)
Ray Rice - 2nd round pick (BAL)
Peyton Hillis - Traded to CLE for Brady Quinn
Darren McFadden - 1st round pick (OAK)
Cedric Benson - FA signing (he was quite literally picked off the scrap heap after Chicago released him)
LeSean McCoy - 2nd round pick (PHI)
Matt Forte - 2nd round pick (CHI)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Undrafted rookie free agent
LeGarrette Blount - Undrafted rookie free agent

So, of the 17 players who cleared the 1,000 yard mark last season, there were three times as many undrafted rookie free agents as there were big time free agent signings. In fact, Michael Turner is one of the only free agent success stories around the league! As this list shows, and as NFL history shows over and over again, you build through the draft, not free agency.

Sadly, many teams don't learn...even more sadly, my beloved Dallas Cowboys are one of those teams. And so, I dedicate this list of available runnings backs to them. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder!!!

Note: I'll be making use of Football Outsider's DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average). It's one of the best ways to determine how effective a player actually was.

Complete and Utter Waste of Money

Ronnie Brown

The good news: In 2010, Ronnie Brown started all 16 games for the first time in his career. The bad news: In 2010, Ronnie Brown was allowed to start all 16 games.

In all seriousness, I feel sad about how Brown's career turned out. He was always an extraordinary talent, and his production was always underrated when he was able to play...but that was always the problem, wasn't it? And after finally staying healthy for a full season, it's pretty clear that all the injuries have finally taken their toll. Brown will enter the 2011 season at 30 years old and just having posted a career low 3.7 Y/A, and a pitiful -4.2% DVOA. It'll be interesting to see what kind of market there is for Brown. A lot of teams need help at RB, and Brown's talent might tease some dope into spending big money on him...even if only in a short term deal. I suppose he might have some value as a back-up, but I wouldn't be surprised if he gets paid like a starter.

Ricky Williams

(Insert marijuana joke here)

It's hard to believe Williams was able to rack up his fifth 1000 yard rushing season just two years ago at age 32. Maybe there's something to this whole holistic, marijuana thing after all (note how I equated the two...)! Even considering this bizarre outlier of a season, Williams will be 34 next season, will have already racked up over 2000 carries in his career, and will have posted a negative DVOA in 2 of his last 3 seasons. Even with all the marijuana in the world, the end must come sometime for Ole' Ricky.

Cadillac Williams

Much like his former Auburn backfield mate Ronnie Brown, The Cadillac simply can't stay healthy. And, like Brown, the injuries have clearly caught up to him. Williams posted an astoundingly bad -22.2% DVOA last season on 125 carries. Stick a fork in him ladies and gentlemen, he's done. (By the way, you can all thank me later for not making the typical car references...yes, we get it...very stop.)

Well, he was pretty good as a backup...

This category is dedicated to those delusional GM's who are convinced good production in limited carries will automatically translate to good production as a starter. Let's call this the Lamont Jordan Award!

Darren Sproles

OK, so I'm cheating a bit by putting Sproles here. I sincerely doubt there's any teams eyeing Sproles as a potential 200 carry back. Still, Sproles is a going to command a pretty high price once free agency begins and you can bet whatever team pays that price will expect him to carry the ball more than the 50 times he did last season. The fact is, Sproles has never carried the ball more than 93 times in a season and his substantial kick return talents could be severely tempered thanks to the new rule changes.

Michael Bush

Bush has been extremely effective in tandem with Darren McFadden, posting above average DVOA's in each of the past two seasons. At 6-2 243, he definitely has the size and strength to carry a bigger load, and, truthfully, I would be intrigued to see how he would perform in a full time role.

It Worked for Cleveland...

Otherwise known as the Peyton Hills Memorial Copycat Award.

Le'Ron McClain

I didn't realize this until I looked it up, but McClain had nearly 1000 yards and 10 TD's just a few seasons ago! He actually ranked 11th that season with a 7.6% DVOA! Well, I guess we've found the next Peyton Hillis, right??? Uhh...probably not. Two things. 1.) Hillis only had one good year. He very well might suck this year (actually, he will...he's on the cover of Madden). I know everyone loves to jump the gun and make early conclusions out of small sample sizes, but let's stop assuming Cleveland found some sort of "formula" and come back to reality. 2.) Just because two players have similarities does not mean they are the same players. Yes, McClain is really big. Good for him. Doesn't make him Peyton Hillis.

Note: Go ahead and throw Mike Tolbert's name on this one too......and any other oversized running back that I could probably beat in a foot race.

Better Chance of Wearing an Orange Jumpsuit...

Cedric Benson

Do I really even need to write a paragraph about why spending money on Cedric Benson is dumb? Would I write about his malcontent behavior and his constant run-ins with the law? Or would I write about his meager 3.5 Y/A, 7 fumbles, and appalling -13.1% DVOA last season? get the idea.

I'm Intrigued...and I Feel Dumb for it.

DeAngelo Williams

This has classic bust written all over it. Remember earlier when I said it was probably dumb to give big money to a 28 year old running back with 4 years of punishment on him? Yeah, I unknowingly described DeAngelo Williams...almost to a T. Fact is, Williams will be 28 next season and is coming off a brutal 2010 season that saw him miss 10 games, rush for a career low 4.1 Y/A, score only 1 TD, and post a miserable -16.2% DVOA. Despite that, I'm intrigued by him...and you know, without a doubt, that he'll land a big free agent deal. Why? Well, here's the stats from his previous two seasons:

2009: 13 GS, 216 ATT, 1117 YDS, 7 TD, 12.6% DVOA (11th)
2008: 16 GS, 273 ATT, 1515 YDS, 18 TD, 28.3% DVOA (1st)

Wow! That's pretty good production! No wonder teams are interested! So, the question is, is it a good idea to give him the big bucks? The answer...probably not. Perhaps last season was a fluke, perhaps he has plenty left in the tank, perhaps he'll have a few more big years. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps it's no coincidence he's declined two years in a row.

Ahmad Bradshaw

At just 25 years old and having just had his breakout season, Ahmad Bradshaw is perhaps the hottest commodity on the running back market. Unlike Willliams, Bradshaw has both proven production and fresh, young legs. I suppose that means Bradshaw is a sure thing, right? Not so fast, my friends!

First of all, I have serious questions about his longterm durability. At just 5-11 195, I'm very surprised (and impressed) Bradshaw was able to successfully tote the rock 276 times last season. In checking out the game logs, however, it's pretty clear his effectiveness was severely compromised by the workload. In games 1-7, Bradshaw posted a Y/A average of 4.2 or better six out of seven games. Even more amazing, he posted a Y/A average of 5.2 or better five out of seven times. However, games 8-16 were far less impressive, having posted a sub 4.0 Y/A average seven out of nine games. Clearly, he was not meant to carry that type of load.

Second of all, I was shocked to see that Bradshaw only had a 2.5% DVOA on the ground last season...barely better than average! Obviously, his pass receiving skills give him added value, but for the type of money Bradshaw will command, you'd expect a bit more than a glorified third down back.

Let me be clear on how I feel about this entire running back class...I wouldn't touch them. Not for my life. There are legitimate concerns about each and every one of them, and if NFL history has taught us anything, it's that good running backs can come from anywhere. Just ask the Houston Texans. Or the Cleveland Browns.

(I know there were guys I left out of my list. I can't possibly include everyone...just group them in with the "potential waste of money" category.)


  1. I think out of all these guys DeAngelo Williams is by far the best. Take a look at the QB situation in Carolina...teams could stack 11 in the box and the Panthers still had no choice but to run. Also I bet that Williams wanted to get injured last year. Missing those 10 games means that he could have fresh legs for this year, and he also didn't have to get hit 50 times a game. It was actually the best thing for him.

  2. On the other hand, he had three straight seasons with 5.0 Y/A or better with Jake Delhomme at QB. Prince, you know how it is with RB's in the NFL. One day you're a stud, the next day you're washed up. I wouldn't be willing to give Williams the type of contract he'll want.