The list of free agent running backs available this year is long on, well, length, and short on top tier value. That makes it the same as most years, and similar to the 2013 wide receiver free agent class that we looked at yesterday.
If, for example, Peyton Hillis isn’t re-signed by the Chiefs, he’ll flounder for a while until the second tier of free agency begins. Then someone, somewhere will decide that some running back depth would be nice, and he’ll saunter off to his new NFL outpost and provide replacement level running back service, and give the starter a blow for a few carries a game. He’s the sort that’s destined to be at best a low-end platoon runner, and the RB free agent list is highly populated with Hillis types (Jackie Battle, Bernard Scott, Chris Rainey, Felix Jones, Javon Ringer, Cedric Benson…I could do this for a while).
Depending on their future places of employment, most of those names will matter for fantasy purposes as flex options in only the deepest formats, or more commonly as handcuffs and injury replacements. That’s cool and all, but what about the guys who will have true, honest fantasy relevance? That list is much shorter.
Let’s look at it together. Or rather, I’ll look at it for you and dream about dream destinations, and you can disagree vehemently. Sounds like fun, yes? And a reminder/disclaimer: this is a wishlist for the best-case fantasy scenarios, and not a reflection of what will actually transpire when the market officially opens next Tuesday.
1. Steven Jackson
Current team: St. Louis Rams
Preferred destination: Green Bay Packers
Age? Jackson has that. He has a lot of that (he’ll turn 30 before the start of next season).
But here’s what he doesn’t have, or at least not to the extent of the names listed below: a recent history of breaks, rips, and other such maladies. Despite being hobbled and limited at times, Jackson has missed only two games over the past four years. While the widespread speculation that he’ll land in Atlanta is likely correct, Green Bay is more ideally suited for fantasy fun times since Jackson would have an opportunity for a much larger role instead of being on the high end of a split with Jacquizz Rodgers.
Regardless of where he eventually lands, some nerves about Jackson’s advancing senior status will be mandatory on draft day next August, in addition to worries about consistency (he averaged 50.4 rushing yards per game in the first half of last season, and 79.9 in the second). But remember, he’s not slowing after putting together eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. And most importantly, he’s averaged 180.8 fantasy points per year since 2010.
2. Rashard Mendenhall
Current team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Preferred destination: Atlanta Falcons
Again, Jackson will likely be Atlanta’s top target in non-fake football, and Arizona is a strong possibility for Mendenhall, where he’d play under his former coordinator in Pittsburgh, Bruce Arians. But if we’re looking for a scenario that will maximize the value and production of two running backs — the burner and the bruiser (see: Michael Turner below) — then direct your eyes to the dirty south.
Let’s disregard Mendenhall’s 2012 season entirely, as it’s one that showed not everybody has Adrian Peterson’s titanium-fused bones, and some running backs struggle after ACL tears like normal humans. When we do that, we remember that he’s only 25 years old, and over the previous two seasons he scored 22 of his 29 career touchdowns (including a career single-season high of 13 in 2010). That makes him a fine fit in Atlanta since he won’t minimize Rodgers’ flex value in a platoon, as the diminutive back isn’t a goal-line or short yardage presence anyway, and Mendenhall can then proceed to focus on what he does best: running over opposing humans who are standing in his way of painted grass.
3. Reggie Bush
Current teams: Miami Dolphins
Preferred destination: Detroit Lions
To an extent consider this the reverse Mendenhall, which isn’t a porn move. Promise.
We know that Mikeal Leshoure can pound it, and we know this because of his nine touchdowns last year, eight of which came over an eight-game stretch. But the thing about goal-line work is that it only requires running short distances, which is nice for Leshoure because he averaged only 57.0 yards on the ground per game, which heavily contributed to the Lions having just three +20 yard runs in 2012. There was no explosion in their backfield, and therefore little reason for defenders to not focus solely on crushing Matthew Stafford. Reggie Bush can help with that.
Despite being in a platoon with Daniel Thomas for much of this past season in Miami, Bush had eight +20 yard plays, six of which came on the ground. That includes runs of 53 and 65 yards, and eight touchdowns, and he did all of that with a moderate workload (227 carries, and 262 touches overall). He then had an average of 16.4 touches per game, a number which could see only a slight decline in Detroit for Bush while he leaves the short-yardage plowing to Leshoure.
4. Ahmad Bradshaw
Current team: New York Giants
Preferred destination: New York Jets
Yes, I know there are injury concerns here, with Bradshaw hoping to be cleared for visits with teams this week after dealing with a troublesome knee. And yes, I’m aware that the Jets gunned this rumor down a month ago. But producing vast volumes of smoke is easy in early February, when markets haven’t started to thin yet. If the Jets let Shonn Greene go (as expected) and if Mendenhall escapes their monetary comfort (as expected), taking a risk on Bradshaw at the right price will become the best/only option, with Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight ready to supply depth if his knee explodes again.
If that scenario plays out, we win, because the Jets will be one of the few teams looking for a No. 1 back. He may be brittle, but Bradshaw has filled that role for the Giants, rushing for 1,674 yards over the past two seasons in addition to 512 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns despite missing six games. That includes an average of 4.6 yards per carry this past season, with four +100 yard games, and he’s still only about to turn 27 even though it feels like he’s 98. In the right role and on the right team — and the Jets are the answer to both of those things — Bradshaw can still provide late round value after his 156 fantasy points in 2012.
5. Michael Turner
Current team: Atlanta Falcons
Preferred destination: San Diego Chargers
While there’s a case to be made for Bradshaw as at least a semi-feature back despite his injury worries, such hope is completely absent with Turner. Plodding along at 3.6 yards per carry and having your overall rushing yardage decline by 540 yards from last year will do that.
But Turner still retains value as a goal-line bruiser, as demonstrated by his 10 rushing touchdowns in 2012, even though he had 20 or fewer yards in four games. In San Diego then his presence will provide us with multiple fantasy gifts (he’ll be Santa, just slower). Ryan Mathews needs the protection of multiple rubber-padded bubbles to remain healthy, and Turner can platoon, keeping Mathews guarded and fresh while continuing to vulture touchdowns. That gives him quality flex value, and even better bye week fill-in value.
Mathews’ overall production may decline with the possible decrease in scores, but his owners will happily tolerate that for the chunk yardage they’ll receive in return if he remains healthy.