2016 NFL Free Agency: Running Back Overview

Nearly halfway through the 2015 season, we are now at the point where we can start looking forward to free agency in 2016 based on this year’s current performances. This week we will take a brief look at the players who may project to be the top unrestricted free agents this season at the running back position and estimate some potential ranges for a new contract in 2016.

Doug Martin, Buccaneers

Martin has come from nowhere to produce big this season for the Buccaneers. Martin is averaging over 90 yards a game and is on pace for over 1,400 yards this year. Martin’s career arc is relatively unique. He exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards and being a threat in the passing game. He was poor in 2013 before an injury ended his season and landed in the doghouse in 2014 while seemingly dealing with more bumps and bruises. To come back to the 1,400 yard level after that is not that normal.

The challenge in free agency for Martin is to convince a team that this is not a contract year wonder season and that 2013 and 14 were solely injury related. If he can do that he should be capable of earning pretty big money. As a former first round pick he should have an advantage over other players who may have similar questions as often such players get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to excuses for performance.

Martin could help set a new mid ground market for runners.  If he finishes this year strong he will have much better credentials than CJ Spiller and Mark Ingram who are both close to the same age and signed for $4 million a season. Because he plays in obscurity he doesn’t have the name value of LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray to get near that $8 million level, and he is too inconsistent for a team to take that kind of risk anyway.

A player like Martin should be a solid fit on a younger team that either needs an upgrade in the running game or has an older player nearing the end of his career. I could see teams like the Colts and Texans giving strong consideration to Martin and Dallas could look at him as a more affordable alternative to others if they decide to go in a different direction next season with the position. He’ll max his value if he can convince teams he can play around 65% of the snaps, which he has the skillset to do but limited history doing it.

Predicted Value: 4 years, $20-22 million

Lamar Miller, Dolphins

Miller exploded the last two weeks to get back on track for another 1,000 yard season. Those two games were against two of the worst teams in the NFL so it remains to be seen if he can keep it up, but if he can he is a very steady player that will draw interest in free agency. Of all the players set to be free agents Miller probably has the most to gain by the way he finishes the season. One of the negatives on Miller is that there is no excitement around him. He is solid and reliable but those high end games have generally been elusive. Miami has also never really let teams see how can handle a bigger workload, so he can prove a lot here if things change for him.

If he continues the way he did the last two weeks he can become the most sought after of the free agents. The biggest positive is that he will only be 25 years old next season so teams can expect bigger things to come from him in the future. Miller doesn’t have the monstrous TD production that LeSean McCoy had years ago in Philadelphia, but McCoy’s age (24) was a big factor in his ability to earn a big contract from the Eagles.

The closest age comp to Miller is Mark Ingram (26) who was considered higher pedigree, but has not put up the statistics that Miller had besides touchdowns. That would make $4 million his floor price and he has the ability to raise that considerably. If he finishes in the 1,100 yard range he’ll probably be able to receive around $5 million a year with a strong guarantee package. If he could ever create a DeMarco Murray buzz he could raise that price significantly, especially since he is going to be the one player who is going to be universally recognized as capable of being a 60-65% snap player.  Miami is the team that would probably pay the most to keep Miller if that buzz happens, but even if he finishes as a 1,000 yard type runner he’ll still make out pretty good in free agency.

Predicted Value: 5 years, $25 -$27 million

Alfred Morris, Redskins

No player has lost more value in recent years than Morris, who looked like he was well on his way to being an elite pay back, but has struggled to keep his role as a primary ball carrier since Washington made their most recent coaching switch. Morris exploded as a rookie for over 1,600 yards and followed that up with nearly 1,300 yards. Those are numbers that will earn a player in the realm of $8 million a season. Morris made the Pro Bowl in 2014, but his numbers fell to 4.1 yards per carry and this year he likely won’t hit 1,000 yards and is currently averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Those numbers won’t get you over $4 million.

Morris is an interesting player because the talent is clearly there even if the production is not there this season. He needs to find a best way to spin what happened this season and why he more or less lost his role on the team. Morris’ main negative is that he has no place in the passing game so he’ll be valued as more of a two down player rather than a three down player. He also doesn’t have that “wow” factor that often has teams placing a player in an “elite” category.

The big question for me is how much this year has hurt Morris’ value. Far lesser players have earned $4 million a year so he should certainly earn more than that, but whether or not he can sneak to the top of this free agent class is a big question. I almost could see people suggesting Morris sign a one year contract in a more favorable situation to increase his worth, but he will be 28 next year and for running backs there is probably more harm than good that can be done with the one year deal. A more likely course of action will be to take a deal with incentives that can push the value further and there will likely be at least one team that sees Morris as a potential future Marshawn Lynch where the change of scenery changes an entire career for the better.

Predicted Value: 4 years, $16.5-$19 million

Chris Ivory, Jets

The workhorse for the Jets is on pace for, by far, the best season of his career with over 1,300 yards. Ivory’s style is arguably unlike any other runner in the NFL. When people say he runs violently that isn’t hyperbole. The best way to describe it is he just has this belief that he is the strongest player in the league and you can’t bring him down as he’ll fight for every quarter yard. That endears him to a fanbase but also puts him in a position where he often doesn’t play because of injury.

The injury bug along with relatively low receiving production will require a team to invest in two players at the position which will lower his value. He’ll be 28 next season which is slightly on the high end, but since he has been a low usage back should not be a major consideration. I’d think comparable players to Ivory might be the Ryan Mathews and CJ Spiller types who were generally productive when healthy but health was a major concern. Those players did not hit free agency off big seasons the way Ivory likely will, but I think that fact is downplayed more at this position than others.

The best landing spot for Ivory is to simply remain with the Jets. The Jets are already very old on offense and can’t really invest the draft capital at RB considering long term needs at quarterback, receiver, left tackle, and center. If the Jets did not keep him, he would likely land in a complementary situation and Id think would draw interest from teams like the Browns, Titans, and Lions. In general I think he fits the mold of a player that you can count on for around 45-50% participation in a very defined role.

Predicted Value: 3 years, $12-14 million

Matt Forte, Bears

Forte has been one of the most dependable backs in the NFL for years now, but will be compromised by his age, 31, in 2016. Forte is on pace to set career highs in attempts and yards which may on paper be looked at be looked at as a good thing but in reality will be considered a negative in free agency. Chicago is basically running him into the ground likely because they have no intention of keeping him next year. Recent injuries to high use players like Jamaal Charles (29) and Arian Foster (29), plus what looks like a worn down Marshawn Lynch (29) will not help his cause.

Forte’s closest comparable player is Frank Gore who signed for $4 million a year in Indianapolis at the age of 32. Forte is a better receiver than Gore, but many would argue Gore was the better runner. Forte could get dinged a bit for the declining yards per carry scaring some teams off. His highest value would likely come from a veteran team that would take a chance on his body holding up, such as Denver or Detroit. If he opts to take a complementary role in a spot like New England he’ll need to take a big discount.

Predicted Value: 3 years, $11.5-$13.5 million

Chris Johnson, Cardinals

Johnson has become the latest player to get to Arizona and have a career rebirth. Prior to the Ravens contest on Monday he was on pace for nearly 1,200 yards this season, which is a remarkable turnaround for someone who struggled to get the ball in New York last season and was considered finished around the NFL. At his peak Johnson was one of the most explosive players in the NFL, but he is also considered a negative in the locker room and a potential nightmare for coaches, which is why no team in the league really wanted him this year.

There should be concern that Johnson was simply motivated this season because of his contract. As a Titan he was one of the top two paid players at the position and the Jets contract also gave him no incentive to perform. Playing for the veterans minimum and the chance of $1.3 million of incentives has seen a clear uptick in effort this season. Whether he reverts back to his pre-Cardinal days next year is a question that will be on most people’s minds.

I’m not sure what the market will be for Johnson because of the baggage he carries. Arizona would seemingly be the best spot for him to stay. Johnson will be 31 next season and has a lot of tread on his tires. Justin Forsett (30) signed for $3 million a year off one good season and Darren Sproles (31) received $3.5 million a year last season in Philadelphia. DeAngelo Williams (32), who did nothing the last few seasons, got $2 million in Pittsburgh so there is no reason for Johnson to expect less than that. The thing he has to be most careful of is overpricing himself and then finding out there is no market for him causing him to take another $2 million type contract.

Predicted Value: 2 years, $6-7 million

Ronnie Hillman, Broncos

Hillman is on pace for the best season of his career with a projected 860 yards on the ground at 4.9 yards per carry, but as usual there is little consistency to his game with two 100 yard games and another four where you barely know he played. The Broncos running back position has been wide open since Hillman entered the league but he has never been able to secure that job which is a negative for his overall prospects.

Hillman’s biggest positive is age (25) which puts him in a rare class for free agent runners but it is hard to see team’s really investing in him as more than a rotational player with upside. A few years ago Knowshon Moreno, a higher regarded player, struggled gaining traction in the Broncos system before finally climbing the 1,000 yard hurdle in his walk year. Moreno only received $3 million in free agency. His value will likely fall in somewhere between that value and the recent contract signed by the Jets Bilal Powell, unless Hillman really solidifies his role and ends the season on a big tear.

Predicted Value: 1 year, $2 -$2.5 million

James Starks, Packers

The Packers backup running back has taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him this year due to injury/ineffectiveness of Eddie Lacy. Starks is on pace for a career best 760 yards on the ground and 200 through the air and it certainly comes at a good time as Starks prepares for free agency.

Starks best comparison might be Rashad Jennings of the Giants, who signed a $2.5 million a year contract after putting up a career 730 yard year in Oakland. Jennings was 29 at the time, one year younger than Starks will be. Green Bay will likely look to retain Starks but it may be worth pursuing free agency to see if he can find a team to bite the way the Giants did on Jennings

Predicted Value: 2 years, $2-2.5 million

The Best of the Rest

LeGarrette Blount seems to be happy in New England and as long as the Patriots don’t go outside the organization he would likely just re-sign with them for around $1 million…Bilal Powell has been a disappointment for the Jets as a fill in for Chris Ivory and he is also dealing with some injuries. He may be a minimum salary type or just over that in 2016…Lance Dunbar’s year was derailed by injury but would have been on pace for over 500 receiving yards. Roy Helu was able to take that role and turn it into a $2 million a year deal and Danny Woodhead got close to $3 million in a similar spot. Dunbar will need incentives to reach those figures post injury…Fred Jackson and Reggie Bush look like they could be finished. Of the two Jackson should probably retire while Bush might get another look for the minimum.

The Free Agent Class

Here is the current group of players we have listed as unrestricted free agents this upcoming season. Projections are based on how players performed so far and how many games are remaining for their team, which is why injured players are projecting higher than their current stats. Special teams value simply indicates of the player plays around 20% or more snaps on special teams, which can increase the likelihood of a new contract.

PlayerTeamAgeProj. GamesSnapsSpecial Teams ValueProj AttProj YdsProj. TDProj. TgtProj. RecProj Rec. YdsProj. Rec TD
Doug MartinBuccaneers2716.050.9%No290.71442.78.037.337.3344.02.7
Matt ForteBears3116.083.8%No336.01352.05.385.356.0509.32.7
Chris IvoryJets2813.343.4%No266.71336.010.726.721.3197.32.7
Chris JohnsonCardinals3116.047.0%No248.01186.75.321.313.3149.30.0
Lamar MillerDolphins2516.068.4%No186.71117.35.348.040.0408.02.7
Ronnie HillmanBroncos2516.039.0%No176.0861.35.326.716.045.30.0
James StarksPackers3016.045.6%No168.0762.72.740.029.3200.02.7
Alfred MorrisRedskins2816.039.0%No208.0690.
LeGarrette BlountPatriots3013.323.4%No138.7656.
Bilal PowellJets2813.341.7%Yes101.3344.00.050.740.0237.30.0
Chris PolkTexans2716.028.1%Yes91.4315.42.348.025.1169.10.0
Lance DunbarCowboys2610.726.9%Yes13.3178.70.061.356.0573.30.0
Matt AsiataVikings2916.019.9%No29.3138.70.018.718.7122.70.0
Robert TurbinBrowns274.64.2%No34.3130.
Fred JacksonSeahawks3516.021.6%No25.1123.
Jacquizz RodgersBears2613.39.5%Yes37.3109.
Reggie Bush49ers319.16.2%No18.364.
Ahmad BradshawColts304.64.5%No11.429.
Bobby RaineyBuccaneers2916.07.2%Yes8.
Jordan TodmanSteelers2616.01.1%Yes2.325.
Bernard PierceJaguars2513.76.9%Yes13.725.