Today we will take a peek at the free agent running backs in the NFL. I usually try to look at players using two criteria- player generated yards and added yards per target. Player generated yards are determined by calculating how much of a players yards should come from his offensive line (yards before contract) and subtracting that figure from his yards on the season. Yards per target is based on the average yards gained on a pass attempt at the position and comparing it to the players performance.
The number one overall player last year was LeSean McCoy of the Eagles so we will use him as an example. He gained 1607 yards on 314 attempts and his line allowed an average of 2.43 yards before contract, so we can say McCoy’s player generated yards were 843.2(its actually a little more than that if we adjust the line yards for McCoys above average numbers, but time constraints prevented that analysis). He gained 540 passing yards on 59 targets while an average runner would have been expected to gain 362.8. So he added about 1,020 total yards to the Eagles, nearly 200 more yards than Marshawn Lynch who ranked number two. In terms of Yards Per Opportunity (YPO), which is his added yards divided by attempts plus targets, his 2.74 average was right below DeAngelo Williams as the most productive full time player
Running backs have become much less valuable in recent years and that lack of importance is reflected in their pay. Last year Reggie Bush may have been the top free agent on the market and he earned $4 million a year from the Detroit Lions. Still if you are a player that is considered an important piece of an offense you can earn in excess of $7 million a season, of which there are currently nine players in the NFL.
Knowshon Moreno– Moreno ranked 10th in the NFL in his total yard generation, which is a very good place to be as you enter free agency. Moreno will get some knocks because he put up his numbers in the Broncos offense and he has not had a great deal of success prior to this season, but he does have a first round pedigree that may make some overlook it. He was similar in productivity to Bush and a few years younger so my guess is that $4 million a year number should be the ballpark of where he winds up.
Ben Tate– Tate, who is rumored to be looking for a big contract, was pretty poor in 2013. He ranked 35th in total yardage, which is not terrible considering he was a backup for most of the year, but in the 50s in terms of YPO among players with 60 or more chances, adding just around 1.3 YPO. As a receiver he put up 118 less yards than an average player. As a point of reference Arian Foster put up 1.9 yards per opportunity. Tate was not good the year before either, though he was better than he was in 2013. Tate may be the highest paid runner in free agency but has the most bust potential of all.
Maurice Jones-Drew– MJD ranked 23rd in yardage and 40th in YPO. What works in Jones-Drew’s favor is that he ran behind the second worst run blocking unit in the NFL, the Jaguars, who allowed 1.37 yards before contact this year. Rashad Jennings who had a poor 2012 in Jacksonville saw a huge spike in his numbers in Oakland and MJD should be arguing that his numbers were in part so bad because of the line, though some may consider him partially responsible for that because he was so slow to the holes that were produced (his YBC was lower than the 1.37 unit average) . Steven Jackson graded very poorly last year in St. Louis using this criteria and still grabbed a $4 million a year contract. Needless to say Jackson was even worse in Atlanta whose offensive line, so you should be afraid of MJD, but all it takes is one team to take the plunge between $3.5 and $4 million.
Darren McFadden– McFadden continues to fade into obscurity as he was clearly the least effective runner in Oakland this season. There were only 13 players less productive than McFadden last year on a per opportunity basis so at this point he is a complete reclamation project where a team simply gives him a chance because of where he was drafted so many years ago. He’s probably not worth much more than a $1 to $1.5 million flier with minimal guarantees so that he could be released after August.
Rashard Mendenhall– Mendenhall ranked around 30th in overall production and was pretty much a lower mid- grade running back. He played last year at $2.5 million with minimal guarantees. He’s probably not worth that much but could see him in the same salary slotting.
The Bargain Values
Donald Brown– The Colts seemed to all but give up on Brown before injury to Ahmad Bradshaw and the complete bust of Trent Richardson forced their hand. Brown was productive ranking 27th in yards gained, which is very high considering he had just 130 chances. His YPO was second in the NFL. Even the prior year Brown was somewhat productive in a limited role. He is also a former first round pick but for some reason it seems that everyone forgets that when discussing him. He could prove to be a solid pickup under $3 million a year.
LaGarrette Blount– Blount, who had fallen out of favor in Tampa Bay, came on incredibly strong in New England at the end of the season. His 2.74 YPO was 8th in the NFL but he is a complete non-factor in the passing game so there are more limitations to his games than some others. I’d imagine he has to be looking at the $3 million received by Benjarvus Green-Ellis as a similar situation, though the Patriots balked at that price for BGE so he would be taking his talents elsewhere if that is the price he wants.
Rashad Jennings– Jennings made the most of his chance in Oakland with rankings of 15 and 8 in the two metrics. Was it a one season wonder? Perhaps as he was dismal in Jacksonville before, but I have to think Jennings will receive a two or three year contract following the season he had. He is not a big name player but could make for a nice pickup in 2014.
James Starks– Clearly overshadowed by rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, Starks was actually the most productive back in the NFL in his limited opportunities this year. He was also somewhat effective last year so Im not sure the worry would be as much as it would be with Brown or Jennings. Starks can not stay healthy so there is going to be fear there but Chris Ivory was far less reliable and nabbed $2 million a year from New York. Ivory was a very productive in limited snaps player and built on that as a Jet once he finally saw the field. Perhaps Starks can be that same player in the right system.
The Restricted Free Agent
Joique Bell– Normally we would not even look at RFA’s but with the Lions having a tight salary cap Bell is a player who might get snagged by another team. Bell has strong value as a receiver and is incredibly good at gaining yards after contact. The numbers this year are not a fluke as he was strong in both categories in 2012 as well. Would a team frontload a contract worth somewhere near $2.5 million a year and part with a draft pick? The trade for Ivory likely paints a scenario to make it happen. He’s in a good position as the Lions cap might be making him a regular free agent in the eyes of many teams.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.