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2014 NFL Draft

Free Agent Running Backs Don’t Stand a Chance: Draft Key to Running Game

Veteran free agent running backs are no longer a luxury worth overpaying for, especially when a team can draft fresh legs in the draft.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Have you noticed how baron the free agent market has been for veteran running backs?

Sure, a few have signed deals. Rashad Jennings joined the New York Giants and Darren McFadden re-upped with the Oakland Raiders, and Donald Brown will be a member of a three-prong committee with the San Diego Chargers.

But what about those “featured back” types? Ben Tate has been visiting with the Cleveland Browns, but no deal has been made. Tate has long been one of those “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” type of players stuck behind Arian Foster in Houston waiting to be a big-time back. Then there’s Knowshon Moreno, who was the lead dog in Denver and is coming off a career year. He was a first-round pick; couldn’t he be on the verge of finally becoming an elite player? And of course, there’s the case of Chris Johnson, the former 2,000-yard runner who has been dangled by the Tennessee Titans with no takers just yet.

Two-thousand yards? No thanks. Too much traction on those tires.

Plain and simple, veteran free agent running backs are no longer a luxury worth overpaying for. Unless your name is Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy, nobody is going to break the bank to sign a running back these days. And why would a team do that when they can draft fresh legs in the draft?

Some of the best running games in the league these past few years have come from young, no-name backs and backfields-by-committee that aren’t costing teams too much dough. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Redskins turned Alfred Morris and Roy Helu into a dynamic 1-2 punch. Combined, those two backs are costing the team less than $2 million in 2014.

As is the case of the New Orleans Saints and the Denver Broncos, two contenders in their respective conferences.

The Saints just traded off arguably the best pass-catching running back in the league because his contract was too heavy. Now, the backfield consists of a former first-rounder, a veteran, and a former undrafted free agent. Altogether, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, and Pierre Thomas will cost about $4.5 million in 2014 — just about what it’ll cost the Baltimore Ravens to pay an aging Ray Rice this season.

And the Broncos — why overpay to retain Moreno? The three-headed rushing attack of youngsters Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and C.J. Anderson will cost just over $1.5 million, and that includes a 2013 first-round selection in Ball, who once led all of college football in rushing yards.

So with Johnson set to earn $8 million in 2014-15, what team has enough loose screws to waste that much salary cap space for a running back that’ll turn 29 at the start of the season?

The new trend in the NFL is to find productive backfield members in the the draft or discover a gem when they arise among the undrafted pool.

The Green Bay Packers will pay first-rounder Eddie Lacy about $500,000 in 2014. He not only led rookie backs in rushing last season but finished among the league’s leaders. Second-round selection Le’Veon Bell fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers and won’t cost the team more than $1 million per season until his contract expires. And Zac Stacy, the fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt, will cost the St. Louis Rams $495,000 this coming season. And at 22 years old, he provides the team with a dynamic young back with almost no salary cap ramifications.

So before Cleveland overpays for Tate or another club inherits Johnson’s bloated $8 million salary, they should be advised to wait until May. This year’s running back class features a number of talented backs, many that have differing skill-sets that could add the same sort of elements to a running game as a veteran .

Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill are both the downhill running backs that Moreno is. Tre Mason and Devonta Freeman could be the home-run threats like Johnson or Tate. And De’Anthony Thomas has that same type of electric speed that Sproles does. The difference: these rookies come at a lower price and have less tread on their tires.

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