Editor’s Note: Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won’t begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Wednesday, free-agent quarterbacks were covered.
A year ago at this time, the Patriots appeared to be in a position to give it one last run with their group of running backs before overhauling the entire group in the 2011 offseason. While there is still some validity to that, the corps transformed on the fly, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis amassed 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead emerged as a valued back after spending a few days on the street.
Green-Ellis is a restricted free agent, and unless there’s a repeat of the Curtis Martin situation, he’ll be back in New England in 2011 and beyond. The Patriots will still likely be interested in adding to their group of running backs, but their involvement in the draft and free agency will depend on some key decisions.
Fred Taylor will likely retire, and Kevin Faulk will be faced with a similar decision. And as well-liked as Sammy Morris is in the New England locker room, the Patriots might explore other avenues before determining if they’d like to retain his services.
With that, let’s scope out the class of free-agent running backs.
Head of the Class
1. DeAngelo Williams is coming off his worst season due to injuries, which have plagued him for much of his career. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the game’s most explosive backs, totaling 3,005 yards from scrimmage and 27 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009. Yet, he’s only managed to play 16 games once in his five-year career.
2. Ahmad Bradshaw is a question mark. He’s racked up 2,013 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in the last two seasons, but the Giants’ offensive line has typically been strong at run blocking. And then there’s Bradshaw’s fumbling epidemic. There are times when you wonder if he’s playing basketball with how often he puts the ball on the ground.
3. Joseph Addai‘s career has been derailed by injuries over the last three seasons, and his best output came as a rookie in 2006 when he ran for 1,081 yards. Plus, the Colts’ rushing success has come from their ability to force defenses to play the pass. If the Colts are still interested in Addai, he’ll probably stick around in Indy.
Diamond in the Rough
Jason Snelling has been very reliable during the last two seasons when filling in for Michael Turner in Atlanta — surpassing 60 yards seven times, including games with 147 and 129 yards. Snelling runs hard, and he’s a good third-down back, evidenced by his 44 receptions in 2010. He could be had for fairly cheap money, and with an opportunity to split carries, he could break out.
Fit for New England
Pierre Thomas has been serviceable in four seasons with the Saints, although his 2010 campaign was derailed by a string of injuries. He’s talented, and the Patriots were reportedly interested in acquiring him early last season. Thomas’ best two seasons came in 2008 and 2009 when he totaled 1,418 rushing yards, 58 receptions, 586 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. As a threat through the air, Thomas would fit well with the Patriots, but because he’s always played in a passing offense, it’s tough to gauge his true potential on the ground.
1. Former Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams are free agents. Brown has more potential to be a first-stringer than Williams, but it’s amazing how fast they’ve fallen after they were both taken in the top five of the 2005 draft.
2. Speaking of freefalls, Laurence Maroney is a free agent after the worst season of his five-year career. Don’t expect him to get anything more than a one- or two-year deal with a very noncommittal type of signing bonus.
3. Ricky Williams has talked his way out of Miami. He’ll turn 34 in May, but there isn’t as much tread on his tires because of, ahem, all of that time he spent out of football. He’d be a cheap option for a team looking for a veteran.
4. Cedric Benson has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but his motivation has been questioned and his yards per carry dropped from 4.2 in 2009 to 3.5 in 2010. He’ll get some decent money somewhere, but will he reciprocate that commitment?
5. Now a year removed from a broken hip, Leon Washington should be able to get back on track as a dangerous third-down back. He didn’t do much in the Seattle offense in 2010, but he had a league-high three kickoff returns for touchdowns.
6. Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans is a free agent after spending two seasons with the Saints. If he doesn’t sign early, he could be a fallback option for New England.
7. Arian Foster, who led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010, is a restricted free agent. With only one great season under his belt, it’s doubtful that another team will bowl him over with a big enough contract to pry him from the Texans.