Over the next couple weeks we're going to talk about the free agents at each major position. Last week we talked about the quarterbacks. Today we're covering the running backs. It looks like 2012 is going to be another deep free agent class with a lot of high profile players and the running backs are no exception.
With Peyton Hillis set to hit free agency, the Cleveland Browns very well may be in the market for a running back. Unless they actually trust the injury prone Montario Hardesty to take on the starting role. The Browns also have Brandon Jackson but he has yet to play in a regular season game for us since suffering a toe injury last preseason. Some people have speculated that the Browns will address the issue by drafting Trent Richardson, but that remains to be seen. There are still a lot of things that will happen between now and then, which includes a deep pool of top notch free agent running backs. Though, which of them are due for a franchise tag?
Remember, if you think there is a potential FA RB that the Browns should target that might have been overlooked or is even just worth mentioning, feel free to discuss that here. Think of this as a free agency open thread dealing with running backs.
- Peyton Hillis (CLE - 26) – First and foremost, I feel that the smartest move the Browns can make in free agency this year is retaining Peyton Hillis. That is, as always, if the price is right. It’s true that last season Hillis was plagued by injuries and was generally unproductive. But I’m still not buying into the manufactured controversy. It’s also not worth ignoring the potential that we saw the year before. Even by the end of the season we saw his return to form, at least against the Ravens in Week 16. With a full recovery and without the target on his back coming from the Madden cover, I still think Hillis can be the running back that the Browns' offense needs him to be. He fits the system and if the front office can come to terms, I think he wants to be here. Now, as much as I think the Browns should bring back Hillis, the chances of that actually happening are much slimmer. This time in past years, the front office was pretty open about the guys they wanted back. On the Hillis situation, quite the opposite seems to be the case. I don’t expect to see Hillis in a Browns jersey next season, but I hope whatever decision they make that it turns out to be the right one.
- Ray Rice (BAL - 25) – Ray Rice is probably the best running back in this year’s free agent class. But he’s also going to be among the hardest to obtain. If the Baltimore Ravens can’t get a new deal done, they’ll likely franchise tag him and focus on other contract issues. A franchise tag for a back like Rice shouldn’t be at all surprising. He’s been among the most consistently productive running backs over the past three seasons both on the ground and receiving. All the while, he’s never made his contract situation a distraction nor threatened to hold out at any point. To put it simply, he’s just about a picture perfect running back and the Ravens would be crazy to let him go. And that’s why they won’t.
- Matt Forte (CHI - 26) – Matt Forte is definitely among the top tier running backs as well. He was one of the few free agent backs that I wouldn't have mind seeing replace Hillis if that deal never materialized. However, it would appear that he, too, may be unobtainable. It seems that the Chicago Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips is entirely willing to go all in to keep Forte with the Bears. As good as I think Forte is, I was still surprised to hear that news. Not only does that give Forte more leverage in future negotiations, but he’s also made it clear that he wouldn’t be happy about a franchise tag. I’d imagine the last thing the Bears would want is to have Forte holdout during training camp when they could have hammered a deal out months before. While Forte was on pace for what could have been the best season of his career, he did suffer a sprained MCL in Week 13 and was placed on injured reserve. Despite the injury, I think Forte is in for a big pay day and I think the Bears will be signing the check.
- Marshawn Lynch (SEA - 25) – Marshawn Lynch has certainly had his ups and downs both on and off the field. He came out of the gate strong and had two good years with the Buffalo Bills from 2007 to 2008. But his slew of legal troubles held him back. He was suspended for the first three games of the 2009 season and eventually lost his starting job to Fred Jackson. The Bills traded Lynch to the Seattle Seahawks the following season. Then in the final year of his contract and first full season with the Seahawks Lynch had just the breakout season he needed, which was also the best of his career. With Lynch avoiding any further legal issues since being in Seattle, it would be smart for the Seahawks to retain him. He could even potentially be the third candidate among free agent running backs to be franchise tagged, especially considering that route will be cheaper for teams than it has been in years.
- Michael Bush (OAK - 27) – Michael Bush is about as reliable a backup running back as you can ask a backup to be. His latest season also showed that he can be effective catching out of the backfield. But in addition to that, it showed that he’s not the kind of back you want to take the full load. He’s filled in well for an injury prone Darren McFadden over the past few seasons. I think where ever he ends up in 2012, he will add excellent depth at the position.
- Mike Tolbert (SD - 26) – Mike Tolbert is another solid running back that adds depth. He’s proven himself to be quite an effective goal line back and he, too, is a receiving threat out of the backfield.
- Arian Foster (HOU - 25) Restricted – As an RFA, it’s not likely that the Houston Texans will let Arian Foster go. Even after some serious injury concerns to begin the season, when Foster was finally able to return to the field at 100 percent in Week 4 he blew the doors off once again. He finished with another remarkable season.