We're running through the top 10 2013 NFL free agents on a position-by-position basis. If you disagree witih any of the rankings, let me know in the comments or on Twitter @WillBrinson. Today, we rank the running backs.
This year's running back class is surprisingly strong. Unfortunately for those running backs, no one wants to overpay for a back anymore. We've basically seen the leveling out of contracts for running backs not named Adrian Peterson, as Matt Forte and Ray Rice got the sort of deals last offseason that we should expect to see for top-shelf backs going forward.
None of the guys on this list qualify as "top-shelf" however, for a variety of reasons. Either age, productivity, injury history or excessive workload should conspire to limit what they pull down in free agency.
1. Steven Jackson, Rams
At 29, Jackson is approaching the danger zone for running backs in terms of age. Even more concerning is his carry total: he currently ranks 25th all-time in carries, right between O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown. That's a lot of mileage for a guy who isn't 30 yet. That being said, the dude's played well (1,000 yard-plus seasons every year since his rookie season) and has played well behind a terrible line and on, for the most part, a terrible team. He's got to void out his contract to hit the market, but he's expected to do that. If Jackson's willing to take a reasonable paycut, he could be a big piece for a contender.
2. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants
He's only averaged 14 games -- and 11 starts -- over the last three years and Bradshaw definitely has injury issues. But he also has a pair of 1,000 yard seasons in that span and averaged eight touchdowns a year. He contributes as a rusher and receiver and has a pair of Super Bowl rings so he might just be looking for the optimal spot to get touches at this point. A potential feature back if he's healthy, Bradshaw is still only 26.
3. Reggie Bush, Dolphins
Bush reinvented himself in Miami as an actual running back and he reportedly wants "badly" to stay with the Dolphins. Unfortunately, the Dolphins don't look like they want to pay whatever price he wants. Bush has tons of money, a Super Bowl ring and seems to prefer going to a place that fits his lifestyle and guarantees him some carries. Yes, that eliminates a lot of options. At the right price, Bush would be a nice addition to a team that needs a weapon out of the backfield. Would he be OK playing in Detroit or Cincinnati?
4. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
Injuries are a major issue for Mendenhall as he's dealt with them since a nice 1,200-plus yard season in 2010. Mendenhall's had a bizarre Twitter thing when Osama Bin Laden was taken down, but he seems to have learned his lesson from that. At 26, if his health checks out, he could be a very nice, cheap addition for someone. Expecting him to become an instant workhorse, particularly with his career 4.1 yards per carry average, would be a stretch though.
5. James Casey, Texans
Because I'm not writing a "Top 10 Fullbacks" post, Casey's making it here. And yes, I'm aware he's well above some "better" running backs. But he's a pass-catching H-back threat who can bring a lot to a team, he won't cost a ton to sign, and you aren't required to hand him 200-300 carries in order to effectively extract your investment back.
6. Michael Turner, Falcons
Very hesitant to put Turner too high, because his best days are definitely behind him. But he's a better back than the rest of the folks on this list in my mind, even if he's basically a smallish left tackle at this point in terms of size and movement. Turner still had 10 touchdowns in 2012 and while he won't be a feature back, per se, he might still have some decent runs left.
7. Felix Jones, Cowboys
Who would've thought Jones would be the least productive of the Big Three backs from Arkansas (Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis are the others)? He's so explosive but he wasn't going to be a feature back the way Jerry Jones wanted when he used a first-round pick on Jones. In the right circumstances -- limited carries, utilization in the passing game -- he could very much be a factor.
8. Shonn Greene, Jets
Greene seemed to tantalize every December with a strong run to close out the season before struggling to come out of the gates well. And I am admittedly very down on Greene; feel free to harass me for having him so low. He had some nice fantasy games in 2012 but he doesn't bring the overall package you want from a running back. I also think failing to find a more dynamic running back seriously hurt the Jets over the past two years.
9. Cedric Benson, Packers
If Benson could only play the Bears every week, he'd be an absolute stud -- it seems every time he goes up against the team who drafted him (regardless of how good they are against the run) he tears them up. Alas, he can't and so he's only mildly effective as a back. He's older, he has mileage and he doesn't have the ability to break huge runs. But Benson did show some spark early for the Packers in 2012 and he can eat some carries and spit back out some yardage.
10. Peyton Hillis, Chiefs
The former Madden cover boy suffered a major fall from grace over the past two seasons. It looked like he might land big money from the Browns but struggled badly in 2011 before heading to Kansas City, where he was used too frequently (instead of Jamaal Charles) in 2012. Hillis isn't an every down back these days but he's someone who can complement as a goal-line option or shore up the rushing attack for a team who prefers to air things out.