Before you start plotting the next move for free-agent running backs like LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook and Thomas Jones, consider this: The draft is rich at the position, with second- and third-round picks in abundance.
So with a glut of young backs available why should you spend time -- and money -- thinking about veterans like Tomlinson or Westbrook? Answer: You shouldn't. You should be looking ahead, not behind.
|The young C.J. Spiller is more appealing than an older free-agent rusher. (Getty Images)|
But running backs wear down quickly, and both of these men are at or near the ends of their careers. Not only have they absorbed a zillion hits, they're injuries waiting to happen, with both missing time the past three years because of injuries.
Westbrook sat out half of last season with back-to-back concussions, and, I don't care if he's the reincarnation of Gale Sayers, I'm not interested. Repetitive concussions to a running back are a telltale sign that it's time to leave, and Westbrook not only shouldn't be on anyone's wish list; he should be drawing up retirement papers to ensure the rest of his life is as good as the first 30 years.
Which brings me to my next subject. Tomlinson turns 31 in June while Westbrook turns 31 in September, Jones hits 32 in August and Larry Johnson turns 31 in November. Chester Taylor, the most attractive potential free agent, turns 31 in September. There's a theme here, and its called age -- and it is not good for a back who wants the football.
Running backs typically hit the wall after they reach 30, though there are occasional aberrations like Curtis Martin and, frankly, the Jets' Jones. Edgerrin James was washed up at 30, Marshall Faulk's decline started at 30 and Shaun Alexander's at 29. Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith fell off the curb at 32. I think you get the idea -- running backs just don't last that long.
So here's my question: Why would you be interested in investing millions in a 30-something back with worn-out tires when you can find someone who is younger, faster and, maybe, cheaper in this year's draft? I know, you can never be sure who makes it in the pros, but wouldn't you rather roll the dice on someone with a future instead of someone who can't last?
That's why I have to believe that if you sign one of these veterans, it's to a short-term contract -- nothing more than two years -- and for little more than the minimum. Maybe they can help, but not as the primary back. Tomlinson insists he can play three or four more years, but he must not have watched tape of himself last year.
He missed the 2007 AFC Championship Game. He missed the 2008 divisional playoff game. He missed the first two games of 2009, but was there for the divisional round of the playoffs -- only to average 2 yards a carry and not touch the ball in the fourth period.
Connect the dots. When the Chargers absolutely, positively had to have him the last few years he wasn't there. But that happens when running backs hit the wall.
Westbrook is another story. He's not just a descending back, he's a risk after suffering two concussions. I don't see how a running back overcomes a history of concussions, which means I'm interested in hearing which are the "three or four teams" Westbrook said contacted his agent.
So far, nobody has jumped to sign him, and there's a reason: People are reluctant to take on a 30-year-old back with declining numbers and repeated concussions -- that makes perfect sense to me.
Jones may or may not re-sign with the Jets, and, either way, I get it. He had a good year for them last season and was the club's goal-line threat. But he is not the future, Shonn Greene is. So if Jones returns he does so as a supporting actor to Greene.
Jones is winding down while Greene is gearing up. Greene is the back with carries left in him, not Jones, and he's the guy the Jets should and will feature.
But that gets me back to this year's draft and how it affects our free-agent class of running backs. Let's forget about prospects like C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Jonathan Dwyer. Spiller is a first-round lock, and Mathews and Dwyer are first-round possibilities. I want to concentrate instead on guys like Jahvid Best, Joe McKnight, Toby Gerhart, Montario Hardesty, Dexter McCluster and the cast of thousands ready to be auditioned.
Basically, there is so much talent at running back that one scout told me there are third- and fourth-rounders this year who would be second-rounders in any other draft. So take advantage of it, people. Why spend time wondering about what you might get out of Tomlinson when you have a McKnight available?
Granted, L.T. was one of the game's greats, but the operative word there is was. If he could still crank out the yards in critical situations do you honestly think the Bolts would have let him walk? Of course not.
He was special once but not special anymore. Maybe someone finds something for a year or two, but I guarantee it won't be as a full-time back. Tomlinson can't assume that position anymore. But I know of a lot of guys 9-10 years younger who can.
The New England Patriots found Curtis Martin in the third round. Philadelphia found Westbrook in the third, too. The San Diego Chargers found Michael Turner in the fifth round, and Denver found Terrell Davis in the sixth. My point is: You don't have to be a first-round talent to make it at the next level.
There are franchise backs out there waiting to be tapped, and they're not 30 year olds. They're 20-year-olds and available to anyone willing to draft them.
If the future is now, then get on with the future, not the past. Find a running back who can help you for the next four to five years, not someone who could be a factor the next four to five games. Stick to the draft for your next full-time running back. The value is there, not in free agents.