Senior Writer

Eyeing free-agent running backs? Better think twice


Chester Taylor is the perfect player to illustrate the right and wrong way to spend money on free-agent running backs.

In 2006, Taylor was a free-agent running back with the Baltimore Ravens. He was 25 at the time, with only 373 carries on his resume, which meant he was fresh. The Minnesota Vikings signed him to a four-year, $14.1 million contract.

Chester Taylor didn't give the Bears much return on their investment. (Getty Images)  
Chester Taylor didn't give the Bears much return on their investment. (Getty Images)  
Taylor rushed for 1,216 yards in his first season with the team, but saw his yardage go down each of the next four seasons, part of the reason being Adrian Peterson's presence. But Taylor remained a big part of the Vikings' third-down passing game.

Fast forward to the spring of 2010. The Chicago Bears gave Taylor a four-year, $12.5-million deal with $7 million guaranteed, even though he was 30 at the time and his best football was behind him.

Taylor responded with a career-low 2.4 per rush average, 267 rushing yards and 20 catches, tying for the second fewest of his career and there is talk the Bears will release him.

Moral of the story: Sign backs when they are young and not used up.

It's with that as the backdrop that we come to the 2011 free-agency period. When the NFL owners and NFLPA can agree on new CBA, triggering the open of free agency, there will be a lot of "name" backs available, depending the free-agent formula.

Here's what I say to that: Big deal.

That's for two reasons. One is the devaluing of the running back. This is a passing league now, which means the running back isn't as valuable a position as it once was. Proof comes from taking a scan at the top five backs in the NFL. They are arguably Peterson, Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Houston's Arian Foster, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Those five didn't win a playoff game between them last season, and only Charles played in one.

You can't be run-centric anymore.

The second reason it's not worth paying backs big money is that you can always find young ones. Look at Foster. He wasn't even drafted, but led the NFL in rushing last season, his second in the league.

More on Free Agency

"It's the easiest position to play," said one NFC personnel director. "We always draft with the idea we can find one who can help right away."

Take a look at this year's potential free-agent running back class. It is loaded with names.

Some are DeAngelo Williams (Panthers), Ronnie Brown (Dolphins), Ricky Williams (Dolphins), Cedric Benson (Bengals), Darren Sproles (Chargers), Joseph Addai (Colts), Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants), Cadillac Williams (Bucs) and Clinton Portis (Redskins).

Of those players, DeAngelo Williams is considered the best, but he is coming off an injury-shortened season. At 28, he isn't a kid anymore, either, nearing the no-return age of 30 for backs -- and he's entering his sixth season.

Bradshaw should be the focus -- if he's on the market. He is only 25 years old and he's already shown that he can be a featured back, although he has had does some fumbling issues. He is elusive and has good speed, which is what teams want in a league featuring the spread offense.

Edgerrin James didn't exactly have his A game by the time he got to Arizona. (Getty Images)  
Edgerrin James didn't exactly have his A game by the time he got to Arizona. (Getty Images)  
To be honest, if I were a general manager I wouldn't sign any of these backs for major money. That doesn't mean there haven't been successes with backs changing teams for top dollar.

One of the best free-agent signings came when Atlanta signed Michael Turner in 2008. At the time, I wrote a column stating that I didn't think it was a good move.

But when the Falcons signed Turner, he was a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego with little wear and tear on his body. Even so, I still thought it risky since there are so many good backs coming out every year in the draft.

In his three seasons with the Falcons, Turner has rushed for 3,941 yards after gaining only 1,247 yards in four seasons with the Chargers. When Atlanta signed Turner he was 26 years old and had only 228 career carries.

That made him a prime target. Bradshaw has 529 carries in four seasons, so he has a little more tread on the tire. Even so, he is in the prime of his career.

"Second contract players coming into their prime with proven production and durability would be in consideration," one AFC general manager said. "But third contract guys with age over 30 running backs would not be."

When the Arizona Cardinals signed running back Edgerrin James in 2006, he was coming to the end of his career, one impacted by a major knee injury. The Cardinals made the move to try to help sell tickets.

It worked from that end, but it didn't work on the field. James wasn't the same back. His explosive ability was gone. He signed a $30-million deal, but never averaged more than 4 yards per carry in three seasons with the Cardinals and was released in 2009. The Seattle Seahawks made an even worse move by giving him a one-year, $2 million contract and he rushed for 125 yards in his final season.

James is a perfect example of what not to do as it relates to backs in free agency.

Old and slow means no.

Just remember that when free agency begins. This running back class might look good on paper, but here's a bet it won't look nearly as good when it hits the field this fall, no matter what jerseys those backs are wearing.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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