Goal Line Stand: Running Backs on the Move By Gregg Rosenthal February 23, 2006
Our free agency preview showed a glut of talent on the running back market this offseason. There are enticing options for any type of shopper. For the team looking for star power, there are former MVP candidates like Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, and Jamal Lewis. For cost-effective teams looking for rising talents, we present Chester Taylor, Najeh Davenport, and DeShaun Foster. Even the aging cap casualties could be interesting. Fred Taylor, Marshall Faulk, and Travis Henry could be available if they are released.
On Tuesday, we forecasted movement at the quarterback position as free agency approaches. We planned to do a similar breakdown of the teams with the greatest need at the running back position. Halfway through this very column, we realized that almost every team has some need at running back. Since fantasy football is all about the ball-carrier, it only seems fair to use two columns to break down the current situation of all 32 teams, with predictions in tow. Today, we’ll tackle the AFC.
There are at least four teams in the AFC that should be looking for starter-quality talent. One thing to keep in mind once free agency starts is that four running backs are expected to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. We suspect that the majority of them will be starters as rookies. If a team like the Ravens doesn’t invest heavily in free agency, they will look to April.
Teams who need a Starter
1. Indianapolis Colts – Edgerrin James is gone and Dominic Rhodes could be cut because of a large roster bonus. They need to overhaul the whole position and will probably do so by signing a mid-level free agent and drafting a rookie, possibly in the first round. Whoever the Colts tag to be their next starter is immediately going to become a top-shelf fantasy player. Picking at No. 30, the team can’t count on Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney or Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams being there. Wisconsin’s Brian Calhoun’s speed would look good on turf.
We think the Colts will hedge their bets by signing a solid option in free agency. The name that makes the most sense to us is still on another roster: Fred Taylor. Taylor is made for turf and would come at a discount price. He still has enough speed and elusiveness when healthy. Chester Taylor’s speed would also fit on the Colts and the team could bring Marshall Faulk back to play on third downs.
Prediction: Sign Fred Taylor, release Dominic Rhodes, draft Brian Calhoun
2. Baltimore Ravens – It’s no surprise the Ravens didn’t use the franchise tag on Jamal Lewis. Why pay so much to keep a disgruntled star on the downside of his career? What is surprising is their disinterest thus far in approaching Chester Taylor about a contract. Taylor figures to have many suitors, so Baltimore must feel they can afford to lose him. We suspect the Ravens will use the No. 13 pick on their next starter and pick up a veteran backup in free agency. They are one team who could make a push for Edgerrin James if they wanted. If they look towards the draft, DeAngelo Williams and LenDale White figure to be their targets.
Prediction: Draft DeAngelo Williams, sign Jonathan Wells as backup
3. Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars have depth, but not a true every-down back. Jack Del Rio is reportedly tired of Fred Taylor’s injury problems and could release him. Greg Jones is an excellent short-yardage option, but lacks explosion. Alvin Pearman is a fine passing down option. But it doesn’t add up to enough.
The Jaguars offense still lacks punch and the team could look to make a major splash this offseason. We think they are as likely as any team to go after Edgerrin James or Shaun Alexander. James’ tough running fits their profile better and they would love to steal their divisional rival’s thunder. He could also ignite an apathetic fanbase. Jamal Lewis and Najeh Davenport are logical fallback options who would fit Jacksonville’s physical style. But James is a true every-down option who can also protect Byron Leftwich and help the passing game. They are a team who believes they are a “player away” and Edge qualifies.
Prediction: Release Fred Taylor, Sign Edgerrin James
4. New York Jets – The Jets have three pieces in place for their backfield next season, but none are starter-material. Curtis Martin took a paycut to stay, but the team probably wants to use him in a supporting role. Cedric Houston played well in limited chances as a rookie and is a good body to have around. Derrick Blaylock is a specialist who may not be wanted by the new regime. The Jets have so many needs at other positions that they probably will make due with what they have at running back for one season. They could sniff around players like Najeh Davenport, but we bet they stand pat in the end. Look for a mid-round draft pick.
Prediction: Take developmental prospect in draft
5. Tennessee Titans – Chris Brown was a disappointment despite staying healthy in 2005, but he’ll be back because his salary is small. Travis Henry will be required to take a paycut to return next season. The Titans say they want him back, but they could possibly do better. Henry proved injury-prone and ineffective in his one season with the team. Coach Jeff Fisher would love a bruiser like Eddie George, but they will take a quarterback with the No. 3 pick in the Draft. That leaves them with the option of keeping Henry or fishing through free agency. Najeh Davenport is a powerful option who could pair with Brown like Henry was supposed to.
6. Cleveland Browns – The Browns are looking for someone to take the load off Reuben Droughns. They want some who can offer explosiveness and more ability on passing downs. The fact that they aren’t considering Lee Suggs for this role is damning to Suggs’ future. William Green also faces an uncertain future.
Cleveland’s top target should be Chester Taylor. GM Phil Savage knows him well from his days in Baltimore and actually signed Taylor to a one-year contract as a restricted free agent last offseason before the Ravens matched the offer. Nothing has changed in the last year. Cleveland should still be very interested. They may have to outbid teams like the Panthers or Colts for Taylor. If they can’t sign their man, they can look to a draft filled with third-down types.
Prediction: Sign Chester Taylor, release William Green
7. Denver Broncos – The Broncos have taken a running back in the draft every season since 1999, almost always in the first four rounds. With no true primary back, look for them to select one on the first day. The team also wants to re-sign Ron Dayne, promising a chance to play more. We believe them and doubt Dayne will get a better offer elsewhere.
Prediction: Re-sign Ron Dayne, draft Gerald Riggs Jr.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers – All indications are that the Steelers want to enter 2006 with Willie Parker and Duce Staley as their top two running backs. We’re surprised they want to keep Staley around at a big salary. Still, this is a team that loves to stockpile running backs and will poke around the edges of the free agent market. They could use a third-down back with Verron Haynes headed for free agency. They could sign a versatile player like Lamar Gordon and still draft a running back late.
Prediction: Retain Duce Staley, sign Lamar Gordon, draft a mid-round running back
9. New England Patriots – Some Mock Drafts have the Patriots taking a running back in the first round. We don’t see it. Corey Dillon is a costly starter and paying a big signing bonus for a backup doesn’t make sense. Kevin Faulk remains, but this team needs some youth. LSU’s Joseph Addai would make sense, but will probably get drafted too early. Detroit’s Shawn Bryson is a versatile player that fits the Patriots mold, but isn’t a big enough improvement over Patrick Pass. Look for the Patriots to draft a mid-round running back, nothing more.
Prediction: Retain Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, draft a mid-round running back
10. Oakland Raiders – Art Shell has his bell cow in LaMont Jordan, but very little depth. This team needs a quality backup or two. Since Zack Crocket remains, a third-down back makes a lot of sense. Maurice Morris and Verron Haynes are two players available who would fit.
11. Buffalo Bills – Quick, name Willis McGahee’s backup last season? Exactly. The team could use a reliable veteran option behind McGahee. Anthony Thomas will be available and is very familiar with Dick Jauron. He would make sense and cost very little.
Prediction: Sign Anthony Thomas
12. Miami Dolphins – Assuming Ricky Williams doesn’t win his appeal, the Dolphins suddenly need a backup running back. Nick Saban’s old player Joseph Addai will probably cost too much in the draft. They could poke around veterans like Michael Bennett or Ahman Green, but the Dolphins have bigger fish to fry. Ronnie Brown is an every-down option, so they can go cheap at the backup spot.
Prediction: Whatever they do, it will be cheap
13. Houston Texans – Reggie Bush is too good to pass up, but the Texans don’t really have a need at running back. They have a young quality starter (Domanick Davis) and a young quality backup (Vernand Morency). They even have jack-of-all-trades Jonathan Wells available to re-sign if they so desired. The Texans will either trade the No. 1 pick or draft Bush, but they won’t be active in the free agent market.
Prediction: Draft Reggie Bush
14. Kansas City Chiefs – If Priest Holmes retires, as expected, the Chiefs need a backup. 2005 practice squader Samkon Gado would look good behind Larry Johnson, but he’s gone now. The Chiefs won’t need to break the bank, so they could look at re-tread options like Anthony Thomas or Antowain Smith. Derrick Blaylock could return if he’s cut by the Jets. A late-round draft pick is also a possibility.
Prediction: Draft a late round pick
Teams with No Need
15. Cincinnati Bengals – Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry are a terrific one-two punch and Jeremi Johnson is a quality fullback. Whoever the Bengals sign as their third running back, it will be for the minimum.
16. San Diego Chargers – LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Lorenzo Neal. We know Marty Schottenheimer loves drafting running backs, but he’s got all his bases covered.
Great read, Lung. You know, Fred Taylor in a Colts uniform wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing so long as there was another back there to share with him. I don't feel too comfy with the idea of an injury prone Taylor taking 300-350 touches.