1. DeMarco Murray
The Cowboys tried a very interesting approach with DeMarco Murray in 2014. Knowing he likely wouldn’t be back as a free agent at the end of the season, the Cowboys decided to ride DeMarco Murray into the ground, giving him 392 carries and not caring if it destroyed his body long-term. The results were very good as the Cowboys went 12-4 and won a playoff game on the back of Murray and his 1825 rushing yards. However, he’s a very risky signing this off-season for a variety of reasons, especially in a league where running backs are getting decreasingly valuable every year. For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They offered him a mere 4-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season. Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800 yards on volume largely. He also won’t be able to bring the Cowboys’ offensive line to his next destination so his efficiency should go down too. The Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. Murray should have a huge buyer beware stamp on his head.
2. Justin Forsett
Coming into 2014, Justin Forsett was a 2008 7th round pick who had never played more than 118 carries in a season in 6 seasons in the league and had 6 carries the prior season in Jacksonville. However, Forsett took advantage of the Ray Rice situation and rushed for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries (5.39 YPC), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back. His 5.08 career average is very nice, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s a one-year wonder. After breaking out in Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme in 2014, a union with the Atlanta Falcons makes sense for both sides. The Falcons have a running back need after cutting Steven Jackson and Kubiak disciple Kyle Shanahan is the offensive coordinator there.
3. Ryan Mathews
Matthews has talent, but injuries are a serious issue, as he’s missed 20 games in 5 seasons in the league since the Chargers made him the 12th overall pick in 2010. Mathews rushed for 678 yards and 7 touchdowns on 158 carries (4.29 YPC) in 12 games as a rookie and looked primed to become one of the better backs in the NFL after a strong 2011 season that saw him rush for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 carries (4.91 YPC). He also had 50 catches that season. However, Mathews did not live up to the expectations in 2012, missing another 4 games, seeing just 184 carries and being limited to 3.84 YPC when on the field. Mathews finally put it all together in 2013, rushing for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 carries, an average of 4.40 YPC (though he only caught 29 passes, significantly fewer than the 50 he caught in 2011). Unfortunately, he did that only to miss 10 games with injury the following season, rushing for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns on 74 attempts, an average of 4.46 YPC. Mathews likely isn’t going to become more durable as he goes into his age 28 season so, while he’s talented, any team that signs him needs to have a good insurance policy.
4. CJ Spiller
CJ Spiller, a 2010 1st round pick, had a fantastic 2012 campaign, rushing for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns on 207 carries (6.01 YPC), with 43 catches for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns. He looked poised for a breakout year in 2013 as a 300+ touch back, but he struggled with injuries over the last 2 seasons (missing 8 games combined and being limited in several others) and he was never a great fit for Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s offense. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s rushed for 1233 yards and 2 touchdowns on 280 carries (4.40 YPC), with 52 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown, combined numbers that many people thought he’d be able to surpass in 2013 alone. He hits free agency having never surpassed 207 carries with annual issues in pass protection (grading out below average in 4 of 5 seasons) and coming off the worst season of his career, 300 yards on 78 carries (3.85 YPC) in 9 games. He could be a nice buy low candidate though, as he has a 4.97 YPC average and shows clear first round talent at times. A reunion with former Head Coach Chan Gailey (now offensive coordinator of the Jets) has been rumored and would make a lot of sense. Spiller had his huge 2012 season under Gailey.
5. Frank Gore
Frank Gore has had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor. However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. I don’t expect the cap strapped 49ers to bring him back, instead going with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the starter in 2015. Whoever signs Gore could be very disappointed with his play on the field because of where he is in his career.
6. Ahmad Bradshaw
Bradshaw’s 4.60 career YPC is very impressive and he’s also very useful on passing downs, both as a pass catcher and a pass blocker. However, injuries have been a serious problem for him. He’s always dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career, only playing all 16 games once in 8 seasons, but over the past 4 seasons they’ve especially cost him, as he’s missed 25 games combined in that time period. Last season, he was off to a great start to his season, rushing for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns on 90 carries (4.72 YPC) and added 38 catches for 300 yards and 6 more touchdowns through the air. However, he broke his ankle and missed the final 6 games of the season. Despite just 391 snaps, he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked running back overall. Going into his age 29 season, Bradshaw is a serious injury risk, but he could be a solid buy low candidate on a buyer’s market for running backs.
7. Shane Vereen
Vereen saw just 188 snaps in 2011 and 2012 combined, but the 2011 2nd round pick was expected to be a big part of their post-Aaron Hernandez offense in 2013. He was when he was on the field, but he missed 8 games with injury. He caught 47 passes for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 targets on 200 routes run, an average of 2.14 yards per route run that was 2nd only to Darren Sproles among running backs, very impressive numbers in 8 games. Going into 2014, he was expected to put up big receiving numbers, assuming he stayed healthy. He did stay healthy, playing all 16 games, but in that sense, his 52 catches were a disappointment. Still, he hits free agency as a valuable, versatile #2 back. He’s only averaged 4.18 yards per carry on 217 carries in his career, but what he does as a pass catcher could get him close to the 3.5 million annually he reportedly covets.
8. Stevan Ridley
Ridley, a 2011 3rd round pick, rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) in his 2ndyear in the league in 2012, but he’ll come cheap this off-season. There’s a reason for that. In the two seasons since, he’s rushed for 1113 yards and 9 touchdowns on 272 carries (4.09 YPC) and he’s coming off of a torn ACL he suffered midway through last season. He’s also useless as a pass catcher, with 23 catches in 52 career games and has 9 career fumbles on 672 career touches. He’ll have to settle for a one-year, prove it deal this off-season, but he could be a smart buy low option for a running back needy team. A return to New England as a backup behind LeGarrette Blount would make some sense.
9. Roy Helu
Roy Helu only has 255 carries in 4 seasons since the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, but he’s averaged 4.44 yards per carry and where he really provides value is as a 3rd down back. In 48 career games, Helu has 129 catches for 1152 yards and 3 touchdowns and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back in 2 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league. In a league that’s becoming increasingly pass heavy, Helu will have plenty of suitors for a backup job this off-season.
10. Reggie Bush
Bush never really became the otherworldly talent that the NFL was expecting him to be, after the Saints drafted the former Heisman winner 2nd overall in 2006, but after an injury plagued tenure in New Orleans that saw him max out at 157 carries, Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) and caught 40 passes for 253 yards. He also missed 5 games with injury and Theo Riddick did a solid job as the complementary back in his absence. The Lions cut Bush to save 3.5 million in cash and 1.72 million on the cap.