There are running backs a-plenty available in free agency, and if you are a fantasy football player, NFL fanatic, or both, the list is filled with familiar names. Unlike a theory proposed for Giants division rival Washington, Jerry Reese doesn’t make his free agent decisions based upon players Madden Football ratings. When evaluating running backs, there are three key components that are vital to his success in the NFL. Surprisingly, the ability to pick up the blitz on passing plays prevents more rookies from seeing the field than any other skill. If a back misses a pickup assignment, it can get the quarterback sacked, cause a turnover, or injured.
The ability to run with intelligence and follow the blocking assignments on a given play is key to a successful ground game. Any veteran running back will tell you, that trusting your linemen to open the hole in it’s expected location is critical to a runner’s development. A stutter step or controlled acceleration and burst will more often lead to a big gain than running full speed into the line. Top backs in the league are also threats to catch the ball out of the backfield, adding that dual threat that opposing defenses must guard against on a given play.
Durability is key to any longevity achieved at the position, and this trait is the rarest of them all. Subject to the most punishing of hits, both as ball carriers and blockers, running backs are among the least durable players in the modern NFL. Teams once featured a runner and fed him the ball 25-30 times per game when ahead, chewing the clock, and controlling the line of scrimmage. Most teams now mix two or three backs, alternating them on series to keep them fresh and reduce the punishment absorbed. Careers are still short, and long term, big money contracts rarely offered as the drop off in production often swift and dramatic.
Fullback is a dying breed in this league. Many teams no longer carry one on the roster and none feature one prominently as a ball carrier. Blocking is the most important skill for this position, clearing a path for the running back to make it through the line and past the second level for big gains. Receiving or short yardage skills are luxuries for a fullback.
The Giants drafted Andre Williams in the 4th round out of Boston College in the 2014 draft. An accomplished runner, he rarely caught a pass in college. Rashad Jennings was signed in free agency and won the starting job in training camp. Jennings excelled until a knee injury caused him to miss 5 games. Williams filled in admirably, but his rookie struggles were evident. Both runners suffered from the Giants offensive line’s run blocking deficiencies.
The third down receiving back role was filled by Jennings, and upon his injury, Michael Cox, a 2013 seventh round pick, who also struggled with injuries. Rookie Orleans Darkwa was signed as a free agent and showed enough promise that he will come into training camp this season with a chance to win the job.
Incumbent fullback Henry Hynoski is a free agent and remains unsigned as of this writing. He is a strong blocker, both in pass protection and the run game, but is just average as a pile mover and receiver. His missed the 2013 season with a shoulder injury and re-injured it in 2014. The Giants seem willing to let him test the free agent market and look at alternatives before deciding what direction to take with the position.
It’s unlikely the team will look to make a major move at running back in free agency. Williams will make a leap forward in his second season and have an opportunity to seize hold of the primary runner role. Jennings, while not suited as an every down back, is an above average backup. Giants360 has reviewed the free agent runners and found several that would fit well with the Giants. We will also comment on some of the recognizable names and why they are not ideal pick ups. Although that may change if they stay on the market and their asking price drops.
As regular readers are aware, performance information is based on the analytics from profootballfocus.com (PFF) and the contract information from overthecap.com.
Premier Running Back:
DeMarco Murray, 27, 6’0″, 214 lbs, 5th season, Dallas: The NFL’s leading rusher this season will hit the free agent market on Tuesday, damaging the prospects of the Cowboys repeating their improbable run to the divisional round of the playoffs. Murray carried the ball an eye popping 392 times can caught 57 passes, for a league high 449 touches, creating concern that he will start to break down soon and making teams less likely to offer him a long term, big money deal. This concern is heightened by Murray’s suffering of an injury in each of the past 4 seasons. While he didn’t miss a game in 2014, one wonders if he would have been as willing to play if he were not in a contract year. The injury concerns, contract requirements, and mileage, make Murray a poor option for the Giants. He’s also said if no team significantly exceeds what the Cowboys offer, he will return to Dallas, although that could be a negotiating ploy.
Jerome Felton, 28, 6’0″, 246 lbs, 8th season, Minnesota: Felton voided his $2.4 million dollar contract after spending last season blocking for Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon when he expected to be blocking for Adrian Peterson. His biggest asset is his devastating run block ability, and Felton wants to ensure it will not be wasted on middle of the road talent. Having only carried the ball 46 times in 7 seasons and adding just 43 receptions, Felton adds little in the way of offensive firepower, but would pave the way for Williams to showcase his running talent behind an improved Giants offensive line. Commanding a salary between $2 and $2.5 million, Felton might be too expensive for the Giants budget.
John Kuhn, 32, 6’0″, 255 lbs, 10th season, Green Bay: With an intimate knowledge of the offense run by Ben McAdoo, Kuhn would add a dimension that was missing last season. A career 21 touchdowns on 176 carries and 76 receptions, Kuhn adds some offensive kick to his considerable blocking skills. Hamstring issues have limited his effectiveness in each of the past 3 seasons, possibly indicating that this 10 year veteran is starting to wear down. His 2014 salary of $1.05 million is only $50,000 more than the Giants paid Hynoski, making it feasible for the team to at least talk to him about their roster opening.
Jacquizz Rodgers, 25, 5’7″, 190 lbs, 5th season, Atlanta: One can almost channel Bill Parcells talking about Joe Morris when looking at Rodgers stature compared to other NFL players: “He’s not small, he’s short,” is the infamous line the Hall of Fame coach uttered about the Giants’ 1980’s cannonball of a runner. Rodgers is not the ball carrier Morris was, but he is an outstanding receiver that can hold his own in blitz pickup. If the Giants coaching staff if not sold on the combination of Jennings and Darkwa as the third down receiving option, Rodgers is a below-the-radar option for the team to consider. His $1.5 Million salary for 2014 makes him a bit pricey for such a limited role, but if he remains on the open market for an extended period, he might be willing to consider a lower money contract.
Antone Smith, 29, 5’9″, 190 lbs, 6th season, Atlanta: In just ten games in 2014, with only 38 touches, Smith scored 5 touchdowns. An explosive runner with 4.37 speed in the 40 yard dash, Smith is a limited use weapon who could be deployed in key situations to try to make explosive offensive plays. Injury concerns are prevalent as Smith suffered nagging knee and hamstring injuries throughout his career that indicate he can’t handle a major role on offense. A broken leg ended his 2014 after 10 games. He could be signed for the veteran minimum.
Steven Jackson, 31, 6’3″, 229 lbs, 12th season, Atlanta: Still an effective runner, Jackson suffered from an injured and ineffective Falcons offensive line in 2014. An average receiver, Jackson excels at pass blocking, but with 2,743 career carries, he would best be suited for a complimentary role at this point in his career. If the Giants are looking to add a role player to their stable of running backs, and Jackson is willing to play for close to the veteran minimum, he’s an option the team should consider.
Frank Gore, 31, 5’9″, 215 lbs, 11th season: San Francisco: Gore is a good running back with questionable receiving skills who is being allowed to test the free agent market after a decade with the Forty-Niners. A dependable player and top pass protector, Gore has played through a variety of nagging injuries and not missed a game in the past three seasons. He may be looking to land a starting job, but it’s doubtful any team will be willing to make more than a one year commitment to a runner with his mileage. Gore has 2,442 career carried plus 342 receptions. He’s also has ball security issues with 36 career fumbles. His salary requirement would largely determine his suitability for the Giants.
John Conner, 27, 5’11”, 240 lbs, 6th season, Fullback, New York Jets: In training camp with the Giants last summer, Conner was beaten out for the fullback job by Hynoski and caught on with the Jets. A dependable blocker with average running and receiving skills, Conner is an affordable option with the advantage of being known to the coaching staff. That could be enough to get him invited back to camp in 2015 for the veteran minimum.
It’s most likely that the Giants add a running back in the middle or late rounds of the draft, or pick one up in the latter part of free agency, after the early frenzy dies down. Rodgers would seem to fit a role with the team, as would Conner, but given that few teams use a fullback, picking among the best coming out among the draft class might be the team’s plan.
There are several recognizable names among the available free agents, and Giants360 looked at them all and evaluated their feasibility. Ahmad Bradshaw won two super bowls with the Giants, but has not enjoyed an injury free season since 2010. He has played in just 12 games in the past 2 seasons, despite just 3 starts. His inability to stay healthy will drive him to retirement. The same may be said of Reggie Bush, who has had fibula, knee, groin, hip, and calf issues during his 9 year career. While he has managed to gut through a lot of the nagging injuries and play in 41 games over the past 3 seasons, he is breaking down and not worth the risk or the money he will demand.
Mark Ingram never took over the top running back spot in New Orleans and his limited pass blocking skills may be the culprit. A top runner, Ingram is also a poor receiver, but has been linked with the Eagles, post LeSean McCoy. Said to be seeking a relatively big contract, one would expect a complete back in return and Ingram in not such a back. Ryan Mathews has more complete skills, but simply can’t stay healthy, having missed games with clavicle, hamstring, and ankle injuries over the past three seasons. It’s buyer beware to any team that signs him.
The Raiders are moving on from Darren McFadden, and with good reason. The 8th year back is out of gas and rated among the worst running backs in the NFL. Suffering from a variety of ailments throughout his NFL career, McFadden’s skills have eroded and it will be a surprise if any team signs him. Knowshon Moreno tore the same right ACL he tore in 2011. It will be difficult for the 7 year veteran to bounce back from that injury.
Stevan Ridley has looked highly effective in spurts in New England, and scored 22 touchdowns in his 4 year there, but he’s also been benched multiple times for fumbling. Coming off a torn ACL/MCL, that combination will make teams wary of him in 2015. Shane Vereen is the big name among receiving specialists, but close examination of his body of work reveals an oft injured back that has only played in 37 of the past 48 games for the Patriots. A poor runner, and just an average pass blocker, Vereen is said to be seeking a contract averaging $4.5 million per season, much too high for a limited role back that has struggled to stay on the field. The Giants would be wise to stay away.
That leaves us with C.J. Spiller, who reportedly turned down a $4.5 million offer from Buffalo prior to their LeSean McCoy acquisition. An explosive, but fragile runner, it’s difficult to imagine Spiller getting more money on the free agent market. He missed 6 games in 2014 with a broken collar bone, and had nagging shoulder and ankle injuries in 2012 and 2013. He may look back at that Bill’s offer longingly as he accepts a much less money from another team.
With only 5 days until the free agent market opens, Giants360 has only one more position review to complete. Cornerback. Look for it over the next two days, snow permitting, and a capstone article to prepare you for the free agent frenzy that starts Tuesday afternoon. Update on the Giants, general NFL happenings, along with rumors, discussion, wit, and frivolity are available by following @Giants360 on Twitter.
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