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2014 Free Agency Preview - RBs

By Matt Schauf | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

The RB group carries some bigger names into free agency than we'll find at QB, but it still looks like a lackluster crew from here.

Only 1 player on the list below ran for 1,000 yards last year. Just 1 other reached 800. Frankly, there might not be a single workhorse among this crew. But that breed's becoming rarer by the year across the league.

Even if none of these runners will approach 300 carries anytime soon, there'll be a fair amount of fantasy value. Here are the names we'll be tracking most closely.

Note: Players are ranked based on potential 2014 fantasy impact.

1. Ben Tate

Tate looked really exciting back in 2011. He ripped off 5.4 yards per carry to rank 3rd in the league among RBs (behind only Fred Jackson and DeMarco Murray). He ranked 19th in rushing yards (942) while tallying the 22nd most rushing attempts (175).

Tate delivered a pair of 100-yard games and then an 82-yarder to start that year while Arian Foster nursed a hamstring injury. And later came 2 more 100-yard outings even after Foster returned.

But 2012 brought a big slap to the face of all the fantasy owners who overdrafted Tate off his 2011. The backup carried just 65 times while missing 5 games and only reached 50 yards once. Then came a load of opportunity in 2013 ... which Tate basically failed to seize.

He carried 14+ times in 7 of 8 games beginning in Week 7 but reached 90 yards just once all year. Tate fell short of 4 yards per carry in 5 of those 8 games. His 22-102-3 rushing day against the Patriots in December marked his only worthwhile fantasy day of the season.

So what should we expect now? Well, Tate still managed a respectable 4.3-yard rushing average each of the past 2 seasons. He did so behind a still solid O-line, however, which Football Outsiders ranked among the top 10 in adjusted line yards in 2012 and 2013. Pro Football Focus also graded the Texans among the top half of the league in run-blocking each of the past 2 years.

The Jets have, of course, been rumored as a potential suitor -- probably because they've been linked to every impending free agent. That would be a decent fit in terms of willingness to run, but the blocking proved below average in 2013. Plus, the Jets just traded for Chris Ivory a year ago. We'd much rather see Tate's upside land in Cleveland. He could also make sense in a timeshare with Arizona's Andre Ellington.

2. Rashad Jennings

Although Tate enters free agency as the biggest backfield name, Jennings has the shorter trip to fantasy relevance. All he might have to do is stay in town.

Jennings followed 4 highly inconsistent seasons in Jacksonville with a surprising 2013 breakout in Oakland. After flashing just once -- with an 8-catch Week 4 -- through the season's 1st half, he took over the rest of the way. From Week 9 on, Jennings ranked 10th among all RBs in total standard-scoring fantasy points, 11th in PPR. Those ranks improved to 7th and 8th, respectively, if you remove a 4-carry Week 17. (When your league shouldn't be playing anyway.)

Jennings ran for 4.5 yards per carry and caught 36 passes on the season while scoring 6 TDs over a 6-game stretch from Week 9 through Week 15. He reached 88 yards on the ground 4 times, topping out with 150 at Houston in a Week 11 victory.

The soon-to-be 29-year-old fared well in the advanced metrics, too. Pro Football Focus graded him 13th in receiving among RBs, 25th in rushing performance -- ahead of players such as Reggie Bush, Gio Bernard, Zac Stacy and Ryan Mathews. Football Outsiders ranked Jennings 5th among all RBs in DVOA. And he did all of that behind an O-line that PFF rated 5th worst in the league in run-blocking.

Age certainly won't help Jennings on the open market, but his mere 387 career carries to date rank just 46th among active NFL players -- 2 spots and 34 attempts behind Ben Tate.

Raiders HC Dennis Allen has indicated that the team wants Jennings back. If that happens, look for him to wind up solidly in RB2 territory amid our 2014 projections.

3. Knowshon Moreno

"Obviously we think very highly of him," Broncos HC John Fox said about 1 of his RBs at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. That back was Montee Ball. "He got better with every week. We look for a big improvement next year and think he's very, very capable."

Denver clearly has little reason to chase Moreno hard in free agency. The team drafted Ball in Round 2 last spring and also sports RBs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman on the roster. Moreno outperformed all of those youngsters by a wide margin in 2013, but he also missed 17 combined games over the previous 2 seasons. His 4.3-yard rushing average ranked a solid 18th among all players with at least 100 carries this past year. But that doesn't make him irreplaceable. (Ball's 4.7-yard mark ranked 8th.)

Leaving Denver could crush Moreno's fantasy value. He benefitted greatly from the league's top pass offense and an O-line that PFF graded 8th best in run-blocking. Moreno turned that into 10 rushing TDs and caught 60 passes for 548 yards (9.1-yard average) and 3 more scores.

But let's not take all the credit from him. PFF rated Moreno the 15th best halfback in the league last season, including the position's 8th best receiving mark. His pass protection has steadily improved as well. That won't directly affect his fantasy value, but it helped him win the starting job in 2013 and could keep Moreno on the field more with his 2014 team.

We'll see where this 2013 fantasy stud lands in 2014. Ultimately, though, the big numbers of last season figure to get him overrated in fantasy football drafts this summer.

4. Darren McFadden

McFadden looks a lot like the RB version of Josh Freeman in free agency: a talented former star who now generates more pessimism than hope. But 2 key factors boost McFadden beyond Freeman.

First, his ceiling is undeniably higher than that of the busted former Buc. McFadden's 2010 provided the position's 2nd best fantasy-scoring average across formats, behind only Arian Foster's 2,218 yards, 66 catches and 18 total TDs. He caught 47 passes while averaging more than 10.5 yards per reception for the 2nd straight season. His 5.2 yards per carry ranked behind only Jamaal Charles and Brandon Jacobs (?!?) among RBs -- and McFadden bumped that rate up to 5.4 the next season. He caught another 42 passes over just 12 games in 2012.

The other factor helping D-Mac is that he plays a much less complicated position than Freeman. You take the ball, find the hole and run through it. (OK, maybe that's a tad oversimplified.) You catch mostly short passes out of the backfield. A healthy McFadden can do that stuff ... at least, we think.

That's the problem -- obviously. McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season and has started just 29 total over the past 3 years. He has surpassed 114 carries just twice in 5 campaigns since the Raiders drafted him 4th overall. And he might be in full decline. The past 2 seasons saw him finish with ugly 3.3-yard rushing averages. McFadden also compiled his worst 2 receiving averages: 6.1 and 6.4 yards per catch. His 2013 fantasy-scoring average ranked outside the top 40 across formats in the same offense that afforded Rashad Jennings top 10 production.

Is the talent still there? We'll see. But the fact that it was there at some point places McFadden near the top of a weak free-agent RB crop.

5. LeGarrette Blount

It was 3 games. That was Blount's 2013.

First, he found the end zone twice amid 16 carries for 76 yards in a Week 16 blowout at Baltimore. The next week brought 189 more yards (at 7.9 per rush) and 2 TDs vs. Buffalo. Then, of course, the playoff beatdown of Indianapolis provided FOUR more scores and 166 yards.

As for the other 15 games, Blount never drew more than 14 carries, topping 12 just once. He didn't surpass 65 yards in any other contest, reaching 50 just 3 other times. He caught 2 total passes, giving him 23 total receptions over his 4 pro seasons. So what do we make of Blount now?

Well, the FO metrics suggest he's always been a good back. Most fantasy owners probably remember Blount's breakout rookie season with the Bucs. He ran for 1,007 yards and 6 TDs on just 201 carries after taking over for a broken-down Cadillac Williams. Blount finished 13th among all RBs in DYAR, 14th in DVOA and 23rd in success rate. Flash ahead to 2013 and you'll find rankings of 15th, 11th and 3rd. Quite similar, especially when you consider that Blount averaged 5.0 yards per carry each season. Chalk the difference in success rate up to New England's league-best run blockers in 2013 vs. a weak Bucs group in 2010.

Blount's numbers suffered more behind that porous line in 2011 ... when the Tampa pass offense slipped from FO's 9th-rated unit (in 2010) to 24th. He still managed 4.2 yards per carry, 5 TDs and three 100-yard games for a team that lost its final 10 contests.

Our verdict: Blount's a quality runner who will succeed in a good situation. The Patriots reportedly plan to give Stevan Ridley another shot in 2014, which would likely mean Blount's best situation resides elsewhere. His "pounder" role in a split backfield figures to limit his fantasy upside, especially in PPR leagues.

6. Maurice Jones-Drew

Draft Sharks Insiders have heard us speak out against MJD for several years now. And after a surprisingly strong 2011, he has shown pretty clear signs of decline the past 2 seasons.

Jones-Drew lost 10 games to a foot injury in 2012 after finding the end zone just twice (1 rushing, 1 receiving) over the 1st 6 weeks. He bounced back to play in 15 contests last year but posted a career-worst 3.4-yard rushing average, 0.8 behind his previous low. MJD's 5 total TDs also marked a low point for any season in which he played more than 6 games.

Unsurprisingly, the Jaguars have said they'll allow Jones-Drew to test free agency heading into his age-29 season.

Being on the right side of 30 -- for a pro athlete, at least -- can only help MJD, and his productive history will likely entice a team or 2. But Jones-Drew must prove he's past the ankle, knee and hamstring issues that bugged him last year. And knee problems have landed him on injury reports at least once in all but 1 of his pro seasons. This nearly done player will only create fantasy value through volume.

7. Toby Gerhart

Gerhart's career line looks intriguing. The 6'0, 231-pounder boasts a 4.7-yard career rushing average. Only 8 qualifying RBs sport better marks. He beat that rate in 2 of the past 3 seasons, including a 4.9-yard average in his busiest year (2011).

Gerhart drew a career-high 109 carries that season while Adrian Peterson dealt with an ankle sprain and then 2 torn knee ligaments. The backup stepped in for 531 rushing yards and 23 catches for 190 more. It was 1 of 3 seasons in which Gerhart has caught 20+ balls. But this guy brings a lower ceiling than all those numbers might suggest.

Gerhart performed solidly in relief of Peterson back in 2011, his only sustained shot at starting so far. But he has also scored just 5 rushing TDs over his 4 seasons. Worse than that, he has managed to lose 7 fumbles in limited duty. That played at least some part in the Vikings handing Gerhart the ball just 50 times over 16 games in 2012 and 36 times last season. Peterson or no, a quality #2 back should spell the starter more often than that.

Gerhart has performed decently as a receiver, but his 7.8-yard and 6.8-yard per-catch averages the past 2 years don't scream that the guy needs an opportunity.

The former Stanford Cardinal has reached 100 yards in a pro game just once so far, an 11-carry 2011 contest inflated by a 67-yard run that didn't even get him to the end zone. His size, decent speed and reliable hands make Gerhart look a lot like Michael Bush -- who hasn't found much value in his free-agent move from Oakland to Chicago.

8. Andre Brown

The Giants' running game looked pretty horrible in 2013 until this guy returned from a leg fracture with that glorious 115-yard, 1-TD Week 10 to beat the Raiders in his season debut. Two weeks later, Brown gave us 127 more yards and 4 catches against Dallas. Then came 2 rushing scores in a victory at Washington. But hindsight says that we probably all overrated Brown's actual performance.

His 100-yard outings against Oakland and Dallas toppled 2 of the 5 most generous RB defenses in the league last season. And Brown only managed 3.8 yards per rush against the Raiders. That actually stood as his 3rd best single-game mark of the year. Brown mustered 2.5 yards per carry or less in 4 of his final 5 contests, including the last 3 in a row.

Brown's 20 receptions in 8 games looked solid, but he averaged a paltry 5.2 yards per catch and added just 3 total TDs. PFF graded him the 9th worst RB in the league, while Football Outsiders ranked Brown just 41st in DVOA.

The upshot is that both advanced-grading sites liked Brown much better in 2012. PFF rated him 14th among RBs in rushing performance. FO gave him the top score among RBs who fell short of 100 carries. Brown also looked a lot better by the standard numbers, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 7.2 yards per reception while scoring 8 TDs. The real Andre Brown probably resides somewhere between the 2012 and 2013 extremes.

The Giants graded out 4th best in run-blocking in 2012, according to PFF. They were 2nd best in FO's Adjusted Line Yards. Both sites rated them below average in 2013, including FO's #30 ranking in ALY. Last season's suddenly nonexistent pass offense couldn't have helped either.

Brown's not the kind of player who will create big fantasy value on his own, and he's not likely to land a lead-back job anywhere in 2014. Even New York would likely mean a timeshare with David Wilson once again. Brown projects as a bye-week option in your fantasy football league, with some starting potential given the right opportunity.

9. Donald Brown

Brown finally looked promising last season, but he really only did so in comparison to Trent Richardson's utter flop.

This former 1st-round pick certainly enjoyed some good games: 80 yards and 2 TDs on the ground at Tennessee in Week 11, 5 TDs over a 3-game span from Week 16 through the Wild Card win. But Brown never surpassed 14 rushing attempts in a game until the playoff loss at New England. He reached 10 carries just 5 times during the regular season. And he topped 3 catches in an outing only 3 times, including the playoffs.

Brown finished top 30 across fantasy formats after likely going undrafted in most leagues. But it's tough to realize full fantasy value in a guy who might get 12 touches a game. You won't usually want to start such a player every week, so you're left guessing when to start him. Brown's next best fantasy season to date (2011) found him barely among the top 40 RBs for the year, despite a stout 4.8-yard rushing average. Injuries and disappointing performances as a starter have rendered him a bust for the Colts.

Brown is doubtful to land a starting job in free agency. He retains value in a backfield rotation, but he belongs in the late rounds or on the waiver wire in nearly all redraft formats.

10. Rashard Mendenhall

Mendenhall arrived in the desert last year along with the coach who once knew him as a workhorse in Pittsburgh. HC Bruce Arians touted Mendenhall as a feature back after signing him in free agency and professed his love for a backfield dominated by 1 guy.

Then Mendy went out and performed like the #43 back in the league, according to Pro Football Focus grades. He played less than 50% of the offensive snaps in all but 3 games and watched rookie RB Andre Ellington out-rush him by 2.3 yards per carry. Mendenhalll still managed 687 yards and 8 TDs (plus 18-134 receiving) to rank 24th among non-PPR backs, but his 3.2-yard rushing average ranked a pitiful 44th among players with 100+ carries. (Only Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, Bernard Pierce and Willis McGahee fared worse.)

So a year after the president of the Mendenhall Fan Club signed him for just 1 year, Mendy heads into 2014 looking older than his 27 years, sporting 4 seasons of sub-4.0 rushing averages and looking for a gig at a position that appears more fungible by the week.

11. James Starks

If you blinked in Week 2, you probably missed the best outing of Starks' career. The once great backfield hope in Green Bay rushed for 132 yards and a TD on 20 carries in a win over Washington after Eddie Lacy left with a concussion. The 6'2, 218-pounder followed that up by running for 55 yards and suffering a knee injury against the Bengals in Week 3.

That's nothing new. Starks has played in 35 NFL games and appeared on the injured list 23 times. And that doesn't even include all the 2010 games the then-rookie spent on the PUP list. Knee troubles alone cost Starks 13 games over the past 2 seasons and helped make room for a pair of rookie backs to infiltrate the Green Bay backfield in 2013.

That should mean a new home for Starks as he heads into his age-28 season. But it's difficult to expect big opportunity for a guy who has reached 90 carries once in 4 years and scored 6 total NFL TDs (4 of them last year).

Starks is a solid guy to have on your roster in case your starter goes down. He can turn in a good game here and there. But his 100-yard burst in 2013 marked the 1st such regular-season performance of his career. Including the playoffs, Starks has reached 100 twice now. Next.

12. Ahmad Bradshaw

This one's pretty simple. We all know Bradshaw can play. You probably won't find too many people to dispute that. And if you do, just remind them that he hit up the Niners for 95 yards and a TD the last time he took the field.

Bradshaw was surely on his way to a better season than Trent Richardson had in his 1st Colts jaunt. But Bradshaw never took the field again after that surprising Week 3 blowout by the Bay. Instead, he went for neck surgery. That makes 19 missed games over his past 3 seasons. And there aren't too many teams looking to hand the ball to a 28-year-old back with a neck problem and chronically troublesome feet.

Bradshaw might get an opportunity at some point in 2014, but don't expect any team to come chasing after him early. It'll probably take some camp injuries to land him a job -- if he even finds one. That said, keep an eye on Bradshaw if opportunity presents itself.

Other Free-Agent RBs

La'Rod Stephens-Howling

Jonathan Dwyer

Peyton Hillis

Bernard Scott

Brian Leonard

Felix Jones

Ronnie Brown

Phillip Tanner

Leon Washington

Anthony Dixon

Willis McGahee

Kahlil Bell

Matt Schauf Author Image
Matt Schauf, Editor
Matt has earned two Fantasy Pros accuracy awards for IDP rankings and won thousands of dollars as a player across best ball, dynasty, and high-stakes fantasy formats. He has been creating fantasy football content for more than 20 years, with work featured by Sporting News, Rotoworld, Athlon, Sirius XM, and others. He's been with Draft Sharks since 2011.
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