|Players are willing to get the franchise tag if it means a long-term deal is in their future. (Getty Images)|
By Ryan Wilson
Leading up to the start of free agency on March 13, we're compiling the best 2012 NFL free agents by position. These are the running backs.
1. Ray RiceBreakdown: Ray Rice told CBSSports.com back in October that "I think the Ravens are going to do the right thing … with the contract situation, I'll leave it in their hands." As it stands, Rice is a free agent. And it appears that while the Ravens may eventually "do the right thing" and sign him to a long-term contract (though almost certainly nowhere near Adrian Peterson-type money), the short-term plan is to franchise him. At 25, Rice hasn't yet reached his prime, which is all the more reason the Ravens should find a way to keep him in Baltimore for the next five years.
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That said, Rice isn't your typical back. In addition to his ability to run the ball, he's also a dangerous pass catcher. How dangerous? He led Baltimore in receptions in 2011 (76), was second behind Anquan Boldin in 2010 (63), and first in 2009 (78). For all the talk about Joe Flacco wanting a new deal, the Ravens' offense goes through Rice.
Potential landing spots: Ravens. That's it. If he gets away, Baltimore deserves whatever fate awaits them. Rice fits any system but is especially dangerous when he's utilized. That seems obvious but it's something offensive coordinator Cam Cameron forgot at various points during the 2011 season.
2. Matt ForteBreakdown: Forte missed the final month of the 2011 season with a knee injury but it won't have any impact on what the Bears think he's worth. They have no plans to let him hit free agency -- earlier this month team president Ted Phillips said, "We'd like to (work out a long-term deal). But as (new GM) Phil (Emery) pointed out we obviously will at least consider placing the franchise tag on him. We don't have any intention of letting Matt hit the open market. We'll sit down with him privately, Phil will, and discuss what the plans are prior to the Feb. 20 franchise tag date."
And while #paydaman was the Twitter meme of the '11 season for Forte, he seems amenable to the franchise tag if it leads somewhere beyond a one-and-done deal.
"It depends on the motive of (the franchise tag)," Forte said a few days after Phillips' comments above. "If they are doing the franchise tag just to get more time in order to negotiate a long-term deal, then I would be OK with it. But if it's just to hold me another year and just, 'Let's throw some money at him right now to keep him quiet,' that's not going to solve anything."
Plus, with offensive coordinator Mike Martz gone and Mike Tice named as his replacement, the offense shouldn't require six weeks to find its rhythm. Ideally, a healthy mix of pass and run will keep Cutler upright and the Bears competitive in the NFC North. Forte, clearly, is a big part of that.
Potential landing spots: The Bears have no intentions of letting Forte get away, but like Rice, he'd fit in pretty much any offense. He's a capable pass-catcher and north-south runner.
3. Arian Foster
|Foster wants to stay in Houston '100 percent' (Getty Images)|
Could the Texans' offense survive without Foster, the 2010 NFL rushing leader? Yeah, sure. They still have Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and Ben Tate. But Foster is only 25, and he's played on an undrafted free agent's salary the last two seasons. He's certainly outperformed his previous deal, now it's up to Foster's agent and the organization to find some middle ground.
Potential landing spots: The Texans. The franchise tag guarantees that other teams won't even get a shot at landing him. That said, he'd fit perfectly in the Redskins' scheme (they run virtually the same offense as the Texans, just with less talented players).
4. Marshawn LynchBreakdown: In the wacky world of Pete Carroll, trading a second-rounder for Charlie Whitehurst makes sense. So too does signing Tarvaris Jackson. To Carroll's credit, he said "thanks but no thanks" when his Heisman-winning quarterback during his USC days, Matt Leinart, was dumped by the Cardinals. And he had something to do with bringing Marshawn Lynch to Seattle for a 2011 fourth-rounder and a 2012 fifth-rounder. Lynch carried the Seahawks to a playoff win over the Saints in 2010, and rushed for 12,04 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011.
Lynch was Seattle's most consistent offensive weapon last season (this explains the Peyton Manning scuttlebutt) and earlier this week the word on the street was that the team was in "deep" contract talks with Lynch and would consider using the franchise tag if the two sides couldn't reach an agreement.
We're not sure that's the best use of resources for an offense with plenty of issues. Unlike the Ravens, Bears and Texans -- all teams with top-15 quarterbacks -- the Seahawks might want to take that $7.7 million they'd use on Lynch and address other needs (quarterback, wide receiver, or a couple running backs, for example).
Potential landing spots: Seahawks, Bengals, Jets, Redskins
5. Michael BushBreakdown: Darren McFadden played in just seven games last season but the Raiders' rush offense still ranked 11th in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Much of that was due to Michael Bush, who ran for 977 yards (3.8 YPC) and seven touchdowns, and added 418 yards receiving.
Still, despite his '11 success, when training camp begins, McFadden will be atop the depth chart. Running backs-by-committee are en vogue so it's reasonable to think that Bush will get plenty of work but he wants to be a starter (likely because it comes with starter money). And for that reason, the Contra Costa Times' Steve Corkran wrote last week that Bush might prefer the franchise tag to a long-term deal. Corkran pointed out that new general manager Reggie McKenzie has a knack for developing running backs, which could mean that Bush will be elsewhere next season.
Potential landing spots: Bengals (former Raiders coach Hue Jackson is an assistant there), Buccaneers, Redskins
6. BenJarvus Green-EllisBreakdown: ESPN.com's Mike Reiss broke down Green-Ellis' situation nicely last week: "The view from here is that the Patriots would like Green-Ellis to return and have a price in mind. The question then becomes if that price is attractive enough that it sparks Green-Ellis to sign before hitting free agency."
Free agency starts March 13. There will be a glut of running backs on the market and there's no promise that Green-Ellis will get more in free agency than he would from the Pats. It's more likely that New England will offer something less than market value because a) they typically handle the salary cap well, and b) they'll sell it as "we're a winner, if you go elsewhere you'll be in rebuilding mode."
And then there's c): the Pats drafted two running backs last April -- Shane Vereen in Round 2, Stevan Ridley in Round 3 -- and should they not be able to re-sign Green-Ellis they'd have plenty of depth at the position (something they seem oddly incapable of at wide receiver). As always, as long as Tom Brady is on the field, the Patriots will have a good chance to win. It would be nice to have Green-Ellis behind him but New England's offense will survive either way.
Potential landing spots: Patriots, Chiefs (Scott Pioli's the GM)
7. Cedric BensonBreakdown: It's seldom players go to Cincinnati to revitalize careers but Benson isn't your typical NFL running back. The Bears' former No. 4 pick in 2005, he was considered a bust until he joined the Bengals in 2008. He rushed for 1,251 yards in 2009, 1,111 in 2010 and 1,067 last season.
This offseason, the organization has talked about getting backup Bernard Scott more touches next season. Benson, meanwhile, has taken to publicly calling out the Bengals -- not the best negotiating strategy.
“We didn’t stick on what the offense was built on," Benson said during an appearance this week on SiriusXM. "When we had Carson and Chad we kept a strong identity in the run game and we kind of got away from it and didn’t let that part of the offense grow and bit the bullet on it a little bit.”
As for Benson's future in Cincy, we think this comment pretty much says it all: “I’m not sure [where things stand]. We haven’t had any talks about a new deal.”
Last offseason, the organization dumped Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and made the playoffs. The in-with-the-new personnel philosophy will apparently continue this offseason, too.
Potential landing spots: Benson's skills have diminished to the point that he's probably not worth more than a veteran minimum deal. Given his baggage, it makes more sense for a team looking for running back depth to sign a young player.
8. Peyton Hillis
|Cleveland wants to keep Hillis? (Getty Images)|
Not good. Not good at all.
There were concerns during the season that Hillis let his impending contract negotiations affect his decision to play. As you might expect, that didn't go over well with teammates or fans. Still, the Browns said last month that they want Hillis back after he "worked his way into the team's good graces" over the final six weeks.
A source tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot that the organization might even consider franchising (!) Hillis if they come to terms with linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. That sounds, well, silly but then again, we're talking about the Browns.
Potential landing spots: Browns, Patriots (where derailed careers get back on track), Broncos (two Tebows, one backfield)
9. Ryan GrantBreakdown: The team appeared to favor James Starks but he's had trouble staying on the field. In 2011, Grant had 14 starts and rushed 134 times for 559 yards and two touchdowns. Not particularly noteworthy, but then again, he played in Aaron Rodgers' offense. He'll be 30 in December and while he rushed for more than 1,200 yards in 2008 and 2009, an ACL injury sidelined him for all but one game in 2010.
Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Rob Reischel wrote that "Packer general manager Ted Thompson won't make a heavy investment in a running back Grant's age… So Grant will test free agency, and he is unlikely to return unless there's little interest on the open market."
Grant seems to understand the situation. "We'll see," he said. "I know I have a lot left. I think I showed that at the end of the year here. Would like to be back . . . but we'll just have to see."
Potential landing spots: Teams looking for running back-by-committee members willing to play for the veteran minimum. Barring injuries, not sure there will be much of a market.
10. Honorable MentionUnrestricted free agents: Mike Tolbert, LaDainian Tomlinson, Kevin Smith, Thomas Jones
Restricted free agents: LeGarrette Blount, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling
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