Posted by Ryan Wilson
Running backs are fungible. We've been beating that drum for years now, and basically the theory goes something like this: Don't draft a running back with a top 15 pick unless you're certain he's the next Barry Sanders or Jim Brown.
There are exceptions, but the thinking is that teams can find productive backs in later rounds (and often among the undrafted), which frees them up to use early picks on positions that are tougher to fill -- like left tackle and cornerback. This applies to free agency, too. An example that immediately comes to mind: the Seahawks re-signing Shaun Alexander to an eight-year, $62 million deal in 2006, six years into his career. At the time, it was the largest contract ever signed by a running back.
Alexander, who had 370 carries for 1,880 yards (27 TDs) in '05, managed just 896 yards on 252 carries (7 TDs) in '06. He gained 716 yards a year later, and by 2008 he was out of the league.
Meanwhile, success stories on the cheap are everywhere. Willie Parker and Arian Foster were undrafted free agents. So were Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. And if they should get hurt or become ineffective, there are other low-priced alternatives.
We bring this up because Michael Turner was originally just that: a low-priced alternative -- the former Chargers fifth-round pick who spent most of his career in San Diego behind LaDanian Tomlinson. Having seen glimpses of his potential, teams around the league were intrigued by Turner once he hit free agency. In 2008, the Falcons signed him to a six-year, $34.5 million contract with $15 million guaranteed.
Early on it looked like a good investment. Atlanta had then-rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, and the offense relied heavily on the running game to make his job easier. Turner finished 2008 with 376 carries for 1,699 yards (17 TDs). And according to Football Outsiders, Turner ranked third in total RB value behind Thomas Jones and DeAngelo Williams.
But the productivity was short-lived. In '09, Turner played in just 11 games and had 871 yards on 178 carries (10 TDs). His Football Outsiders total value ranking fell to 16th, sandwiched between the likes of Ronnie Brown and Willis McGahee. Turner appeared to rebound last season (334 carries, 1,371 yards, 12 TDs), but his total value was still 16th.
Which brings us to Scout Inc.'s Matt Williamson, who writes on ESPN.com that Turner's "best days might already be behind him and (he is) someone who will never be an asset in the passing game."
Williamson thinks that Gartrell Johnson, a former fourth-rounder (coincidentally drafted by the Chargers), could step in for Turner if given the opportunity. "Johnson very well could end up not making this roster, but if he were to stick and be thrust into a prominent role, this hard-nosed power back might surprise."
The bottom line: the Falcons invested a lot of money in Turner, money that could have been better allocated. There's no denying that Turner was great during the '08 season, but he's been something less than that in the two years since. The NFL is full of running backs who are, on average, as productive as Turner but at a fraction of the cost.
Look no further than the guy on the cover of Madden 12 for proof.
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