There are good running backs, and bad running backs, but in free agency, nearly all running backs are bad running backs - especially the good ones.
That may sound like Lewis Carroll-esque gobbledygook, but it is largely true. Accomplished running backs often fetch indefensible prices in free agency, as the position is simply not worth very much. If you do delve into this market, the place to do it is often older, one-cut-and-go power backs or specialists - by which I mean pass-catchers and blitz-pickup guys. If you can buy a specific skill, that can be valuable. Let me explain further with some specific examples
One of the best running backs on the market is Tampa Bay's Doug Martin. The former Muscle Hamster and current Douggernaut is one of the most complete backs in the game. While he didn't win the "rushing title," coming up just 83 yards short of Purple People Beater Adrian Peterson, he also finished the season with 39 fewer carries than Peterson and had a 4.9 YPC to Peterson's pedestrian 4.5. Martin is an adequate receiver, decent in blitz pickup, and excels both inside and outside the tackles. At just 27 years of age, he hits the open market at exactly the right time to get paid in a big way, which is exactly why a team like the Packers should not be (and given Ted Thompson's proclivities, likely are not) interested.
High-priced every-down backs like Martin are essentially never worth the price of admission. Running plays, especially for the Packers, serve mainly as game-theory deterrents to keep defenses honest about the passing attack. The Packers want to run the ball just enough to make the passing game as efficient as possible, and no more. Consequently, the Packers should place greater value on things like pass blocking and receiving, which facilitates the actual meat of their offense.
It's easy to look at a player like Martin or Miami's Lamar Miller or Chicago's Matt Forte and see the very skilled every-down back as an asset to a team with a good passing offense. In Forte's defense, he is generally an asset in the passing game as well. However, this is often not the case. In the name of "balance," star backs often take too many touches for themselves. Doug Martin is a good player, and I do not want to sound like I'm bashing him, but he fits better on a team with a run-based offense and/or an excellent defense where he can contribute by shortening games. On the Packers, he simply wouldn't fit, while costing far too much money. Matt Forte might work out better, but he's about to turn 30, is likely to be expensive, and what you really want out of him is his passing game contributions. It would be great to have his blocking and receiving, but unfortunately the team that signs Forte will also pay for his running. If I may suggest an alternative...
Buying Skills, Not Players
There are a lot of intriguing free agent RBs, and while I am against signing almost any free agents, and especially running backs, it really comes down to price. If you can get a talent like Lamar Miller cheap enough I'm all for it, I just think it's very unlikely to happen. When shopping for RBs I prefer players with specific skills who don't have to be on the field the whole time. If they have a few warts to keep the price down, so much the better. A back that averages 3 yards per carry is a disaster if he's getting 20 carries, but if he's getting 5 efficient passing game targets and 1-2 carries, that's a different story. I like Jacquizz Rodgers as a potential 3rd-down back, but there are two guys I really like who have some warts, who appear largely unwanted, and who bring an important skill to the table.
The first is Pierre Thomas. Thomas is old at 32, and played for both the 49ers and Washington last season after a long and extremely productive career with New Orleans. Thomas has always been under-appreciated, and has secretly been one of the league's best all-around backs for years. He sports a career 4.6 YPC average and has excelled in the passing game. During Reggie Bush's tenure, Bush absorbed a lot of the receiving yards and 3rd-down work that should have rightfully stayed with Thomas, who was always superior in the passing game. Thomas has lost a step and isn't the runner he once was, but he's still an excellent receiver. Had he caught enough balls to qualify, he would have ranked 9th in Football Outsiders' receiving DVOA in 2015, which is exactly in line with recent career norms. He was 10th in 2014, 13th in 2013, and 8th in 2012. Thomas had trouble finding a team last season and he would likely cost almost nothing. He actually averaged 4.7 yards per carry for Washington in limited action and can still command respect while running as an added bonus. But Thomas is only my 2nd favorite back.
The Best Receiving Back In Football
What if I told you that one of the the best receiving backs in football was cut by his team, that he's been described by many as "washed up," and that he is currently a street free agent, which makes him unlikely to command much money at all and a non-factorin compensatory draft pick calculations? What if I told you that for the last 4 years his numbers looked like this:
|Year||Receiving DVOA||Rank among RBs|
and that despite nearly always being the best receiving back on his team, he has frequently lost time to inferior players, including Reggie Bush? If I were Ted Thompson, I would take a good long look at Joique Bell.
Bell seems like he's been around forever and seems like he's taken a pounding, but this isn't actually true. Bell has only eclipsed 200 carries once in his career and he is younger than James Starks. Bell has suffered more frequent nagging injuries lately, but when on the field he has been extremely productive in the passing game. Last season Davante Adams caught 9 passes that gained 16 yards or more on 94 targets. Last season Joique Bell caught 9 passes that gained 16 yards or more on 27 targets. Bell has a somewhat well-earned reputation as a fumbler, and his pass-blocking can be troublesome, but there are some mitigating circumstances we should consider.
There is no excuse for putting the ball on the ground, but using Bell as a specialist would reduce the odds of him turning it over, and focusing on the passing game would keep him away from the big hits of the big bodies on defense. Regarding his pass protection, it's important to remember that Bell has been stuck in Detroit his entire career, and for much of it they have had one of football's poorer offensive lines. Picking up blitzes is often about identifying the right guy to chip, and bad lines can often make blocking backs look silly by throwing too many rushers at them. I don't think he's great by any stretch, but I suspect he is closer to average than a lot of metrics indicate.
However, the best thing about Bell is that he's been an outstanding receiver, and especially skilled at turning short passes into long gains with one of the worst short-throwing quarterbacks in the league running the offense. Matthew Stafford excels at winging the ball out to the Calvin Johnsons of the world, but his footwork and unreliable arm slot lead to some truly comical short throws. Stafford is especially likely to come up short when targeting running backs, which hurts their catch rate and ability to generate yards after the catch. What Bell has pulled off in Detroit is a minor miracle.
Bell might be on the downside of his career and injuries could see him out of the league sooner rather than later, but all of that in addition to the fumbles makes him a perfect, cheap, buy-low candidate, and putting him behind the Packers' generally good offensive line with the best quarterback in the game could lead to Joique Bell being an extremely dangerous weapon. And if he busts he could likely be cut without incident. That's a gamble worth taking.
Here is one highlight against the Packers from earlier this season that illustrates his receiving and YAC ability, and check out another below.