Out of all the major sports, the NFL has the most restrictions on player movement. This is most obvious in the franchise tag, instituted in 2007, which allows teams to keep a player on the roster for the cost of a non-negotiable, single-year contract worth the average of the top five positional contracts in the league. New Orleans Saints tight end (and superstar) Jimmy Graham just got franchised, which will give him a one year deal worth just over $7 million dollars. Not a bad deal if you can get it, but a far cry from the $12.1 million he’d be making as a franchised wide receiver, and as Graham — and anyone who plays fantasy football — will tell you, he’s just as much of a wide receiver as anyone on the Saints.
Usually, free agency in the NFL comes down to unwanted assets. The Denver Broncos made it all the way to the Super Bowl on the back of an ancient quarterback with a noodle arm who was released by his original team as soon as they drafted his successor. As Broncos’ front office executive John Elway told ESPN, ”With free agency, we’re always trying to get ourselves in a position where when we go into the draft, we don’t have a glaring weakness where we are reaching for somebody in the draft.”
While the running back has fallen slightly out of fashion in an NFL that places a heavy emphasis on the air game, there are still many more faces to find new teams by the time the negotiation period officially starts on March 8 and when free agency officially begins on March 11. As unrestricted free agents under the current NFL collective bargaining agreement, these players can sign new contracts with their most recent team at any time this week.
5. LeGarrette Blount, last played with the New England Patriots
No one typifies the unwanted asset better than LeGarrette Blount, a talented, controversial North-South back — released from Tampa Bay after failing to show up on time for practice or stay awake during meetings – caught on with the New England Patriots and contributed mightily to their 2013 playoff run, talking to the press with a smile that, courtesy of the unimpeachable Charles P. Pierce, “reaches into the immediate future, which is certainly brighter than the immediate past. In many ways, LeGarrette Blount would rather the rest not be history, because he was history before he was famous, and history is not what it used to be.”
For the 27-year-old running back, who has made the lowest possible salary for his circumstance in the NFL, this might be his last opportunity to grab a large paycheck before he hangs up his cleats. The former Oregon Duck ran for 772 yards and 7 touchdowns over 16 games during the 2013 season. The Patriots have fellow running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley under contract until 2014, and also roster running back Brandon Boldin.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew, last played with the Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones-Drew, the offensive centerpiece of a historically abysmal 2013 Jacksonville squad, has fallen hard and fast in the last two years. Once a model of consistency, breaking 1,300 yards for three seasons straight between 2009-2011, Jones-Drew lost his 2012 season to a contract dispute as well as a foot injury, and has never been the same since.
Even though he appeared in all but one game last year, Jones-Drew was a shell of his former self, tallying up a mere 803 yards, the first full season he’d failed to break 1,000 since 2008. Now, almost 29, the feature back is poised to field a bunch of offers that would’ve been insulting two years ago. Back in December, ESPN reported that the Jags were going to let Jones-Drew test free agency, and we’ve heard nothing different from the organization since.
3. Darren McFadden, last played with the Oakland Raiders
If Jones-Drew is looking at a reduction on offers based on his injury history, then future earnings must look bleak for talented but fragile running back Darren McFadden. McFadden, drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, may be one of the best running backs in the league; he’s run for over or almost 1,000 yards every season he’s been in the league since 2010. That is, if you prorate him for 16 games until this season when he saw his production usurped by Rashad Jennings and finished with a mere 379 yards over 10 games.
The key word to that last number is prorated. McFadden’s never played in more than 13 NFL games in a single season, and like Bill Russell once wrote, “durability is part of what makes a great athlete.” With the Raiders reportedly making Jennings the priority re-signee, McFadden’s days in the silver-and-black may be over as Run-DMC lands in greener pastures.
2. Knowshon Moreno, last played with the Denver Broncos
No player on this list was helped more by free agency than Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno. With the arrival of a finally healthy Peyton Manning — who led one of the most productive NFL offenses ever – Moreno was able to throw off some “eh, he’s all right” numbers in his early seasons with a monster 2013 campaign. Breaking 1,000 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns for the first time in his career, Knowshon hit free agency at exactly the right time from a player’s perspective. He played in all 16 games, his team went all the way to the Super Bowl, and he did it without being the focal point of the team’s offense, only averaging 15 carries a game. His price tag will probably never be higher.
Denver’s well aware of it, too. A report from the Denver Post revealed that Elway and company are quite happy to let Moreno bounce from the Mile High City. Last year’s draft brought the Montee Ball and, together with CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos’ running corps is deep. Denver will also be looking for another back from free agency.
1. Ben Tate, last played with the Houston Texans
In the modern NFL era, it would be a struggle to find a team that best exemplified the twin snakes of parity and reversed fortunes than the 2013 Houston Texans. At the end of 2012, the Texans found themselves fresh off back-to-back playoff appearances — a welcome change for the franchise, which joined the NFL in 2002 and spent the majority of the 2000s as a jokey also-ran. They struck gold with undrafted free agent Arian Foster, star wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive monster J.J. Watt, and perfectly manageable (until suddenly collapsing harder than Syria) quarterback Matt Schaub. Things were looking up.
Then 2013 hit, and suddenly they were the worst team in the league, compiling a 2-14 record on the way to the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Behind Foster, their running back of the present and future is Ben Tate. Currently a backup with the skills of a starter (he’s got a career 4.7 yards per carry, which is really, really good), Tate is going to get paid this free agency period. He’s the best back available, and everyone knows it.