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Free-agency limbo puts some available RBs in tough spot

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Bob Donnan / US Presswire
DeAngelo Williams is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, but might find interest minimal when free agency begins.


The arrival of running back Chester Taylor in Chicago drew significant praise around this time last season. Although he was a secondary free-agent signing, the former Vikings backup would be the perfect complement to Matt Forte and give the Bears some needed experience in a young backfield.

That was pretty much the last we heard of Taylor's impact.

Derrick Ward was a similar signing by the Buccaneers in 2009. The reaction -- and the result -- were similar. Things didn't work out in Tampa and he is now a backup in Houston.

These examples are just additional salt being poured on the wounds of a talented crop of free-agent running backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Clinton Portis and Darren Sproles among them. They were viewed as expendable by their former teams and now must fight to prove their value on multiple fronts -- one being the so-so benefit former veteran free-agent running backs have delivered in the recent past.

Sure, LaDainian Tomlinson gave the Jets a huge boost last season. Thomas Jones, like Tomlinson a free-agent vet on the move, gave immeasurable leadership and toughness to the Chiefs. Yet, veteran free-agent running backs -- and this is a very solid group -- are in an uncomfortable limbo for several reasons.

Matt Marvin Gentry / US Presswire
A running back draft class led by Mark Ingram could provide an instant impact for needy teams.
Top five running backs in 2011 draft
Rk
Player
School
Grade
1
Alabama
8.3
2
Virginia Tech
7.6
3
Illinois
7.3
4
Kansas State
6.7
5
Oklahoma State
6.4
» Draft Tracker: All running back draft prospects

Most notably:

» Not a lot of teams need running backs.

» The teams that do have needs can re-stock through the draft, which, for the first time in years, takes place before free agency.

» Most of the free-agent running backs have some wear on them (although most are still potentially productive players).

» Teams aren't spending top dollar on big-money free-agent running backs, regardless of their resume.

To note, team officials declined to speak to free agency because of the rules in place due to the existing lockout, implemented by owners. There is no free agency during the lockout and rules determining restricted and unrestricted free agency aren't in place. Free agency as we've known it is in limbo anyway.

That's not a good place to be for these veteran free-agent running backs. That's especially true given that the draft could supply the demand and leave them much lower on teams' priority lists.

According to several personnel evaluators who did not mind speaking on draft prospects (although without being named), this is a very deep and good class of running backs. Alabama's Mark Ingram heads the group, but several teams like Illinois' Mikel Leshoure more. There are also several more players, who, if selected in the second round or later, could emerge as a lead ball carrier or a complementary back at a better financial value than signing a veteran would represent.

For teams filling that void with younger backs, who also typically get on the field quicker than at most other positions, pursing a veteran running back is less appealing.

There are positives to adding veterans -- experience, pass protection ability, leadership and familiarity with a relocated coach. Plus, with this year's dynamic group, each could add a something a team needs. Sproles brings a change of pace and return skills. Williams is a big-time threat who can get it done between the tackles. There is value there.

These players also could end up being interchangeable. The Dolphins could part ways with Brown and Ricky Williams, and opt for DeAngelo Williams. Then again, the Dolphins could draft Ingram or LeShoure.

Running back is still a vital position in the NFL. It's just not as easy to say that about the players at the position.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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