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Best fits for top free-agent running backs

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Last year's list of free-agent running backs was a mild disaster. Not this time around.

Headlined by DeMarco Murray -- this NFL's leading rusher -- the open market is littered with a rich cast of runners armed with plenty of starting experience.

Running backs have watched their value dive-bomb in free agency, but players like Murray, C.J. Spiller and Mark Ingram have a chance to make some scratch come March 10.

Granted, we ranked these runners without knowing what matters most: Where they'll land. Scheme fit, surrounding talent and starting opportunity will define who thrives or fizzles in 2015.

With that in mind, we've listed our logical landing spots for the best of the bunch:

The Top Four


1. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

With Dez Bryant a priority for Dallas, Murray looms as the odd man out. The fourth-year back was a revelation last season, pounding his way for an NFL-best 1,845 yards behind the league's top offensive line. The Cowboys ran him into the ground with an outrageous 497 touches, a workload that might scare teams away from a player with a colorful injury history. If healthy, last season's Offensive Player of the Year looms as an immediate difference-maker.

Free-agent fit: The Colts have been touted as a suitor for Adrian Peterson, but Murray would amount to the next best thing for a team ready to move on from Trent Richardson.

2. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

Mathews struggled through an injury-riddled autumn, but the Chargers back is just one season removed from a 1,255-yard campaign. If the Bolts let him walk, Mathews will go to market as a juicy option to pair with a proven passing-down specialist.

Free-agent fit: The Cardinals sit out there as another potential Peterson-chaser, but pairing Mathews with Andre Ellington would make for a serious upgrade in the desert.

3. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills

Plagued by injuries in recent seasons, Spiller has yet to match the 1,703 total yards he pumped out in 2012 under Chan Gailey -- one of the few coaches who knows how to use him.

Free-agent fit: No NFL landing spot makes more sense than the Jets. A Spiller-Gailey combo would wreak havoc on the AFC East, especially if New York retains Percy Harvin.

4. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

Niners coach Jim Tomsula gushed over Gore at the NFL Scouting Combine, and why not? Despite his age (31), the veteran looked sharp down the stretch in pulling off his eighth 1,000-yard campaign in nine years. If San Francisco doesn't want him, Gore will find a team willing to pay The Inconvenient Truth.

Free-agent fit: NFL Media's Albert Breer reported Gore and the Eagles are closing in on a three-year deal.

The best of the rest


5. Shane Vereen, New England Patriots: New England's passing-down specialist won't make the $5 million he's rumored to seek, but Vereen will draw interest coming off the first 16-game season of his career.

6. Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens: Forsett should arguably rank higher on this list, but teams can't be sure that his breakout campaign will carry over. If he doesn't return to Baltimore, Forsett is a match for any zone-blocking attack.

7. Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions: No running back generates more open-market hype. I'm not buying it this time around, but Bush remains an intriguing weapon in space for the right scheme.

8. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots: Coming off ACL surgery, Ridley won't break the bank. Still, he should find work as a power runner. His fumbling issues drove Bill Belichick nuts, but at just 26, Ridley has plenty of football left.

9. Roy Helu, Washington Redskins: Stuck behind Alfred Morris in Washington, Helu made the most of his third-down opportunities, shining as a screen-pass specialist and making a case for himself as a role player. 

Supporting cast


10. Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts
11. Ray Rice, no team
12. Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
13. Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons
14. Chris Johnson, New York Jets
15. Bilal Powell, New York Jets
16. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
17. Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins
18. Antone Smith, Atlanta Falcons
19. DuJuan Harris, Green Bay Packers

Bradshaw was Indy's top back last season, but injuries loom as an every-year issue. ... Wesseling pounded the table for Rice, saying the former Raven "looked like his burst was back" before last season's tumble from grace. Will anyone take a chance? ... The enigmatic Moreno remains an injury risk, but he'll find work as a camp body. ... Flaming out in Atlanta, Rodgers can only be seen as a role player. ... With his best days behind him, Johnson amounts to a potential headache who can't be counted on as a starter.

Powell gave his all in New York, but he only works in a committee backfield. ... McFadden played well in spurts last season, but his days as a fantasy difference-maker are over. ... If you need 3 yards, Thomas can do the trick. If you need 4, you're out of luck. ... Smith had a whopping six career carries before busting out with four touchdowns of 40-plus yards in 2014. The Falcons are interested in bringing him back. ... A one-time Mike McCarthy favorite, Harris was fully outplayed by James Starks behind Eddie Lacy last season.

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