For the second straight year, no running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. And in free agency, no ball-carrier signed for more than $10.5 million with a team. No matter how you look at it, the league’s attitude towards running backs has changed, which puts even more of a premium on production.
So when it comes to the running back position, NFL could truly mean “Not For Long,” as there are a number of former high draft picks that face uncertain futures as they enter the final year of their rookie contracts. On the other end of the spectrum, there also are several veteran backs that find themselves on the wrong side of 30 and need to prove they are still capable of getting the job done when the ball is in their hands.
Here are 10 running backs that need to make the most of their opportunities in 2014:
1. Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts
The third pick of the 2012 draft still has two years left on his rookie contract, but could be running short on opportunities to prove his worth. Already on his second team, Richardson fared even worse after being traded to the Colts (2.9 ypc) than he did with the Browns (3.5 ypc). With Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (ACL) poised to return from injury, Richardson is certainly no lock to assume the starting job, even if the Colts gave up a first-round pick to get him in the first place.
2. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Richardson isn’t the only former All-American running back that played at Alabama struggling in the NFL either. Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, has yet to enjoy anywhere near the same level of success as a pro. Hampered by injuries, which have limited him to 37 games in his first three seasons, Ingram is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry as a Saint with 11 touchdowns. Darren Sproles is now in Philadelphia, but Ingram is still behind Pierre Thomas on the depth chart and could end up being passed by Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent last season, as well. Not exactly an ideal situation for someone who will be a free agent after the season.
3. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
McFadden will turn 27 prior to the start of the season, yet his career is at a crossroads. The fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft, McFadden has shown glimpses of his all-around ability, but injuries and inconsistency have been the hallmarks of his career to this point. A free agent this past offseason, McFadden ended up signing a one-year deal to return to the Raiders, even though the team signed Maurice Jones-Drew (see below). McFadden better make the most of the touches he gets this fall, or else they may end up being the last he sees in the NFL.
4. Chris Johnson, New York Jets
The Tennessee Titans released Johnson in April, eating the last year of his contract. A 2,000-yard rusher in 2009, Johnson didn’t sit on the market too long, signing a two-year pact with the Jets. Set to turn 29 in September, Johnson has been consistent (six straight 1,000-yard seasons) and durable (only one missed game) in his six seasons, but he’s also shown signs of slowing down. After averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his magical 2009 campaign, he has seen that steadily decline to just 3.9 last season. Johnson believes he’s still capable of carrying the load, which would certainly help take some of the heat off of both his head coach and his quarterback.
5. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Following a breakthrough 1,200-yard campaign in 2012, Ridley seemed primed to establish himself as one of the top running backs in the league. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on that success as ball-security issues (four lost fumbles), led to him taking a back seat to LeGarrette Blount, among others. Blount is now in Pittsburgh, but Ridley still has to prove to Bill Belichick that he can take care of the football when it’s in his hands. Not only do the Patriots have other options in the backfield, but Ridley also needs a strong season to help establish his value with free agency on the horizon.
6. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Ball is in just his second season and is the unquestioned starter in Denver. However, a lot of responsibility comes with that job, especially on a Super Bowl contender like the Broncos. With Knowshon Moreno in Miami, Ball should more than double his carries (120) from last season while also becoming a key part of the passing attack. Besides the production, however, Ball also has to prove that he’s capable of protecting the most important piece to this team – Peyton Manning. That’s especially the case if the Broncos have any hopes of getting another shot at the Lombardi Trophy in February.
7. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Checking in at No. 3 on this same list prior to last season, Mathews answered the bell to the tune of a career-best 1,255 yards rushing. In the playoffs, however, the durability questions arose again when an ankle injury limited his effectiveness in the Divisional Round loss in Denver. A free agent after the season, Mathews is still young enough (27) to cash in. However, it may not be with the Chargers since they signed former Colt Donald Brown to a three-year deal this offseason and just extended Danny Woodhead two more years.
8. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Similar to Mathews, Murray also was pretty high on the hot seat list last season. And like Mathews, Murray responded with a Pro Bowl-caliber season that saw him rush for 1,121 yards. Unfortunately, Murray also has his own durability questions, as he has yet to make it through a full season healthy. Another pending free agent, Murray’s future seems a little more secure considering he’s a year younger and the Cowboys don’t really have a better option right now on their roster. Still, Murray could make his agent’s (and his head coach’s) job a lot easier if he’s able to duplicate last season’s success.
9. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
If there is anyone who is ready to put 2013 behind them, it’s probably Rice. Besides seeing his production plummet (from 1,143 yards rushing in 2012 to 660), Rice also must still deal with the judicial system (NFL has suspended him for the first two games) when it comes to his indictment on third-degree aggravated assault stemming from a February incident involving his then-fiancée, now wife. With three more years remaining on his contract, the cost (cap hit/dead money) seems too high for the Ravens to simply cut their losses. But there’s no question that Rice needs to be at his best this season – both on the field and off of it.
10. Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons
After signing with Atlanta last offseason, Jackson thought he would finally get another shot to play in the postseason, while the Falcons thought they were solving their rushing woes. Unfortunately, neither goal was realized as Jackson rushed for career-worst 543 yards and the Falcons went from the top seed in the NFC playoffs to a 4-12 afterthought. At 31 years old and with more than 2,500 carries on his resume, the Falcons aren’t asking Jackson to be the workhorse he was earlier in his career. However, they do need more than 3.5 yards per attempt and seven total touchdowns they got from Jackson in 2013, especially if Atlanta wants to get back into the playoff discussion this season.
Other Names to Watch
Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in three straight seasons, but he’s 31 years old and a free agent after this year. The 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round and also have Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and a rehabbing Marcus Lattimore on the roster.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
Thrived (890 yards rushing, 10 total TDs) in relief of an injured C.J. Spiller last season. Spiller still appears to be a building block for the future, however, as Jackson is 33 years old and a free agent after this season.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders
The 2011 rushing champion tested the free agent market and ended up signing a three-year deal (just $1.2 million guaranteed) with Oakland. Are MJD’s best days behind him or can he return to Pro Bowl-caliber form?
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
This duo is part of a crowded backfield and each has already restructured their contract to help secure a roster spot. Still, the Panthers need to find a productive running game to help Cam Newton break in a new receiving corps and stay in contention in what figures to be a competitive NFC South.
Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
After tour of duty as Arian Foster’s backup in Houston, Tate gets his opportunity to carry the load in Cleveland. Contract (two years, only $2.5 million guaranteed) and the presence of rookie Terrance West are two indications that Tate may be on short leash in the Dawg Pound.