Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
In terms of volatility, the running back position in the NFL has no equal. Of course, turnover in the NFL and other sports leagues is at an all-time high, but still, no one position experiences as much change on a year-to-year basis as the running back position.
If you take a look at almost every NFL team’s depth chart today and look back between three to five years, you’ll almost certainly see a different running back’s name atop that list.
While the volatility of the position is a major issue for the backs themselves, it’s an ideal situation for NFL teams looking to secure talent at the position at marginal cost and risk.
For evidence of that, look no further than this year’s rich and deep crop of free agent running backs. Here are some of the hottest running backs on the free agent market this offseason.
1. Doug Martin – Last Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
‘The Muscle Hamster,’ or ‘The Dougernaut,’ or whatever you prefer to call Doug Martin headlines the 2016 free agent running back class. After back-to-back lackluster/injury-riddled campaigns in 2013 and 2014, Martin exploded back onto the scene last year and finished second in rushing to Adrian Peterson with 1,402 yards on the ground. Martin is also a threat out of the backfield and caught 33 passes last year as well. He’s still in the prime of his career, and if reports that the Buccaneers are unlikely to resign him are true, Martin will surely land a lucrative deal from a team in need of a bona fide No. 1 running back.
2. Lamar Miller – Last Team: Miami Dolphins
It wasn’t the banner year Miller put forth in 2014, but Miller was no scrub in 2015 either. While his yards per carry decreased from 5.1 to 4.5 on average and he rushed for 872 yards as opposed to 1,099, he still proved he has a nose for the end zone and found pay dirt eight times on the ground in 2015. On top of that, Miller had his best year out of the backfield with 47 catches to his name. Plus, Miller is still just 24 years old, meaning his best years are still in front of him.
3. Chris Ivory – Last Team: New York Jets
The 222-pound back has been a revelation for the Jets out of the backfield in his time in New York. Ivory rushed for a career-high 1,070 yard this past season and seven touchdowns as the lead back for the Jets. However, Ivory’s bruising, downhill running style took its toll on the back as well, leaving him banged up much of the season even though he managed to play in 15 of 16 games. If the Jets don’t re-sign Ivory, he’ll be highly sought after, but with his style of rushing and approaching the age of 28 it likely won’t result in much of a long term deal.
4. Matt Forte – Last Team: Chicago Bears
Forte may have hit the dreaded 30 mark this year, but you can rest assured that he can still carry the load for an NFL team when called upon to do so. Forte might be looked at as more of a platoon/50-50 split back this season but don’t doubt for a second that he can’t still be effective. Forte can still run with the best of them and is always a threat out of the backfield, making him a hot commodity for a team looking for a running back.
5. Chris Johnson – Last Team: Arizona Cardinals
After an unimpressive stint with the Jets that left both parties dissatisfied, it appeared that Johnson’s career has bottomed out. But a trip out west to the desert turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Johnson, who looked rejuvenated in Bruce Arians’ offense this past year. Johnson rushed for 814 yards in just 11 games before his season was derailed by a fractured tibia that ended his season. Still, Johnson proved he’s got something left in the tank and should be able to latch on with a team and make a difference even though he’s now on the wrong side of 30, much like Forte.
6. Alfred Morris – Last Team: Washington Redskins
It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ league, and with Matt Jones poised to steal the Redskins’ starting running back job Morris appears to be on the move this offseason. Since his breakout 2012 campaign in which he rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns, Morris has steadily been on the decline and his stock has followed suit. That being said, Morris is still a capable back and isn’t past the point of reverting to his 2012 form.
7. Ronnie Hillman – Last Team: Denver Broncos
Hillman and C.J. Anderson spent much of the year splitting carries, but Hillman was arguably the more productive back of the two during the regular season. However, Hillman had a less-than-memorable postseason to say the least. He rushed for just 54 yards on 32 carries, good for an average of just 1.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Anderson stepped up in the postseason and that could leave Hillman on the outside looking in when it comes to the Broncos backfield in 2016. However, Hillman’s star is definitely on the rise. He’s only 24, and rushed for a career-high 863 yards and seven touchdowns. Hillman won’t get a major contract, so he’ll be a low risk, potentially high reward signing for a team this offseason if the Broncos don’t retain his services.
8. Bilal Powell
While Powell is far from a household name, he emerged as the Jets’ number one option on third downs this season and probably secured himself a nice raise. Powell caught 47 passes out of the backfield and on top of that, ran for 4.5 yards per carry on limited touches. Powell could be in line for more work with the Jets if they don’t re-sign Ivory, but either way, look for Powell to make more of an impact wherever he ends up this season.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.