Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Backs In Motion

NFL.com analyst Pat Kirwan says two impressive groups of talent could collide this offseason, leaving interested teams considering a deep pool of available running backs


Even with Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson getting a franchise tag, the market for backs could be deep in both free agency and the draft

(by Pat Kirwan, NFL.com Senior Analyst)

The Pro Bowl is over and now the NFL will turn its attention to the four talent pools. New coaches, new front-office executives, free agents and draft picks will dominate the NFL scene for the next few months. All of the decisions made in all four of these areas are interconnected.

For example, Romeo Crennel is the new head coach in Cleveland, and there are certain types of players he's going to want on his team. Jeff Garcia already has been released, and some Cleveland players who were safe under the last regime soon will be shown the door. New Cleveland general manager Phil Savage always has believed in building through the draft, and the Browns' position close to the top of most rounds definitely will be a factor in how players come off the board.

The 49ers have a new coach/GM in Mike Nolan. There's no doubt the players he will pursue in free agency and the draft will be different than if Dennis Erickson and Terry Donahue still were running the team. Miami has a new leader in Nick Saban; he will have clear-cut ideas about the players he wants.

Seattle doesn't have a new president yet; that might influence the kind of players the Seahawks will go after. Can they get all of their marquee players re-signed? Do they want to get them re-signed? Some other team rumored to be looking for a quarterback in the draft might change its plans completely if Seattle fails to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck. Lots of observers feel the 49ers and Cardinals might be looking for a QB.

Simply put, there are a lot of forces at work right now that make the ability to predict the future quite difficult. But there are a few things to consider as we inch closer to the big picture the offseason puzzle presents us this time of year.

With free agency close to starting up, teams have to blend the information they have about the draft with the information they have about their own free agents and the other players soon to be on the market. Since free agency and the draft don't start simultaneously, conjecture, comparisons and evaluations are blended together so good decisions can be made.

Let's take a look at one position and see how complex the puzzle can be for teams around the league. At this point, there are 56 running backs and fullbacks scheduled to become free agents on March 2. Some teams are feverishly trying to sign their players or use a franchise tag to prevent them from hitting the open market. A franchise tag for a running back means a club must have $6.3 million of cap space for that player alone. Some teams won't have the space to use the tag, or they have more pressing needs at other positions. Clubs considering "tagging" their running back are investigating how good the college backs compare to their player and how well their player compares to the other potential free agents.

Some of the following players will hit the open market. When they do, they will affect the available draft talent at running back:

  • Shaun Alexander (Seattle) * Rudi Johnson (Cincinnati)* * LaMont Jordan (Jets) * Anthony Thomas (Chicago) * Edgerrin James (Indianapolis) * Derrick Blaylock (Kansas City)(* Note: The Bengals used their franchise tag on Johnson on Tuesday.)

Those are only a few of the quality players who MIGHT be available in a few weeks. To further complicate matters, Travis Henry (Buffalo) could be on the trading block, which might have an additional affect on the big picture.

This is a year when two impressive talent pools might collide in the next month or two. The above-mentioned veterans combined for 49 rushing touchdowns in 2004, and they are proven star players.

The draft has three running backs projected as top-10 picks. Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams from Auburn, along with Cedric Benson from Texas, make this an excellent draft for running backs. But if the teams that need a starting runner like Miami, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Arizona or maybe even Philadelphia react during free agency to the first pool of talent, then these college stars will drop in the selection process. Of course, if the teams that presently own the rights to the future free agents lose their RB or decide to go in another direction, then new teams move into the draft business.

Seattle easily could find itself out of luck with Alexander, who led the NFC in rushing, because it has 15 other unrestricted free agents to re-sign. Thomas didn't fit in with the last offensive coordinator in Chicago, and if he doesn't return, Chicago has options in the draft at the No. 4 spot.

So as front-office people, scouts and coaches convene this week and next week to paint the picture at the running-back position, there are numerous ways many teams can go.

With such a wealth of talent in the draft and the potential for a large free-agent pool, Auburn's Williams volunteered to play in the Senior Bowl for the South squad, which the Tampa Bay staff coached. The Bucs usually have liked veteran players in the past, but their salary-cap situation might cause them to pass on unrestricted free agents and build through the draft. Williams wanted to make sure the Tampa Bay coaches fell in love with his talent and desire to play for them.

Here's an initial breakdown of the top three running backs in the draft that will be brought to the attention of NFL coaches as they compare the young, unproven talent to the proven, veteran talent that will hit the market.

CEDRIC BENSON, TEXAS: A powerful inside runner who makes his living between the tackles. His style is similar to his idol, former Texas running back Ricky Williams. Say what you want about Williams' off-field problems -- he was an effective NFL runner, and Benson looks like he could be the same. There isn't enough information to say he has the receiver skills the West-Coast-preaching coaches look for in a back, but he can make a defender miss in a short area and has some burst to separate. LaMont Jordan runs with power and might have better hands. Anthony Thomas is a power back and might come a lot cheaper. Travis Henry (if the trade price is right) also could influence how high Benson will go in this draft.

RONNIE BROWN, AUBURN: Brown gained some momentum late in his college season and it has continued into this draft-evaluation process. He is versatile and, at this point, is considered an above-average receiver. At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, he can play in every down-and-distance situation, but he might also find himself compared to Edgerrin James, Travis Henry or even Derrick Blaylock by teams that can't spend big bucks.

CARNELL WILLIAMS, AUBURN: Williams is a return specialist as well as an excellent West Coast back. He scored 29 touchdowns in the past two years, played for Gruden in the Senior Bowl and could be an answer for Seattle if it loses Alexander.

By April 1, it will be easy to sort out where the running backs in the draft probably will wind up, but right now it is a much more complex issue. The one thing for certain is this is a good year to get a starting running back because of the number of quality players in the talent pool. Then, of course, there is always the reality that the Patriots gave up only a second-round pick for Corey Dillon, or the Broncos seem to find good running backs late in the draft or late in free agency. Trends in the running-back market also will be discussed in the meetings leading up to decisions about how to blend the draft and the veterans.

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