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The RB Free Agent Market

Thomas Jones is one of the few big name free agent running backs in 2010. (Photo from sportaphile.com)

The 2010 off-season features a long list of free agent running backs. Some familiar faces including LaDanian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, and Brian Westbrook will all be looking for new homes this summer.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are notorious for being active in free agency over the past few years, and I expect them to continue this trend in 2010. Whether or not they’ll pursue a free agent running back is another question. Belichick has a knack for bringing in veteran players and reigniting their careers.  Guys like Roosevelt Covlin, Junior Seau, Randy Moss, Shawn Springs, and Fred Taylor headline a list of players who have made Foxboro their home in the twilight of their careers. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Belichick made a push to acquire an older running back like LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Thomas Jones.

The Patriots used a committee of running backs in 2010. Laurence Maroney led the team with 757 yards rushing while Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris chipped in with over 300 yards apiece. Together, the three combined for about the amount of yardage a franchise back like Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice did.

The key to the puzzle is Laurence Maroney. Maroney, who was in Belichick’s doghouse for much of last season, hasn’t turned into the player the Patriots thought he would become. If the Patriots decide to cut Maroney, they will probably look to add another back in free agency. However, if they keep Maroney, they’ll use him as the featured back, and work a rookie draft pick in gradually throughout the season. Either way the Patriots are going to draft a running back in the first or second round.

Here is a closer look at some of the free agent running backs (in no particular order) the Patriots could be considering adding to the committee:

LaDanian Tomlinson

At age 30, LT is younger than Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and Sammy Morris. However, his production has significantly declined over the past couple of seasons. In his first eight seasons, LT rushed for over 1,000 yards. In 2003 and 2006 he averaged over 5.0 yards per carry, and scored 28 touchdowns in 2006. He also caught at least 50 passes every year from 2001 to 2008. But in 2009 LT caught only 20 passes and rushed for only 730 yards. The once heralded San Diego back averaged a dismal 3.3 yards per carry last season.  After multiple knee surgeries and almost 3,000 carries, the once explosive playmaker appears to have lost a step. Many around the league have written LT off. Will Belichick give him a chance to prove his critics wrong? I doubt it, especially considering the two hate each other. Other than Peyton Manning, LT is probably the most despised player amongst Patriots fans.

Thomas Jones

In the wake of rookie Shonn Greene’s coming out party in the 2009/2010 NFL Playoffs, the New York Jets released Thomas Jones who is coming off a 1,402 yard 14-touchdown season. At 32, Jones is older than LT, but he had a much better 2009-2010 campaign. Jones also has almost 1,000 less carries than LT, and doesn’t have the surgically repaired knees either. In his past two seasons combined Jones has rushed for almost 3,000 yards and found the end zone 27 times. Clearly this guy still has some gas left in his tank. Jones is a powerful back and his built to carry the ball consistently on first and second down. Realistically he will probably be out of the Patriots price range. It’s too bad because he would be a great filler if they decide to cut Maroney. Then again, 2010 is an uncapped year. So who knows what will happen.

Brian Westbrook

Brian Westbrook is the type of back that thrives in a past-first offense like the Patriots run. He did so in Philadelphia for eight seasons, rushing for almost 6,000 yards and catching passes out of the backfield from Donovan McNabb for another 3,790. At 5’10″, 203 lbs. Westbrook is a smaller back and can’t be counted on to carry the load. He would fill a role similar to the one held by Mr. Reliable Kevin Faulk, and for this reason, it seems unlikely the Patriots will sign him. The Patriots may also shy away from Westbrook after his recent streak of concussions. One more big hit could end Westbrook’s career for good.

Chester Taylor

Chester Taylor, overlooked the past few years while playing second-fiddle to Adrian Peterson, is a poor man’s Brian Westbrook. He’s a solid option on third down who can catch passes out of the backfield, and make big plays in the open field with his quickness and ability to change direction in the blink of an eye. Taylor doesn’t have Westbrook’s career numbers, but he also doesn’t come with the concussion issues. And to be fair, his resume isn’t bad. In eight seasons playing for the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings, Taylor has rushed for 4,396 yards, averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and has over 2,000 yards receiving. He’ll also be cheaper than Jones and Westbrook. If the Patriots were to consider bringing in someone to compete with Faulk, I think they’d look at Taylor before Westbrook.

Darren Sproles

The Chargers decided not to use their franchise tag on 5 ft. 6 Darren Sproles. Some think Sproles could start in a pass-first offense, despite never rushing for more than 400 yards in a season. Unlike the other free agent running backs Sproles is young (26) and brings far more explosiveness to the table. The Patriots have power backs in Taylor and Morris, and they could certainly use more speed on offense. For these reasons, Sproles has to be attractive to the Patriots. However, like Thomas Jones, Sproles will be looking for a fat contract.

  • Other significant unrestricted free agent running backs include Mike Bell (New Orleans) and Jamal Lewis (Cleveland).

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