Lookin' for Love: Running Backs

You never know. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

It’s happened to the best of us, hasn’t it?

We’re with our significant others for a nice evening out, perhaps dinner and a show, or maybe a few drinks at a romantic, secluded bar. A nice chance to relax, get away from the stress of everyday life, and remind ourselves how lucky we are to have found someone who accepts our Patriots mania and puts up with the 5 months of Sundays every year when we are all basically inaccessible. We all need a little romance in our lives, and having the occasional date night is a great way to fan the flames of love. So we make time for each other, get all dolled up, and hit the town.

All is going great. Sparks are flying. Emotions are running high. Love is in the air. But then, out of the corner of our eye, we spot someone else. Someone very attractive, sidled up to the bar dressed to kill and just looking for someone nice to steal away from their beau for a whirlwind trip to Barbados.

Nothing ever comes of it, of course. There may be some furtive glances exchanged, maybe a smile or two, and perhaps a brief but enthusiastic game of "I wonder what would happen if…", but that’s pretty much it. We quickly go back to the one we love and hope we haven’t been caught red handed checking out someone else. And even if you are busted, hopefully you are with someone who is secure enough in the relationship to not care if your eyes occasionally wander.

The point of this story is that even if you are happily involved with someone, and even if you don’t see yourself ever going anywhere, there’s never any harm in just looking. It's a natural human behavior to check others out, be it the cute bartender/waitress, the pool boy, or the supermodel wife of a certain dimple-chinned quarterback. Sometimes you just need to see what else is out there, even if for no other reason than it makes you appreciate what you have at home. There’s a BIG difference between looking at the menu and ordering off of it, and as long as you are able to separate the two, you’ll never come home to find all of your stuff on the lawn and all four of your car tires slashed.

And that's pretty much the situation that the New England Patriots are in regarding the running back position. I imagine that the Patriots are fairly happy with who they have at running back. They are already in talks to re-sign BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead is still under contract, and 2011 draft picks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley both showed some proimise in the opportunities they were given last season. With all of the other needs this team has, I really don’t see the Pats making any major moves in free agency to pick up another back.

There are definitely a few sexy picks out there, though. And it definitely can’t hurt to look, right?

OUT OF MY LEAGUE

These are running backs who, if they even hit the open market, are going to get a huge payday from a RB-needy team. However, the odds of them going anywhere are slim, and the odds of them landing in New England are even slimmer.

Ray Rice. Rice isn’t going anywhere. He is the cornerstone of Baltimore’s offense and one of the best running backs in the league. Rice is looking for a long-term contract, and is likely to get one, but he also is on record saying that he will gladly sign his franchise tender should the Ravens decide to go that route. He is definitely staying in Baltimore, and even if he wasn’t, the Patriots aren’t going to pay him what he is clearly worth.

Matt Forte. Unlike Ray Rice, Forte would not be happy about getting franchised. However, that likely won’t stop the Bears from franchising him if they can’t work out a larger contract. Forte was the lone bright spot in what was a fairly weak Bears offense last year, and I can’t foresee a situation where Chicago allows him to test the open market. If he should hit free agency for whatever reason, he is definitely the kind of back Bill Belichick covets – runs inside and outside, catches passes, and blocks very well – so he may garner interest. However, Chicago’s desire to keep him along with the money he is going to want makes Forte as a Patriot a real long shot.

Arian Foster. Foster is a restricted free agent who is well worth the first round compensation. The only question mark here is whether the Texans decide to franchise Foster or Mario Williams. My guess is that Houston will franchise Williams while negotiating a long-term deal with Foster. If the Texans are going to build on the momentum they gained this past season, they are going to need Foster in their backfield. He is staying in Houston.

SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…

These running backs may be available for the right price, and they could work as part of New England's backfield rotation. Overall, though, these running backs are either not a big enough step up in talent to warrant picking up, or they are likely going to go elsewhere for more money.

Cedric Benson.

Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Benson is a solid, but not great, running back who will produce and provide another veteran presence in a young backfield that will likely be without Kevin Faulk for the first time since he came into the league in 1972. Benson is effective on the goal line and rarely fumbles, and isn’t likely to garner too much interest around the league - meaning the Patriots could get him very cheap. Benson could be the next running back looking to revive his career in New England, and the change of scenery may help motivate him to produce.

Why he won’t play for the Patriots in 2012: Benson is, at this point, a step down from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Signing him would also impede the development of the young running backs and I don’t think he really has the skillset to be a solid part of the New England backfield. If it came down to Benson or Benny, I’d take Benny every day of the week, even if it costs a little more to keep him. If the Patriots do decide to take a back via free agency, I think that they will look at more of a goal-line bruiser to compliment their small, speedy players, and Benson just isn’t that guy.

Overall: If he wants to come to the Patriots for very little money and is willing to toe the line, I’m not against it. But New England is wiser to spend their money elsewhere and Benson is not the guy to help win this team another Super Bowl. I don’t see it.

Ryan Grant

Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Grant suffered from Drew Bledsoe syndrome last season, going down with an injury and losing his job to the talented James Starks. When Starks was hurt this past year, Grant stepped in and showed that he can still play. However, with Starks and Brandon Saine on the roster (both of whom are cheaper to retain), I don’t see Grant back with the Packers - but it isn’t because he can’t run anymore. Grant will have a lot to prove this season, wherever he lands, and he will run hard. He can be a 1,000 yard rusher given the right environment , and I feel like he would thrive in the New England locker room.

Why he won’t play for the Patriots in 2012: I really haven’t seen anything from Grant that I haven’t also seen, in flashes, from Stevan Ridley. They are roughly the same size, are both the same kind of runner, but Ridley is younger and still under contract. Grant doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in this backfield, and running backs who blow out ankles and knees never completely get it all back when they recover.

Overall: I’d rather give Ridley more time to develop as the primary back, and I don’t know why they would bring Ryan Grant in. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

Michael Bush

Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Bush is a powerful, downhill back that has that rare combination of size and speed that so many running backs lack in the NFL. He filled in for Darren McFadden admirably, as the Oakland running game didn’t miss a beat when DMC went down. Bush is young and fairly fresh, as he has primarily been in a backup role up until this point in his career. I have done zero research on it, but I feel comfortable saying that the Raiders’ cap situation isn’t great, meaning distributing the wealth may be a problem. Plus, having once again traded away most of their picks for 2012, they are going to need to spend money elsewhere in free agency if they want to stay competitive. With McFadden their clear-cut primary back, Bush could be allowed to depart for greener pastures. I see shades of Corey Dillon in Bush, and I would have no problem with the Patriots spending some money on him. The Bush/Ridley/Vereen/Woodhead committee allows for the Patriots to adjust their offensive scheme to counter pretty much any defense in the league.

Why he won’t play for the Patriots in 2012: Bush is going to want – and likely get – a big payday somewhere, and I don’t see the Patriots as the highest bidder – not with so many glaring needs on the defensive side. I’ve also already heard that retaining Bush is relatively high on Oakland’s offseason priorities list, so there’s a chance he doesn’t even hit the open market. Signing Bush also limits the development of the younger backs already on the roster who are playing for much less money than Bush is going to command.

Overall: I love Michael Bush and think he would make a great Patriot, but it’s tough to justify spending that kind of money on a fairly well-stocked position when it can go towards finding a legit pass rusher or another corner. I don’t think that signing Bush represents a poor personnel move or a bad business decision, but I think the Pats drafted two running backs last year for a reason and bringing in a big money veteran right now doesn’t make sense.

MOM, DAD, THERE’S SOMEONE I’D LIKE YOU TO MEET…

While I still don’t see the Patriots signing any of these players, for the sake of this article I’m going to operate under the assumption that New England will in fact be looking to acquire a free agent running back to round out the stable. With that in mind, here is who I would like to see them pursue.

Peyton Hillis

Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Hillis is coming off a relatively lousy season where he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry – a significant step down from his breakout 2010 campaign. I honestly don’t know what his relationship with the Browns is or whether or not they will even offer to re-sign him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he became a free agent and was available on the cheap. Hillis would make for a great goal line/short yardage back and could easily make the transition to fullback in Jumbo sets. I for one would be very happy never to see Tommy B’s spine get snapped again as he jumps over a pile of bodies on 4th and goal; Hillis would be a TD machine inside the 5 and make the playaction to the tight ends extremely effective.

Why he won’t play for the Patriots in 2012: Even when healthy, Hillis just wasn’t all that effective last year. Running back, more than any other position, has a huge dropoff factor between one season and the next, and it’s possible that Hillis has hit that cliff. Big backs that rely on bouncing off tacklers as opposed to making them miss always have shorter shelf-lives than the more elusive backs, and Hillis may have already run out of gas. Plus, there are bound to be at least a few teams interested in him, and if it comes down to either spending money on a situational running back or on acquiring some depth at safety, I’ll take the latter.

Overall: I think Hillis could work very well on this team provided he’s willing to take a reduced role as the short yardage back and sign for less money than he thinks he’s worth. Again, not sure what Cleveland is going to do here, but the Patriots could definitely use a bruiser that can pick up the first on 3rd and 2. I’d at least keep him on the radar.

Mike Tolbert

Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012- Tolbert is a slightly more versatile version of Peyton Hillis. While he isn’t as big, he runs better routes and is better in pass protection than Hillis is. He’s pretty much a guaranteed touchdown from inside the 3 is an extremely powerful runner. San Diego may try and re-sign him as a compliment to Ryan Matthews, but with Jacob Hester offering a similar skillset at a much cheaper price, Tolbert could be shown the door. If he does, he would enhance New England’s smaller backfield and cause real problems running behind Logan Mankins and Nate Solder.

Why he won’t play for the Patriots in 2012: Unlike Hillis, I feel like Tolbert will receive a lot of interest – and money - should he become a free agent. Versatile, powerful backs are hard to come by, and I can see Tolbert lured to a team where he gets to take on more of a primary role as opposed to just short-yardage situations. All New England can really offer at this point is a decent contract and the chance to compete for a Super Bowl. While those are two great selling points, a lot of money and the opportunity to be the main running back will likely have more appeal.

Overall: Between Hillis and Tolbert, I’ll take Tolbert. He’s a more complete back and is accustomed to a reduced, goal line/short yardage role. He is also a hard worker and a team player who hasn’t had any issues with the Chargers. I think he would fit in well in New England and I hope the Patriots nab him if he is available for the right price and the interest is mutual.

IF NEITHER OF US ARE MARRIED BY THE TIME WE’RE 40…

Lesser FAs that New England could pick up on the cheap. Of all the free agents I have mentioned so far, I’d say that one of the players below has the best odds for getting a contract and entering training camp with the chance to compete for a roster spot.

NOTE: I put LT on this list because I think he’ll retire. I also don’t like him, and I can’t see him wanting to sign with the Patriots (and vice versa). Plus, having to root for him would really chap my ass.

Chester Taylor
Jason Snelling
Jerome Felton
Tashard Choice
Spencer Larsen
LenDale White
Maurice Morris
Kevin Smith
Derrick Ward
Jackie Battle
Thomas Jones
Le'Ron McClain
Steve Slaton
LaDainian Tomlinson
Rock Cartwright
Ronnie Brown
Owen Schmitt
Justin Forsett
Moran Norris
Jerious Norwood
Cadillac Williams
Earnest Graham
Ahmard Hall
Tim Hightower



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