- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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We are in the eighth week of NFL free agency, and the position to which it has been most unkind is running back. Due to the ever-increasing emphasis on passing offense and the punishing nature of the running back position, teams see less and less value in investing big money in the position. So as the calender flipped to May, a number of veteran running backs with pretty good résumés remained on the open market.
All four teams in our division could conceivably still be in the market for a veteran running back. The Washington Redskins continue to negotiate with Tim Hightower, who was last year's starter before he tore his ACL, and would like him to come back to front an otherwise young running back corps that leaned on 2011 draft picks Roy Helu and Evan Royster over the final weeks of the season. The New York Giants, having lost Brandon Jacobs to free agency, picked David Wilson in this year's first round, but given the youth of their backup plans behind starter Ahmad Bradshaw, it wouldn't be ridiculous for them to bring a veteran back into camp.
The Philadelphia Eagles whiffed on Ronnie Brown as LeSean McCoy's backup last year and have plenty of intriguing youngsters at the position now, but they don't know what to expect from Dion Lewis or Bryce Brown or Chris Polk. And even the Dallas Cowboys, with DeMarco Murray as the starter and veteran Felix Jones as the backup, could stand to add some depth.
So here's a look at the top 10 remaining free-agent running backs and what they might bring if one of our division's teams were to sign them.
Ryan Grant. Rushed for a total of 2,456 yards in 2008 and 2009 as the Packers' starting running back, but an injury in the 2010 season opener cost him that whole season. Showed flashes of his old form in 2011, averaging 4.2 yards on his 134 carries, and he's 29 years old. Might be looking to start somewhere. He was talking to the Lions this week.
Thomas Jones. The graybeard of this group, Jones will turn 34 in August, and his days as a full-time starter are behind him. Might still be able to help in the passing game, but as a runner he'd be well down the depth chart. Well-regarded veteran locker room presence who might help the development of the younger guys who are getting the carries in a place like Washington.
Joseph Addai. Another 29-year-old who's struggled with injuries and probably needs a part-time role to better his chances of staying healthy. Even in his prime as an Indianapolis Colt, Addai was never a 20-carry-per-game guy. His value there was mainly as a receiver and as a blocker in the passing game. But there are some teams in this division that might be looking for a part-time guy who's good at that stuff.
Cedric Benson. He topped 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons as the workhorse back in Cincinnati. Some say he chafed at the part-time role that developed for him as the 2011 season wore on, but at this point in the market he must see that a part-time role is his only option. Has had off-field issues that could scare teams away, but aside from that he might be a nice fit with Bradshaw in New York.
Tim Hightower. The Redskins loved him as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker, and would have him back in a second as their starter if they were sure about his knee. But he hasn't signed yet, and a recent visit to New England indicates he's looking for more than the Redskins are willing to offer.
LaDainian Tomlinson. One of the best ever at the position and a possible Hall of Famer, Tomlinson could be looking at retirement as he comes up on his 33rd birthday next month. But if he wants to play and can approach the level he showcased in 2010 with the Jets, he's the kind of guy who'd get a young running back's attention.
Cadillac Williams. Another 30-year-old for whom injuries have been the dominant story in recent years. He can be a more than productive backup with starter potential if he can stay on the field, but he generally can't.
Ronnie Brown. Only twice in the past five years has the 30-year-old Brown had 200 carries in a season. He was never able to assert himself as the starter in Miami, and as the Eagles' backup last year he was pretty much a complete disaster. It's going to be tough for Brown to sell himself as a reliable backup with what he showed in 2011.
Justin Forsett. He's small and quick and doesn't have a lot of miles on him. He won't turn 27 until October. The question is how much you can get out of him, and in what role. He's not a power runner, but he's good at finding holes. He accelerates well but doesn't have great top-end speed. He catches the ball well but isn't much help as a blocker in the passing game. Someone will sign him, and if they find the right role he could be a good change-up back for someone. It just feels as though each NFC East team already has someone like him.
Maurice Morris. Morris is 32 but has never been a regular feature back. He's been under 100 carries in each of the past three years, and of all of the backs on this list he has the most experience in the kind of part-time role we're talking about. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and doesn't mind playing special teams. He will find a home.
We are in the eighth week of NFL free agency, and the position to which it has been most unkind is running back. Due to the ever-increasing emphasis on passing offense and the punishing nature of the running back position, teams see less and less value in investing big money in the position.