Commentary

No love for free-agent running backs

Analyzing the biggest losers in free agency; Bucs make quite the splash

Originally Published: March 19, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

After the first week of a frenzied free-agency period, let's examine the losers among players. I'm not analyzing individuals as much as I'm looking at the positions.

The wide receiver market was fast and furious. Three top receivers -- Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe and DeSean Jackson -- were blocked from hitting the market because of franchise tags, but Vincent Jackson got $11 million a year, plus Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan (Washington), Robert Meachem (San Diego), Marques Colston (re-signed with New Orleans) and Laurent Robinson (Jacksonville) all hit the jackpot. The receiver market went fast.

So did the guard market. Ben Grubbs (New Orleans) benefited from Carl Nicks' departure from the Saints to go to Tampa Bay. Evan Mathis (re-signed with Philadelphia), Adam Snyder (Arizona), Mike Brisiel (Oakland) and several others also did well.

Defensive ends and cornerbacks also scored in free agency, but the losers were the linebackers, defensive tackles, running backs and safeties.

The linebacker market totally surprised me. All looked good when D'Qwell Jackson got five years and $38.5 million to re-sign with the Browns. London Fletcher, Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, David Hawthorne and Jameel McClain were the top inside linebackers in free agency, and they all went into this week without deals.

The running back market was tough. Peyton Hillis had to settle for $3 million on a one-year contract from Kansas City, while Michael Bush, Mike Tolbert and Cedric Benson missed the first week of paydays.

As important as offensive tackles are to an offense, no starting tackle moved to another team. Jeff Backus (Detroit) and Jared Gaither (San Diego) re-signed, leaving Demetrius Bell, Kareem McKenzie and a weak crop of tackles scrambling for work.

Finally, the safety market was weak after the franchising of Dashon Goldson, Tyvon Branch and Michael Griffin. LaRon Landry is probably going to do a one-year deal, while Reggie Nelson and Jordan Babineaux ended up re-signing with their teams.

From the inbox

Q: With Calvin Johnson and Mario Williams, a lot is being made of the high total dollars over the lengths of the contracts ($120 million, $100 million). But it seems like players really only care about guaranteed money. How likely is it that Mario/Calvin will get every last penny of their contracts? Why do franchised players fight for what they consider "long-term commitments" when in fact they could get cut the next season and not play out the contract?

Jack in Seattle

A: You must understand why players need to land guarantees. Most teams and players think in three-year chunks. If a player can stay at the top of his game for three years, he has no worries about his money. After three years, though, teams may look to take money back if the player isn't at the top of his game. Free agents are usually 26 to 28 years old when they sign their big deals. As they get closer to 30, they can't have drop-offs because teams could ask for them to take pay reductions. The other reasons for guarantees are injuries. In baseball and basketball, all contracts are guaranteed. Football is a violent sport and it's hard to stay healthy through a six-year contract. So there's a good chance they won't get all their money.

Q: I'm a Packers fan who says "Brett who?" when it comes to Aaron Rodgers, but I was incensed with the running game last year. I want Green Bay to be very pro-active in free agency and the draft, possibly going for Michael Bush or one of the other hot commodities out there, but is that the right move? How should Green Bay fix the running game? Should they bring in fresh talent through free agency and drafting, or is it more a matter of fixing the running game with better execution?

Nick in Roanoke, Va.

A: I like the Michael Bush fit, but the Packers tend to shy away from free agents. They prefer drafting players. The good thing about this year's draft is there are plenty of role-playing running backs who could help the Packers. Trent Richardson is the only every-down type of back at the top of the draft. I think the Packers could come up with a good back to pair with James Starks as long as they do it in the first three rounds.

Q: I was wondering what your thoughts are on a few things: the Bucs' search for a head coach, Greg Schiano himself, the trouble it seems he had putting together a staff, and the staff he finally did assemble. I'm mildly concerned with the way and the length it took for all the pieces to come together. Should I be? It's one thing to be thorough, but when it goes on so long that you're behind everyone else, it looks as though they don't know what they're doing, which could affect free-agent signings.

Ed in Cape Coral, Fla.

A: That's one of the problems of being the last coach hired. You may know what you are doing but it's hard to execute. What was it? The Bucs had 16 rejections for assistants they wanted to interview? Raheem Morris had the same problem after he was hired. At least his late hire didn't hurt the team in free agency. The Bucs got their top thee recruits -- Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. What comes next is trying to coach them up on offense.

Q: Is the acknowledgement that overspending during an uncapped year could lead to future penalties proof of collusion among owners? What type of action can the NFLPA take with knowledge that owners conspired to keep salaries and guaranteed money low during the capped year?

Jeffrey in Charlottesville, Va.

A: If you are referring to the $46 million in charges against the Redskins and Cowboys, they weren't assessed for teams trying to keep salaries low. The Redskins gave $36 million in signing bonuses to Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall to buy out proration from future years and give the Redskins $36 million in cap room in 2012. The curious part is that the NFLPA signed off on it. Taking $10 million away from the Cowboys and $36 million from the Redskins removed a lot of money from two teams that planned to spend the most.

Q: After the heartbreaking loss in the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens obviously still need some more help at WR. Torrey Smith stepped up last year and opened things up for Anquan Boldin, but besides those two they had no one else really step up. I didn't see them keeping Lee Evans, so do you expect them to be a player in the WR market?

Nick in Baltimore

A: It looks as though the Ravens are either waiting for the draft or for making a trade. They let the first wave of free agents go without making a move on a wide receiver. What they need is one more threat on the outside to open things up in the middle of the field. Smith made them better as far as wide receiver separation, but they still have problems matching up against man-to-man defenses. They need one more threat to correct that.

Q: Since next year is a rebuilding year for the Colts, do you think they should try and fill their current holes with the new systems being installed? Or does it make more sense to play out this year with rookies and what they have, and then wait until next year, after they have seen how their players have performed in the new system to sign free agents?

Eric in South Bend, Ind.

A: They need to mix in veterans. I still look at what the Lions did with their defense after their 0-16 season when they wiped out 11 starters. As you can see, it takes about four years to build back one unit and the Lions are still in the process of rebuilding their defense. And this draft should put them over the top.

If the Colts try to change too many players and replace them with young players, it'll be hard. They should target about eight or nine new starters at the most.

Q: I believe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the verge of being a very good team over the next 5-8 years because of their young core of exciting talent. I believe getting some veteran experience plugged in at some key positions (CB, WR, DE, LB) could push them over the top.

Joe in Rogue River, Ore.

A: The only thing holding them back is the division. The Falcons and Saints are playoff teams. The Panthers are going to be good. At least the Bucs can try to catch up to them. I'm a big believer in Josh Freeman. Surrounding Freeman with good new talent should lead to good things for the Bucs. They added Pro Bowl-caliber players in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson. Nicks will make the Bucs' offensive line one of the better units in football.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer