(CBS Local/CBS Pittsburgh) The NFL's new league year begins on Wednesday, March 13th, and teams can begin officially signing free agents at that point. (They can negotiate beginning on March 11th.) As happens every year, some big names will hit the market. So over the next few weeks, we'll be looking at the top free agents available at each position, while trying to pair them with the teams that need them the most.
Running backs tend to be less highly valued in the league these days, meaning that big pay days are unlikely for the guys on this list. But, there is some high-end talent here (more so than in previous years) that could upend that recent trend.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell sat out all of last season after refusing to sign the franchise tag that the Steelers placed on him. Now, with reports that Pittsburgh won't transition tag the running back and will let him become a free agent, a hugely valuable back will hit the market in the back half of his prime. Bell, at age 27, likely still has strong years left in the tank.
He is reportedly seeking a deal worth $50 million in the first two years, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. That is a lot of money for a running back, particularly with the way GMs and teams today seem to think about the position. JLC mentioned the Eagles, Jets and Bucs as possible suitors.
The Jets, looking for weapons around Sam Darnold, would definitely make sense. The Bucs already have a glut of weapons on offense, and adding Bell would give them a running game to pair with a passing game featuring Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The Eagles, while fascinating to consider, would need to do some cap gymnastics to fit the kind of deal he wants on their roster.
A team that wasn't mentioned but also has a ton of cap space and is in need of more offensive weapons is the Indianapolis Colts. Bell could provide another reliable target for Andrew Luck, while upgrading the running game by combining with Marlon Mack as an effective 1-2 punch. With the Jets at least another year away from the playoffs, it's hard to see them dropping a ton of cash on a running back who will only start to decline as the contract ages. We'll put Indy here.
Tevin Coleman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Coleman got the most touches of his young career this season, with starter Devonta Freeman missing most of the year due to injury. He didn't eclipse 1,000 yards, but did average a solid 4.8 per carry. That is both good and bad. On one hand, not being the "featured" back in Atlanta has likely left Coleman with fresher legs coming off his first contract than other backs. On the other hand, he hasn't been the focus of a running game until this season, and he didn't truly stand out when given the chance.
Still, he is only 25 years old and provides a solid target out of the backfield, with 27 catches or more in each of the last three years. That versatility could make him the target of a team like the Eagles, who love backs that can be threats in the passing game in Doug Pederson's offense. But, he could also fit in nicely for the Jets and Bucs, if those teams miss out (or decide not to go after) Le'Veon. With the Jets in need of weapons and flush with cash, New York seems like the ideal spot for Coleman to get some shine.
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints
Ingram is an interesting case. At 29, he has reached the age when teams usually stay away from long-term deals for running backs. But, he has had just three seasons in his career with over 200 carries and has never eclipsed the 300-touch mark. So, there is some tread left on the tires. Combine that with the fact that this past season's total touches (159) were the second-lowest of his career, thanks to the emergence of Alvin Kamara, and there is reason for optimism among teams looking at signing him.
On those 159 carries, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry and ranked in the top 20 of Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. That figure calculates the yards that a player creates in relation to a "replacement level" player at the same position given the same number of touches. Ingram was plus-71 in that figure. Ingram's age means he isn't as likely to command a long-term deal as Coleman or even Bell might. So, that puts virtually every team in the market for his services. But one that makes particular sense is Philadelphia. As we said before, the Eagles are comfortable with the committee-of-backs approach, and Ingram would give them the bruising runner in the mold of LeGarrette Blount from the Super Bowl run of 2017-18.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Anderson could very well end up back in Los Angeles after the show he put on in spelling Todd Gurley down the season's stretch run. He actually led all running backs who had between 20-99 rushes this season in the DYAR stat (plus 138). At 28 years old, he is another back (sensing a theme here) who hasn't been forced to carry the majority of the load in his career. In this case, we're favoring his last team to re-sign him. Anderson proved his worth to the Rams in spelling Gurley during the playoff run. He gives Sean McVay another weapon in the offensive arsenal and can allow Gurley more rest, potentially leading to better longevity for the prized back.
After Anderson, the list of free agent backs is fairly uninspiring. As always, there will also be more options coming up in the draft who can fill holes on depth charts while costing less.
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