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Draft King Analysis

December 23, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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Merry Christmas Eve-Eve. The day before the day before. I'm dreading heading into the world of retail insanity to buy the one gift on my list that Amazon couldn't promise to deliver before Christmas. Along with that fun, I also need to swing by the UPS Store to return a gift that I purchased and accidentally doubled up with my sister on as a result. It's my own fault; I gave her bad intel by mistake. Communication within my family feels at times as if we're in the telegraph era as opposed to the information age. I would like to pretend it's not my fault -- after all, in 1995 I predicted the forthcoming internet explosion, and I have a Mass Communications degree from the University of Evansville -- but I'm as much to blame for communication breakdown within my family as anyone.

On the flip side of that was my brother Matt sending out a list earlier this week of the tentative 2012 Mississippi State football schedule. He's happy that the Kentucky game, for once, won't be on the same weekend as Voodoo in New Orleans. If Arkansas plays Mississippi State in Fayetteville in 2013, as opposed to hosting the Bulldogs at antiquated War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock as they tend to do, he'll be even happier. But anticipating future plans for any given conference is an uncertain animal in this era of near-constant realignment.

State's non-SEC schedule is rather laughable, with a quartet of jobber schools on the docket to offset their annual vicious run through the SEC West. It's a bit odd to see Texas A&M on the slate as a conference game, particularly since I'll forever think of their thrilling "Snow Bowl" overtime matchup in the 2000 Independence Bowl in Shreveport when I think of A&M vs. State. That game ranks just below the 1993 Dolphins/Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas as far as snow in unexpected places goes, a nationally televised game which featured not only snow in Dallas but also a lesson for an entire generation of football players to not pick up a blocked field goal thanks to Leon Lett.

Continuing the look ahead to 2012 free agency in the NFL, the group of running backs that will potentially be in the mix is rather interesting. The overall value placed on running backs by most NFL teams had diminished considerably since I started this website several years ago, in large part because of three factors:

1. Teams learned from the Colts/Bears Super Bowl XLI game that you can find success in the NFL with a dual-RB approach, diminishing the value of any individual running back. Yes, there are still exceptions like Chris Johnson with the Titans or Adrian Peterson with the Vikings, but by and large teams have learned that you don't have to repeatedly give the ball to a single running back like he's the second coming of Earl Campbell to gain maximum performance from the position.

If you saw the 2007 HBO Hard Knocks series on Kansas City, you might recall a blend of hilarious moments, such as Eddie Kennison and Herm Edwards ordering rookie WR Dwayne Bowe to buy and bring in some Krispy Creme donuts ("And the sign's gotta say HOT!") or Gunther Cunningham expressing his displeasure about Family Fun Night.

But the series also showed the harsh realities of contract negotiations and player cuts, scenes from real life which seldom see the light of day. Most notable on that end was Larry Johnson holding out for a new contract, as he was coming off a 2006 season where he had carried the ball an astonishing 416 times (along with making 41 receptions). Johnson finally got his new deal from Chiefs GM Carl Peterson, which included $19 million in guaranteed money, a most literal payoff to that storyline.

In a related note, Johnson never broke the 900 yard rushing mark in any subsequent NFL season. Success can be fleeting for NFL running backs, particularly those who have been put through the ringer like Johnson was in 2005 and 2006.

2. Despite scouting having advanced to remarkable levels, there are plenty of surprise success stories out there of guys who came out of nowhere to become accomplished NFL running backs. Willie Parker and Fred Jackson are both shining examples of that, men who played in obscurity in college who ultimately became successful NFL running backs. And it's not just the obscure guys -- every NFL general manager knew about Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, and Ryan Grant (more on him in a bit) coming out of college, but all three went undrafted despite having quantifiable talent.

3. Rule changes made in the name of player safety have tilted the run/pass balance in the NFL decidedly toward the passing game. You can throw over the middle on a regular basis and not worry as much about a head-hunting safety clocking your best wide receiver. There are all kinds of payoffs possible on passing plays, from roughing the quarterback calls to pass interference to illegal contact. Illegal contact is brutal for defenses since, while it's only a five yard penalty, it gives the opposing offense an automatic first down. It's like playing Press Your Luck with 2/3 of the whammies taken off the board.

A worthy sidebar to the move toward spread offenses is the demise of fullback as a regular NFL position. The days of fullbacks like Lorenzo Neal opening holes for 1,000 yard rushers are mostly in the past, at least for many teams. There are still fullbacks who see regular action, like Tennessee's Ahmard Hall, but for many teams the position has become an after-thought at best.

But, while a strong passing game might trump a firm commitment to the run in today's NFL, it's important to have at least some strength at running back. The concept of three running backs going in the top five picks of the NFL Draft (like what happened in 2005) might be passe now, but it doesn't mean that there isn't value to be placed on a strong running attack. It's just that the value on the running backs has dropped as rules and approaches to the game have changed.

Here's the list of the top running backs with contracts set to expire after the season.

Running Backs

Ray Rice
Ray Rice has had a fantastic first four years in the NFL. (Icon SMI)

Ray Rice, Ravens (DOB: 1/22/1987)
One of several talented players who played at Rutgers in the middle-to-latter part of the last decade, Rice fell to the second round of the 2008 Draft in part because he is only 5'8". But his slide down the draft board worked out very well for Baltimore, where Rice has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his NFL career. He already has more than 1,000 yards rushing this season through 14 games, his third consecutive year to surpass that mark. Rice has been a successful receiving threat as well, making more than 200 catches for Baltimore over the past three seasons... and he still has two regular season games to go. Rice has posted 1,700+ combined rushing and receiving yards from scrimmage thus far this season, and he'll likely boost that figure even higher in tomorrow's game with the Cleveland Browns.

Rice has played a pivotal role in the Ravens success during his time with the team, and Baltimore having a strong running game to go with its outstanding front seven on defense has made for a strong combination. I anticipate Baltimore making a strong push to retain Rice, though with Carolina overpaying to keep RB DeAngelo Williams earlier this year (to the tune of $21 million guaranteed), negotiations between Rice and the Ravens may prove to be tricky.

My anticipation is that the Ravens would use the franchise tag on Rice if they had to do so. Securing him to a long-term deal would obviously be preferred by both sides, and I imagine that is what will end up happening this off-season. But from all indications, Rice wants to remain in Baltimore, and I can't fathom a scenario where Baltimore wouldn't want to sign him to a long-term deal.

Matt Forte, Bears (DOB: 12/10/1985)
Just like Rice, Forte was a second-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft who exceeded expectations in his first four years in the league. Forte suffered a second-degree sprain to the MCL in his right knee in a loss to Kansas City earlier this month, an injury which has kept him out of action up until this point and might keep him out for the rest of the season.

Prior to getting hurt, Forte had been lobbying for a new contract from the Bears. He is averaging a whopping 4.9 yards per carry this year, and earlier this year Forte became only the second player in NFL history (along with Herschel Walker) to post 700+ rushing yards and 400+ receiving yards in each of his first four NFL seasons.

It seems unlikely that the Bears would let Forte depart via free agency after the season, even if it means using the franchise tag on him and potentially elevating the acrimony that Forte feels toward the team. But, if they do, Forte should be able to find plenty of interested suitors willing to sign him to a long-term contract.

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks (DOB: 4/22/1986)
Buffalo used the #12 overall pick in the 2007 Draft to select Lynch. He posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons for the Bills in 2007 and 2008, averaging more than four yards per carry over those first two years.

2009 was less kind to Lynch, with him first being arrested for unlawful possession of a concealed firearm and then receiving a three-game suspension from the NFL for it. He returned to the lineup after his suspension but ultimately lost his starting spot to Fred Jackson. Buffalo used the #9 overall pick in 2010 on C.J. Spiller, and with both Jackson and Spiller on the roster, Lynch became expendable.

The Bills shipped Lynch to Seattle early in the 2010 season for a 2011 fourth round draft pick and a conditional late-round 2012 pick. Once acclimated to the Seahawks offense, Lynch finally began to regain some of the form he showed early in his career, including a December performance against Carolina where he rushed for three TDs. In his first career playoff game, a home matchup against the Saints, Lynch scored on a remarkable 67-yard TD run in the fourth quarter where he broke multiple tackles, a scoring play that ended up being the difference in Seattle's 41-36 shootout win over the defending Super Bowl champs .

Through 14 games in 2011, Lynch has rushed for more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and, more impressively, just last week broke Shaun Alexander's franchise record for consecutive games with a touchdown in scoring a TD in his tenth straight game. He'll go for 11 in a row tomorrow against San Francisco. Along with the TD production, Lynch is averaging 4.1 yards per carry for Seattle, and he has played a key role in the Seahawks winning five of their last six games.

I provided all of this backstory on Lynch to demonstrate the quandary that Seattle faces this upcoming off-season. Despite the off-the-field problems he's faced, or involvement in silliness like commandeering an injury cart after the 2006 Cal/Washington game (a hilarious impromptu move which, for some reason, is often mislabeled as him trying to ghost ride the whip), Lynch has shown he can be a productive NFL running back.

Lynch is younger than many realize; he won't turn 26 until April of next year. The big questions: what lengths will the Seahawks go to in order to keep him? Would they use the franchise tag on him? Will they offer him a long-term contract? Do they believe that his past off-the-field issues are behind him? We'll all find out soon enough.

Ryan Grant, Packers (DOB: 12/9/1982)
Ryan Grant
It seems unlikely that Ryan Grant will be back in Green Bay for the 2012 season. (Icon SMI)
A summary of Grant's college and pro career:

2001- Grant played sparingly as a freshman at Notre Dame, backing up Julius Jones.

2002- Notre Dame suspended Jones for the season due to poor grades, and Grant started all 12 games for Notre Dame, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and nine TDs.

2003- Jones returned from suspension, and while Grant began the season as the starter, Jones reclaimed the starting spot with a spectacular 262 yard rushing performance against Pitt.

2004- Grant was named a team captain for the Fighting Irish, but he ended up splitting time with newcomer RB Darius Walker.

2005- Despite posting a 4.43 40-yard-dash time at the combine in Indianapolis, Grant went undrafted. He signed with the New York Giants, who put him on their practice squad.

2006- In a freak accident early in the year at a Manhattan nightclub, someone bumped into Grant, who tried to brace himself but fell into a stack of champagne glasses. Broken glass sliced severely into his left arm, cutting an artery, a tendon and the ulnar nerve. Grant nearly bled to death, and due to the nerve damage he suffered there was fear that he might not regain the use of his left hand. The Giants placed him on injured reserve, and Grant spent the fall of that year as a volunteer assistant coach at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, NJ.

2007- Grant made a full recovery from the accident that nearly claimed his life, and fortunately the nerve damage he sustained proved to be only temporary. He performed well in the 2007 preseason for the Giants, who dealt him to Green Bay on 9/1/2007 for a sixth-round draft pick (which the Giants later traded to Pittsburgh, who used it to select safety Ryan Mundy, who is still on the Steelers roster).

Backstory from the stands: the night before the trade for Grant, I attended the Packers/Titans 2007 preseason finale and saw Green Bay, which trailed, take a knee to end the game rather than actually running a play. Why not hand it off to get one more look at the offensive line on a running play? Because they were ridiculously thin at the position going into the game, with Vernand Morency and rookie Brandon Jackson inactive for it. Making matters worse was Noah Herron getting hurt early, leaving only DeShawn Wynn available at running back. So the Packers took a knee, and the next day they traded for Grant.

Grant, signed to a one-year, $315,000 contract, played sparingly in his first several games as a member of the Packers. That all changed when he was called on to replace an injured DeShawn Wynn in the second quarter of Green Bay's week eight game in Denver. Grant carried the ball 22 times for 104 yards in the Packers' overtime victory, and he went on to start at running back in seven of the Packers' final nine games of the regular season and in both of Green Bay's playoff games.

2008- Green Bay signed Grant to a four-year, $30 million contract, though the deal included only $4.25 million in guaranteed money. Grant started 14 of 16 games for the Packers that season, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and scoring five TDs, but averaging only 3.9 yards per carry.

2009- Grant improved on his 2008 output, starting every regular season game, posting 1,250+ yards rushing to go with 11 rushing TDs and a 4.4 yards per carry average.

2010- Grant tore a ligament in his right ankle in the season-opener in Philadelphia and went on injured reserve, ending his season. Brandon Jackson lead the Packers in rushing for the season despite running for only 703 yards on a paltry 3.7 yards-per-carry average during the season. Despite having a weak rushing game, the Packers, behind the high octane passing attack of Aaron Rodgers and a ferocious defense, won Super Bowl XLV this past February.

2011- Before the season, Grant agreed to take a salary cut from $3.5 million to $2.5 million. Through 14 weeks of action, Grant has started 12 games and played in 13 of them. He has averaged 4.1 yards per carry but has rushed for only 467 yards, and he has only scored in one game this year, posting two touchdowns in Green Bay's rout of Oakland earlier this month.

The odds of Green Bay franchising Grant seems unlikely, and after being asked to cut his pay for 2011 by more than 28.5%, it seems likely that Grant will end up elsewhere in 2012. Though, considering all he has overcome to make it to this point in his career, I'm not going to count Grant out just yet as a viable NFL running back. He could prove to be a perfect fit for a team wanting to add an accomplished veteran to its stable of running backs.

Michael Bush, Raiders (DOB: 6/16/1984)
Bush signed a one-year, $2.61 million contract with Oakland prior to the 2011 season, keeping him with the team that drafted him out of Louisville in 2007. With Darren McFadden out with an injury since Oakland's 28-0 loss at Kansas City on October 23, Bush has started at running back in the last seven games for the Raiders, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and accumulating more than 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards through 14 games this season.

Between having tickets for tomorrow's Jaguars/Titans games and Christmas plans, I probably won't be able to write up an overview on the top potential free agent wide receivers until the middle of next week. There are several very talented wide receivers who are slated to become free agents after this season, and that position is perhaps the most intriguing due to the sheer volume of quality receivers who, at least at this point, appear to be in the mix for free agency.


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