Free agent preview: 2018 running backs
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The running back is being valued a lot less in today’s NFL. While running backs are still important to an NFL offense, they are viewed as almost “a dime-a-dozen” group. There isn’t a lot of separation from the elite to great to good running backs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most intriguing team when it comes to running backs this offseason. They have one of the two or three best running backs in the league. However, Le’Veon Bell is not happy with the team placing the franchise tag on him. He wants a more stable contract situation and may look for it elsewhere.

Another potential playoff team that needs to add a running back is the Detroit Lions. They have been looking for a lead back since Barry Sanders retired following the 1998 season. Ameer Abdullah hasn’t been the answer. He hasn’t been healthy nor consistent in the NFL.

The other teams with needs at running back include teams six teams that will have a first round pick in the top 10 of the draft. One of those teams will likely get their lead running back in the draft in Saquon Barkley. There are other options in the draft and that is where most teams will look for No. 1 running back. The Cleveland Browns are in the best position with the first and fourth overall pick to take the former Penn State star. With their need at quarterback, they may pass on him at No. 1.

The New York Giants (second overall pick) and Indianapolis Colts (third) would then have to guess and prepare for the possibility that they could get Barkley and just add depth runners in free agency.

The Giants can re-sign Orleans Darkwa, who was 11th among running backs in yards per carry last season, and leave themselves the option to draft Barkley if he is there or be fine if he is not.

The Colts drafted Marlon Mack in the fourth round a year ago. He showed some promise and is another guy that could be fine as Barkley’s backup or as a platoon option with a veteran free agent. He gives the Colts some options with the third selection.

For the Browns, Giants and Colts, in-house or the draft are the best options to fix their running back situations. For the other three teams selecting in the top 10 with a need at running back, they will want to dip into free agency.

The New York Jets haven’t gotten the production from Matt Forte that they had hoped, but he was an aging running back with a bit of an injury history when they signed him. It should not be a surprise that they should be in the market for a running back. Bilal Powell is a very good platoon running back and Elijah McGuire is a quality depth back.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the team in the most need for a running back. They should go hard after Bell, if he chooses to test the market. The Buccaneers cut Doug Martin, who was the starter and probably shouldn’t have been to begin with. Like the other teams, they have depth and situational or platoon running backs, but none are long-term lead backs. Jacquizz Rodgers could be one-year stop-gap option, but that should be a desperation option.

A dark horse in the running back free agent market could be the Denver Broncos. C.J. Anderson has always been considered their lead back, but until last season, it has been for less than half a season. He has suffered some injuries and inconsistency. His best games over his five-year career have been later in the season. The Broncos need to decide if he is capable of getting back to the 4.7 yard per carry Anderson had in 2015 and 2014. In the two seasons since, his yards per carry dipped to 4.0 and 4.1, respectively. They could really shake up the market up by going hard after Bell or one of the other top free agents.

Here are the best running backs scheduled to be free agents on March 14.

#1 - Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

It would be surprising if Bell does not return to Pittsburgh, but he was not happy getting the franchise tag a year ago. Over the last couple months, Bell has stated his desire to remain in Pittsburgh. That sounds good and very well could happen, but until it happens, he is a free agent.

#2 - Dion Lewis, Patriots

Lewis is sneaky good running back. He was the best back in a very crowded backfield in New England. He and Rex Burkhead are free agents, which will likely open up some of that. Mike Gillislee and James White are still on the roster, so the Patriots may let both Lewis and Burkhead walk. Lewis is a complete back that can run between-the-tackles as well as on the edges and can catch the ball. He should be a very attractive option for teams looking for a running back.

#3 - Jerick McKinnon, Vikings

McKinnon has gotten a chance to be the lead back for the Vikings, but not the chance to be a long-term ball carrier. He is very good as a matchup receiver out of the backfield or lined up on the outside. The former collegiate quarterback and third round draft pick is not an every down ball carrier, but should be a very good piece of a very good offense next season. Whether or not that is with the Vikings will likely come down to the whether or not the team keeps Latavius Murray.

#4 - LeGarrette Blount, Eagles

All Blount does is win. He has been on the winning team in the Super Bowl each of the last two seasons. He has been part of a running back committee, however, and has not been the lead back for the entire season. He is a big back that grinds out yards. When the Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline, it became unlikely that Blount would be back in Philadelphia after the season.

#5 - Frank Gore, Colts

Gore is fifth all-time in rushing yards. He has had a sneaky good career. He has rushed for over 950 rushing yards in each of the last seven seasons. However, his yards per carry has dropped under 4.0 in each of the last three seasons. He is a big back with the ability to move the pile, but the miles are adding up. The soon-to-be-35-year-old running back is nearing the end. Given the stigma of the position, it could happen now.

Wild Card - Orleans Darkwa, Giants

Darkwa had his most productive season last year. He had just 75 carries in his first three seasons, but more than doubled in 2017. He responded with 4.4 yards per carry behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. The Giants could go out and get a perceived better running back, but until they improve the offensive line, it won’t matter who is running the ball.