UFA running backs class has depth and risk

Rams' Steven Jackson heads list of backs with age and injury


Leading up to the official start of free agency on March 12, packers.com will examine the league's unrestricted free agents, position by position. In the second installment, we look at the running backs.

GREEN BAY—The Packers know they need to run the football better. The statistics say that. Mike McCarthy says so, too.

Free agency this year is full of running backs that could play any number of roles, from a feature guy to a complimentary piece to a safe backup. The list of available backs is long.

The odds of the Packers showing genuine interest may also be long, but it could depend on what happens in the draft.

The late-season emergence of DuJuan Harris also might have changed the team's outlook. Prior to Week 14, Harris had never carried the ball for the Packers. Then he toted it 62 times for 257 yards and four TDs over the last six games, including two playoff contests.

One free agent, Cedric Benson, could be brought back to Green Bay. The Packers liked how their offense was developing with Benson in the lead role until a foot injury ended his season in Week 5. With a long rehab still ahead and the draft in less than two months, there's no rush to re-sign Benson, but it remains a possibility.

Benson's age and injury issues will keep him off the radar for a while, much like last year. Other free-agent backs are sure to generate as much or more attention. Here are nine that fall into that category:

Steven Jackson has voided the last year of his contract with the Rams to become a free agent after nine years in St. Louis, and he's the prize at this position. Jackson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards eight years in a row, with his per-carry average for a full season dropping below four yards only once. He's a true workhorse, averaging 45 receptions per season, too. He turns 30 this summer but has remained durable, missing just two games over the past four years, so teams will be trying to determine just how much he has left.

Reggie Bush got a new lease on life in Miami the past two seasons, rushing for more than 2,000 yards with 12 TDs in 2011-12 and averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry in doing so. That production far outshined his rushing numbers in five seasons in New Orleans, where he was featured more as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He has taken far fewer hits than most first-round running backs who have played seven years.

Rashard Mendenhall was a star in Pittsburgh for three seasons (2009-11), rushing for 3,309 yards and 29 TDs before a knee injury cost him a third straight 1,000-yard season in the final regular-season game of 2011. His return from injury last year was unproductive and then got ugly, leading to a suspension imposed by the team. He carries injury and character risks, but he's only 26.

Shonn Greene, the former Iowa standout, has increased his production each of his four seasons with the Jets, including consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns in 2011-12, with 14 rushing TDs. He has missed only one game in his career and has improved his ball security, losing just one fumble the last two seasons after losing five his first two years in a more limited role.

Felix Jones appeared headed for big things after posting 1,250 yards from scrimmage in 2010 for Dallas (800 rushing, 450 receiving). He was then surpassed on the Cowboys depth chart by DeMarco Murray and no doubt wants to be a main man again, but his 3.6 yards per carry last season was a career low.

Peyton Hillis tried to parlay his 1,177-yard, 11-TD season for the Browns in 2010 into a big contract and instead became a big headache, with injuries to boot. His 2012 season in Kansas City was a disappointment and he wants a chance to prove 2010 wasn't a fluke.

Danny Woodhead has been nothing but productive in a complimentary but multi-faceted role in the Patriots' high-powered offense over the last three years. He has never had more than 100 carries or 40 receptions in a season, yet has averaged 4.8 per rush and 10.7 per catch in New England. His value in a different offense could be hard to gauge. Perhaps Tom Brady's restructured contract increases the chances he stays put.

Ahmad Bradshaw has been available to any team since being released as a salary-cap and injury casualty in early February, but he'll be coming back from foot surgery he says he should have had a year ago, despite topping 1,000 yards in 14 games for the Giants last season. New York will now feature the younger David Wilson, but Bradshaw insists he's not done as a No. 1 runner.

Michael Turner, cut last week by Atlanta, has been in the league nine years and as a feature back the last five. The biggest red flag, other than the fact that he turned 31 last month, is that his yards per carry dropped almost a full yard last season, from 4.5 in 2011 to 3.6 in 2012. He'll still be tough to deny in short yardage or on the goal line, though. His 10 rushing TDs last season marked his fifth straight year in double digits.

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