2010 free-agent preview: Running backs, fullbacks

This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:
 

An electric talent

Darren Sproles is a unique running back, and he’s in a unique circumstance. Last year, he was designated the Chargers’ franchise player and earned $6.6 million for being a dynamic change-of-pace option and accomplished return man. This year, even though he’s a restricted free agent because of the labor situation, it looks like he’ll reach the open market.
 
To lock up Sproles, the Chargers would have to tender him a one-year contract for $7.27 million—something they apparently aren’t willing to do (though they would like to sign him to a long-term deal).
 
Coming off a season in which he put up 840 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns, Sproles (5-6, 185) will be the most desirable back on the market. He could make another team in need of a complementary backfield spark very happy.
 
The top 10
1. Darren Sproles, RB, Chargers*
2. Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints (RFA)
3. Jerome Harrison, RB, Browns*
4. Leon Washington, RB, Jets*
5. Le’Ron McClain, FB, Ravens (RFA)
6. Leonard Weaver, FB, Eagles*
7. Chester Taylor, RB, Vikings (UFA)
8. Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers*
9. Jerious Norwood, RB, Falcons*
10. Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons (RFA)
UFA = will become unrestricted free agent
RFA = restricted free agent
* – will be restricted without new CBA
"He creates a mismatches, similar to the way Antonio Gates does," Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo said. "It’s hard to line up a linebacker or a defensive end on him and expect the defender to stay close. His height also makes him incredibly hard to see when he’s coming out of the backfield, especially on inside runs."
 

Falling star

The Chargers have already parted ways with their all-time leading rusher, LaDainian Tomlinson, who was released Monday. A day later, the Eagles cut their feature back, Brian Westbrook. Those are two big names who have put up some great numbers in the past, but what do they have left to contribute in the short term?
 
Tomlinson and Westbrook, who both will turn 31 before the season, come with plenty of mileage. Westbrook has the more checkered injury history—most recently an ankle—while Tomlinson has averaged 379 touches over his nine seasons.
 
A team is more likely to take a chance on Tomlinson—a la how Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James helped the Cardinals in the past.
 
"Early in the season, I think he was slowed down a bit by the injuries," Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison said. "But then down the stretch, you could see him get his legs back, his burst back, more like the L.T. of old."
 
And one more to watch
Thomas Jones, RB, Jets
If Jones and the team can’t agree on a restructured contract, he will likely be released because the Jets can move on with Shonn Greene and Leon Washington. Jones is more appealing than fellow vets LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook and Willie Parker because he remains a durable, powerful runner at age 31. — Vinnie Iyer

Treasuring Chester

Vikings backup Chester Taylor is in an advantageous position. Like Tomlinson and Westbrook, he’s 30. But his age doesn’t matter as much because he has taken on a heavy load in only one season: 2006 in Minnesota.
 
Taylor also comes with eight years of experience on mostly winning teams, making him a worthy option for clubs that like to have a trusty vet to complement a promising youngster. His role—and how extensive he is used—depends on where he lands.
 
"Some teams might think of him as a good third-down back while some teams may see him as a lot more," an NFC team scout said.
 

The full package

Le’Ron McClain and Leonard Weaver—the fullbacks who represented the AFC and NFC in the Pro Bowl—are the most intriguing free agents at a passé position. McClain has been both a strong lead blocker and mauling runner for Baltimore while the versatile Weaver blocked, ran and caught passes en route to All-Pro honors in Philadelphia last season.
 

McClain, a restricted free agent, will remain with Ravens. Weaver, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year deal in the open market last year, is also restricted in the current labor atmosphere. He probably deserves a better contract with long-term consideration, but Philadelphia has the advantage of just tendering him for 2010.

 
Weaver has plenty of value because of his versatility, and the Eagles will want to keep him in the wake of letting Westbrook go.
 
This story appears in Feb. 26’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today.
 
Vinnie Iyer is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at viyer@sportingnews.com.
This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:
 

An electric talent

Darren Sproles is a unique running back, and he’s in a unique circumstance. Last year, he was designated the Chargers’ franchise player and earned $6.6 million for being a dynamic change-of-pace option and accomplished return man. This year, even though he’s a restricted free agent because of the labor situation, it looks like he’ll reach the open market.
 
To lock up Sproles, the Chargers would have to tender him a one-year contract for $7.27 million—something they apparently aren’t willing to do (though they would like to sign him to a long-term deal).
 
Coming off a season in which he put up 840 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns, Sproles (5-6, 185) will be the most desirable back on the market. He could make another team in need of a complementary backfield spark very happy.
 
The top 10
1. Darren Sproles, RB, Chargers*
2. Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints (RFA)
3. Jerome Harrison, RB, Browns*
4. Leon Washington, RB, Jets*
5. Le’Ron McClain, FB, Ravens (RFA)
6. Leonard Weaver, FB, Eagles*
7. Chester Taylor, RB, Vikings (UFA)
8. Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers*
9. Jerious Norwood, RB, Falcons*
10. Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons (RFA)
UFA = will become unrestricted free agent
RFA = restricted free agent
* – will be restricted without new CBA
"He creates a mismatches, similar to the way Antonio Gates does," Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo said. "It’s hard to line up a linebacker or a defensive end on him and expect the defender to stay close. His height also makes him incredibly hard to see when he’s coming out of the backfield, especially on inside runs."
 

Falling star

The Chargers have already parted ways with their all-time leading rusher, LaDainian Tomlinson, who was released Monday. A day later, the Eagles cut their feature back, Brian Westbrook. Those are two big names who have put up some great numbers in the past, but what do they have left to contribute in the short term?
 
Tomlinson and Westbrook, who both will turn 31 before the season, come with plenty of mileage. Westbrook has the more checkered injury history—most recently an ankle—while Tomlinson has averaged 379 touches over his nine seasons.
 
A team is more likely to take a chance on Tomlinson—a la how Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James helped the Cardinals in the past.
 
"Early in the season, I think he was slowed down a bit by the injuries," Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison said. "But then down the stretch, you could see him get his legs back, his burst back, more like the L.T. of old."
 
And one more to watch
Thomas Jones, RB, Jets
If Jones and the team can’t agree on a restructured contract, he will likely be released because the Jets can move on with Shonn Greene and Leon Washington. Jones is more appealing than fellow vets LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook and Willie Parker because he remains a durable, powerful runner at age 31. — Vinnie Iyer

Treasuring Chester

Vikings backup Chester Taylor is in an advantageous position. Like Tomlinson and Westbrook, he’s 30. But his age doesn’t matter as much because he has taken on a heavy load in only one season: 2006 in Minnesota.
 
Taylor also comes with eight years of experience on mostly winning teams, making him a worthy option for clubs that like to have a trusty vet to complement a promising youngster. His role—and how extensive he is used—depends on where he lands.
 
"Some teams might think of him as a good third-down back while some teams may see him as a lot more," an NFC team scout said.
 

The full package

Le’Ron McClain and Leonard Weaver—the fullbacks who represented the AFC and NFC in the Pro Bowl—are the most intriguing free agents at a passé position. McClain has been both a strong lead blocker and mauling runner for Baltimore while the versatile Weaver blocked, ran and caught passes en route to All-Pro honors in Philadelphia last season.
 

McClain, a restricted free agent, will remain with Ravens. Weaver, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year deal in the open market last year, is also restricted in the current labor atmosphere. He probably deserves a better contract with long-term consideration, but Philadelphia has the advantage of just tendering him for 2010.

 
Weaver has plenty of value because of his versatility, and the Eagles will want to keep him in the wake of letting Westbrook go.
 
This story appears in Feb. 26’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today.
 
Vinnie Iyer is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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