Ravens running back Ray Rice was scheduled to become a free agent, but the team has placed the franchise tag on him in the hopes of working out a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl back. That’s a bummer for teams looking for an elite running back as Rice would have been the best available runner in this year’s class.
Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears, who was one of the NFL’s most productive backs before getting injured late in the 2011 season, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent, but he could get tagged, too. Ditto for Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks and Arian Foster of the Houston Texans (a restricted free agent).
With all that star power potentially protected by the franchise tag, backs like Peyton Hillis of the Cleveland Browns, Cedric Benson of the Cincinnati Bengals and Michael Bush of the Oakland Raiders will be in demand.
The Ravens lost Ricky Williams, who retired last month, but they like Anthony Allen and Damien Berry, two youngsters they have under contract. If they sign a veteran running back, it will be one from the bargain bin.
Here is a look at five of the top free agent backs on the market and where they could wind up in 2012.
1. Ray Rice: Rice’s agent, Todd France, and the Ravens talked at the NFL scouting combine. They aren’t close to reaching a deal, but both have expressed an interest in working out a long-term deal over the course of the offseason.
2. Arian Foster: Foster is a restricted free agent, which means the cap-strapped Texans can match any offer for Foster in free agency. But they could place the franchise tag on him to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere.
Potential suitors: Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins.
3. Matt Forte: Forte established himself as one of the NFL's top dual-threat backs in his first four seasons in Chicago, averaging more than 1,000 rushing yards and nearly 500 receiving yards per season. The Bears and Forte’s representatives reportedly had conversations in Indianapolis, but like Rice, Forte is in limbo right now.
Potential suitors: Chicago Bears (Bears head coach Lovie Smith recently said that Forte isn’t going anywhere).
4. Marshawn Lynch: Lynch was one of the NFL's most productive backs in the second half of the 2011 season and he finished with career highs in rushing yards (1,204) and rushing touchdowns (12). The Seahawks might have to put the tag on Lynch to keep him. But if they don’t, he should have plenty of suitors in free agency.
Potential suitors: Washington Redskins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts.
5. Peyton Hillis: After pounding his way onto the cover of the “Madden NFL 2012” video game, Hillis had a disastrous 2011 season that was clouded by injury and controversy. He is also a candidate for the franchise tag, though it seems unlikely the Browns will tag him. A change of scenery might be best for this bruising back.
Potential suitors: New York Giants, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs.
Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England Patriots), Cedric Benson (Cincinnati Bengals), Michael Bush (Oakland Raiders), Mike Tolbert (San Diego Chargers), Ryan Grant (Green Bay Packers), Tim Hightower (Washington Redskins), LaDainian Tomlinson (New York Jets).