For the first time in what seems like forever, the running back position will not dominate the first round of most fantasy drafts. Instead, owners will be going after top-line quarterbacks to build their fantasy teams around. In this day and age of the NFL, when passing is king and featured running backs have gone the way of the dodo bird, this evolution makes a lot of sense. The fact that a number of the top runners are also coming off injuries doesn't help the value of the position, either.
Still, there are some backs that will be highly touted in drafts - and several of them are either restricted or unrestricted free agents. While the franchise tag will be in play with a number of these superstars, there are others who could end up with new teams -- and in better situations to produce for fantasy owners. With that said, here's a look at where I'd like to see the top free-agent runners end up from a fantasy perspective this offseason.
Arian Foster, Texans: The top-rated fantasy player on NFL.com heading into next season, Foster is a restricted free agent but isn't going anywhere this offseason. In fact, there's a definite chance that he could be franchised if the two sides can't iron out a new deal. Regardless of how it happens, Foster is going to remain with the Texans and will continue to thrive as the centerpiece of their offense. A perfect fit for the team's zone-blocking scheme, there's no stopping this former Tennessee Volunteer from stuffing the stat sheets.
Ray Rice, Ravens: Much like Foster, Rice won't be wearing a different uniform next season or beyond. There's been talk that the Ravens could franchise him before the start of free agency -- that's a likely scenario if Rice wants an "Adrian Peterson type of contract" as has been reported. At 25, he's in the prime of his career and will continue to be a workhorse for coach John Harbaugh moving forward. Rice, who is coming off the best fantasy season of his career, will be one of the first five players taken in all seasonal drafts.
Matt Forte, Bears: Forte is also likely to be tagged in the coming weeks, so chances are high that he'll remain with the Bears. Considering he's one of the last true featured backs in the league, Forte will be a real asset for fantasy owners in both standard and PPR formats. The one possible concern here is a holdout. If Forte is so inclined, he could sit out of training camp and the preseason in an attempt to secure a long-term deal. If that comes to fruition, the veteran back is going to come with an increased amount of risk.
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks: Lynch was an absolute beast last season, scoring a touchdown in 11 straight games while also finishing with some of the best single-season totals of his career. With that said, I expect the Seahawks to franchise Lynch in an effort to keep him off the open market. While his 2011 totals might warrant a first-round pick in fantasy drafts, Lynch was a fantasy afterthought in the previous three years. Considering he was also in a contract year, Lynch isn't a guarantee to duplicate his statistical success moving forward.
Michael Bush, Raiders:Chris Johnson. Steven Jackson. Frank Gore. Rashard Mendenhall. Those are just a few of the running backs that Bush outscored in fantasy leagues last season, and he did it despite starting just nine games. While he did slow down the stretch, Bush is still someone with breakout potential if he lands a starting role in 2012. I doubt the Raiders will franchise him -- that would tie up a lot of money at running back -- so look for Bush to hit the market. If he lands in Cincinnati, he would have second- or third-round value.
Peyton Hillis, Browns: Hillis is done with the dreaded Madden curse (at least we hope so) that decimated his value last season, and now there's a chance he could end up being franchised (not likely) if the Browns decide to retain him. Regardless, remaining in Cleveland is the best-case scenario for Hillis' upcoming fantasy appeal. In that scenario, the team would likely pass on someone like Alabama's Trent Richardson in April's draft (the focus will be on getting Robert Griffin III) and allow the bruising Hillis to remain atop the depth chart.
Mike Tolbert, Chargers: Tolbert has stated his desire to remain with the Chargers, but he's also going to keep his options open on the free-agent market. The versatile runner out of Coastal Carolina has proven his worth in fantasy land over the last two seasons, catching a combined 79 passes while also scoring 21 total touchdowns. If he winds up in Tampa Bay, Tolbert would be a new (and better) version of Mike Alstott and share the workload with LeGarrette Blount. Remember, new coach Greg Schiano loves to run the football.
Cedric Benson, Bengals: Benson is as good as gone in Cincinnati, and he's not going to draw a ton of attention on the free-agent market because of his age and reputation for being a bit problematic off the field. Still, the Texas product could see a slight increase in fantasy value if he lands in New England. The Patriots have never been afraid to take a chance on veteran malcontents (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth), and Benson could come right in and start in a potential backfield committee in 2012.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots: I have Benson going to the Patriots, so that means Green-Ellis will no longer be in the mix. And while his numbers did drop last season compared to his 2010 totals, the Law Firm is still young and has proven that he can find success between the white lines. With Thomas Jones and Jackie Battle both free agents and Jamaal Charles coming off knee surgery, Green-Ellis could come right in and see a role for the Chiefs. His presence would hurt Charles' value a bit, but the team needs a solid option behind him.
Ryan Grant, Packers: Reports out of Green Bay suggest the Packers will have little to no interest in bringing back Grant, so it looks like he's heading to the free-agent market. At 29 and past his prime, it's unlikely that Grant will land a starting job anywhere in the league. But if Tolbert bolts from San Diego, the Chargers could have some interest in bringing in Grant as a backup to starter Ryan Mathews. The Dolphins, led by former Packers OC Joe Philbin, are also an option. But that's not as attractive a fantasy scenario.