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Free agency primer: Top 10 running backs

This year's list of free-agent running backs carries an average age of 27. Plenty of them aren't wanted back by their current teams, telling us all we need to know about the short lifespan at the position.

Runners looking for fat contracts on the open market are out of luck unless they possess that rare combination of youth, on-field potential and a history of production at the NFL level. We struggle to see more than one back on this list who fits the bill for a big-money deal.

Plenty of these players will find work as committee men, camp bodies and depth signings, but teams looking for gems at the position are just as likely to tap this year's talent-rich draft.

Here's a look at the running backs entering free agency:

Alone at the top

  1. Ben Tate, Houston Texans

Fully expected to bolt Houston, Tate is a decisive, tough-nosed runner who can anchor a ground attack when healthy. Durability is a concern, but he also showed toughness playing through broken ribs and assorted injuries last season. Arian Foster's longtime backup has just 421 rushes over the past three campaigns, but he looms as the top candidate to assume bell-cow duties elsewhere. He's not much help in the passing game, but Tate is the ideal mix of age and on-field potential. The 25-year-old is our top candidate to earn a long-term deal and step into a lead role in 2014.

Starting material

We're already into tricky territory. The injury-prone McFadden is a risky signing. He won't be back with the Raiders unless he accepts a bargain-basement deal, but somebody is going to take a chance. Why? Because McFadden, at 26, remains a valuable threat in the right offense. A scheme that highlights his pass-catching skills out of the backfield makes the most sense.

Sproles has lost a half-step, but he can still help teams in the passing game.

Moreno's a tough read. A roster-bubble candidate for most of his run under John Fox, the Broncos back piled up career numbers in a Peyton Manning-led offense that forced defenses to focus on the pass. Like McFadden, Moreno hits the market with a history of injuries, but look for the 26-year-old to find work in an offense that pairs him with another runner. ...

More questions than answers

  1. LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
    1. Rashad Jennings, Oakland Raiders
    2. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
    3. Andre Brown, New York Giants
    4. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings
    5. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts

Blount worked wonders down the stretch, but I don't trust his development away from Bill Belichick's watch. ... I expect Oakland to re-sign Jennings, who produced a handful of strong performances for a bad Raiders team last season. You can't center an offense around him, but go back and watch Rashad's game tape against the Eagles (102 yards rushing and 74 through the air) and you'll see plenty to like. ... Jones-Drew is nearing the end, but look for the former rushing champ to land an incentive-laden deal with a suitor looking for an experienced bruiser.

Gerhart's resume is thin, but we expect teams to show interest in Adrian Peterson's understudy (more on that below). ... The Giants are a decent bet to re-up with the injury-prone Andre Brown, who would rate higher on this list if we trusted his durability. ... Donald Brown could wind up back with the Colts after emerging as the more decisive, explosive runner ahead of Trent Richardson. Not the case for Bradshaw, who played just 103 snaps last season and can't stay healthy.

Rest of the pack

Kahlil Bell, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ronnie Brown, Delone Carter, Tashard Choice, Anthony Dixon, Jonathan Dwyer, Ray Graham, Jonathan Grimes, Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones, Deji Karim, Spencer Larsen, Brian Leonard, Willis McGahee, Rashard Mendenhall, Darius Reynaud, Tauren Poole, Bernard Scott, Chad Spann, James Starks, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Leon Washington, George Winn

Teams with the biggest need

Best fit: Darren McFadden to the Bengals

But it won't happen. That's what one agent told us at the NFL Scouting Combine. Too bad for McFadden, because his best season came in 2010 under Hue Jackson, the new Bengals offensive coordinator who found a way to unleash the back during their time together in Oakland.

Best bet to stay put: LeGarrette Blount

This just makes sense. Blount fits well as a complement to Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden. He's no threat to take snaps away from Shane Vereen in the passing game, but Blount showed the ability to explode for massive results on the ground in the playoff win over Indy. Unless the Patriots lowball him, we expect Blount to return to New England.

Ready to make the leap: Toby Gerhart

I'm tempted to rank Gerhart higher. He averaged just 43 carries per season over the past two campaigns. Still, he netted 5.3 rushing yards per attempt to go along with his proven pass-catching ability. Gerhart would be an intriguing addition to Jim Harbaugh's roster in San Francisco, but I wouldn't be stunned to see a runner-needy team angle to make him a starter. Still fresh-legged at 26, he's an intriguing target.

The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" weighs in on Monday's franchise-tag surprises and unpacks all the 49ers drama out west.

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