2011 NFL Free Agency Preview: Running Backs

If he's unrestricted, DeAngelo Williams is the top running back available.

"It's going to be very difficult for this to get screwed up."

That was the quote of the day yesterday attributed to a "source with intimate knowledge" of the labor negotiations between the players and owners. CBS Sports' Mike Freeman also tells us that this source says a new CBA is 80 to 85 percent complete - with an agreement possibly coming "within a matter of days."

Of course, all of this almost feels too good to be true. I think everybody might be getting carried away a bit here as reports continue to surface of a new labor deal nearing. For now, I'm going to stick to my Fourth of July weekend prediction. Having some knowledge of what goes into these professional sports collective bargaining agreements, I'm just not ready to believe a new deal will be completed in a few days.

Regardless of how quickly a deal is reached, the fact is a deal will indeed get reached. That means NFL free agency is on the horizon - finally. So it's time to start preparing for free agency by talking a little bit about some of the options the Miami Dolphins will have to fill in the remaining holes on their roster.

Off the top of my head, three positions will have to be addressed: quarterback, running back, and outside linebacker. We'll start our free agency preview with a look at the running back position.

It's worth noting, of course, that we don't know what the plan will be for free agents with only five or six accrued seasons. Historically, you only needed four years of service to be unrestricted free agents. In 2010, though, the "final league year" rules kicked in and players with five or six years of service were restricted free agents. It's unknown how the eventual CBA might handle this situation.

2011 NFL Free Agency: Running Backs

DeAngelo Williams
Williams is one of those guys who may or may not be unrestricted when free agency finally begins. With five years of service under his belt in Carolina, it's more likely he's unrestricted than restricted. But we don't know for sure. What we do know is that Williams would be the top free agent running back on the market if he is indeed on the market. At 28 years old but with only an average of 168 carries per year through his first five seasons, Williams should still be as effective as ever for two or three more seasons. He is coming off of a injury-plagued season, though, that saw him miss the final ten games of the year with a foot injury.

If he is unrestricted, though, the Dolphins will be one of the teams involved in the bidding for him. But they will have competition - particularly from the Broncos, whose new head coach is former Panthers head coach John Fox.

Ahmad Bradshaw
The 25 year old Bradshaw has only four accrued seasons under his belt - meaning he may not even be available if rules similar to 2010 govern this year's free agency. If he is unrestricted, though, the Dolphins could be choose to go this route rather than the DeAngelo route becuse Bradshaw offers this Miami offense something they lack - explosion. Bradshaw is coming off of a breakout season that saw him total over 1,500 yards from scrimmage - including over 1,200 on the ground. Only Darren McFadden had more runs of 20+ yards last season than Bradshaw's 13. His problem in 2010, of course, was fumbling - losing seven fumbles.

Bradshaw's skill set would complement rookie Daniel Thomas very well. He's more of a quick, hit the hole runner with speed and explosion while Thomas is a patient back in the mold of Ronnie Brown.

Darren Sproles
The Dolphins could also choose to go with the Kansas State 1-2 punch of Thomas and Sproles. Like Bradshaw, Sproles is a different style of back than Thomas is. He's quick and a threat to take it all the way every time he touches the football - the return game included. Though he'll be entering his seventh NFL season and will be 28 next week, the tiny Sproles does have a lot of tread left on his tires. He's only accumulated 767 touches (including kick and punt returns) through those six seasons. He probably won't be too expensive, either - likely in the $3 to $4 million range. If I had to guess right now, I'd say Sproles is the back that ends up in Miami.

THE NEXT

Ronnie Brown - I originally thought that Brown was likely headed to New England. But then Bill Belichick drafted some backs in the draft and that ended that. Before the draft, I also thought the Colts could be interested. They still might be even after spending a 4th round pick on Delone Carter. But with Brown's disappointing 2010 season, I don't know what the market will be for him. That's why I won't rule out a return to Miami.

Ricky Williams - Ricky said recently he'd love to come back to Miami. But at most, only one of the two will return to the Dolphins. Other teams in need of a veteran running back could be interested in Ricky. However, the market for Williams will be limited.

Cedric Benson - Benson has said this offseason that he thinks he deserves a big contract. But the back turns 29 in December and has over 1200 career carries in the NFL after being the bell cow in college at Texas. In other words, Cedric probably doesn't have a lot of tread left. Yes, Benson did run for over 1,100 yards. But he needed 321 carries to do that - averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Sorry, Cedric. But you aren't going to find that final big contract. He'll likely be back in Cincinnati. If he does go elsewhere, then the Bengals could be interested in Ricky or Ronnie.

Clinton Portis - The former Miami Hurricane is going to be 30 before the season starts. He's only played in 13 games over the past two seasons and has over 2,200 carries in his career. He doesn't have much - if anything - left. He'll probably get a non-guaranteed contract some place.

Kevin Smith - Reports claim that the Dolphins were high on Smith back in 2008 when he was drafted. But his career has been underwhelming. Now coming off of back-to-back injury-plagued seasons that saw him tear his ACL and undergo surgeries on his thumb and shoulder. It wouldn't shock me to see the Dolphins invite Smith to camp with a non-guaranteed contract. But there probably isn't much to see here.

THE REST

Joseph Addai
Michael Bush
Jason Snelling
Jerome Harrison
Brandon Jackson
Tim Hightower

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