Transaction Analysis: Running Backs
by Rivers McCown
Atlanta Falcons signed running back Steven Jackson to a three-year, $12 million deal
I wrote about this deal right after it happened for Insider. Jackson hasn't been a statistically dominant back over the past few seasons -- his 5.3% DVOA last season was the best he's done since 2009 -- but he's also been stuck on a lot of bad teams, and was often the only guy opposing defenses keyed on stopping.
The interesting thing about this signing is the symbolism it provides for the position as a whole. Jackson hasn't ever been a megastar, but he's been a consistent Pro Bowl threat, has made some second-team All-Pro appearances, and is the active leader in rushing yardage. He broke fewer tackles than ever before, dropping from 50 in 2009 to just 19 last season, but still had a pretty productive season in St. Louis.
But NFL teams have learned. They've learned not to invest in 30-year-old running backs anymore. The days of Edgerrin James getting four years and $30 million are a relic of the past. The last time the Falcons dipped into the free-agent market to find a running back, they came up with Michael Turner and invested $15 million guaranteed into him despite his total lack of track record. That was in 2008, but things have shifted so quickly that it now feels like it happened in 1998.
Two players appear twice when we run three-year Sim Scores for Jackson: Thurman Thomas (93-95, 94-96) and Curtis Martin (00-02, 01-03). Thomas was effectively done as a full-time back after 1996 at age 30, and rode a few part-time years with the Bills into the sunset before getting 28 extremely awkward carries with the Dolphins and hanging it up. (Thurman Thomas Dolphins jerseys are right up there with Mike Piazza Marlins jerseys.) Martin -- a freakishly durable back if there ever was one -- finally got seriously hurt in 2005, at age 32, after one more typically excellent Curtis Martin season.
I'd be concerned about this deal for a lot of reasons if it had happened in an era where Jackson would actually be compensated like James or Turner. The broken tackle trend is troubling, the offensive line seems to be relying an awful lot on Peter Konz being great right away, and it feels like the goal is to hope Jackson is the Tony Gonzalez of running backs.
But at three years and $12 million, with little of that actually guaranteed, there's just not that much risk in this move.
Detroit Lions signed running back Reggie Bush to four-year, $16 million deal
I can see what the Lions were thinking when they pulled the trigger on this move. I don't think I, personally, would have invested in Bush at this level. But let's look it over for a second.
Bush has finished one season of his career with a positive DVOA as a runner: 2009, when he had just 70 carries. Despite the fact that he's a high-volume target as a passing game weapon, he's only had an above-average receiving DVOA in three of his seven years in the league. In fact, since the Lions had Joique Bell on the roster last season, and Bell finished behind only Darren Sproles in receiving DYAR for running backs, one could argue that Bush's contributions are statistically meaningless.
On the other hand, Bush is a much better fit as a power runner in Detroit's scheme than he was in Miami's more zone-based scheme last season. His ability to recognize and attack cutback holes borders on non-existent. Also, Bell is not exactly the kind of weapon that Bush is in the passing game. Bush can line up in the slot and be effective with a high volume of targets, and he's definitely more used to running actual routes than Bell.
Bush is a pretty unique back historically -- three-year Sim Scores for him start in the 700's rather than the 800's -- but there is some hope to be found in them. No. 1 comp Charlie Garner (98-2000) re-invented himself as a versatile passing game weapon in Oakland under Marc Trestman. No. 2 comp Robert Smith (non-Cure version, 1996-1998), was a load until he retired early.
Ultimately, this feels like a reactionary move on the surface. As if after watching Matthew Stafford spend the last five games of the season skipping passes to Calvin Johnson while Kris Durham and the Kris Durham Fifth Receiver Jug Band had a complete inability to get open, the Lions front office decided that they needed to make sure they had a high-volume target on hand. I would argue that the Lions, who are cap-strapped by megadeals for Johnson, Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh, could have addressed more important needs than having the Coke version of Bell's Coke Zero on hand.
Tennessee Titans signed running back Shonn Greene to a three-year, $10 million deal
There was a bit of a market correction during the free-agency period this offseason. Players will call it collusion, owners will call it economic realities -- the point is that after the first few days of free agency, players tended to get less than they were expected to get. The Seahawks practically bought a whole new pass rush on one-year deals because of it.
Anyway, this was news to Bud Adams and the Titans, who decided to approach free agency with the old-school approach of aggressively trying to fix perceived need areas regardless of the cost. They brought in Andy Levitre to help fix the offensive line, they overpaid Delanie Walker because they didn't want to overpay Jared Cook, and then they signed Shonn Greene.
[ad placeholder 3]
There is nothing particularly wrong with Greene. He had his first below-average seasonal DVOA last year, and he only did that after the rest of the Jets offense collapsed under the weight of passing-game ineptitude. It's just that Greene has nothing particularly special to offer as a running back. There is no fifth gear. In fact, there's barely a fourth gear. His three-year Sim Scores are littered with other high-volume runners that became irrelevant quickly: Julius Jones, DeShaun Foster, Cedric Benson, Adrian Murrell, Ryan Grant. He is your average NFL running back. And given that you can usually find that guy in the fifth round of the draft (or the seventh, or as an undrafted free agent), that is no longer worth $3 million a year. Except in Tennessee, apparently.
There is a cottage industry in Chris Johnson's mind: reasons Chris Johnson hasn't been as productive as he once was. First it was the passing game, then it was the run blocking. This year, with Chance Warmack, Levitre, and Brian Schwenke, the Titans are closer than they've ever been to running him out of excuses for poor play.
Of course, the fact that they were inclined enough to have Greene at this price in the first place tells you all you need to know about how they actually view Johnson's annual boasts of his next 2,000-yard season.
New York Jets signed running back Mike Goodson to three-year, $6.9 million deal
Blink and you'll miss him. Goodson has played four NFL seasons and has just 160 carries -- mostly this is because he gets dinged up pretty easily, but he also started out with the Panthers, who have had a full running back depth chart for years. He had a superlative small-sample size performance last year, with a 24.8% rushing DVOA, a 70.1% receiving DVOA, a 100 percent catch rate, and a 100 percent chance of regression.
After signing this contract, Goodson was arrested for marijuana and weapon possession. Then the Jets traded a fourth-round pick for Chris Ivory, who also gets dinged up a lot, but who they actually think has the talent to be a top-10 back. Goodson ostensibly fits in well as a third-down back, because Ivory has been targeted on five passes in three seasons with the Saints, but the era where Goodson was going to be the starting running back sure ended quickly.
I suppose I can see the logic behind the Jets fiddling with this. They brought in Geno Smith, they have a pair of young highly-drafted wideouts in Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill, as well as a large investment in Santonio Holmes. They're in the timeframe where offensive rebuilding expectations clash against reality, with the winner determining how they move forward in the passing game. And it's not like it cost so much to bring in this duo.
But neither of them has proven anything, both of them make more (and are older than) the typical NFL rookie, and they could have just kept the fourth-rounder and drafted four cost-controlled seasons of Jonathan Franklin or Marcus Lattimore. So, it sure seems like an awful lot of maneuvering for little real payoff.
Arizona Cardinals signed running back Rashard Mendenhall to a one-year, $2.5 million contract
Mendenhall's claim to fame this year, beyond Bruce Arians saying that Mendenhall "personally took him" to a Super Bowl, is being a marker for how detailed your fantasy football guide is. Now that Tanier got the backstory out of the way for us, let's look at the numbers.
Mendenhall was relatively famous for a short time by virtue of being a fantasy football running back on the Steelers, but he's had just one season with a positive DVOA: 2011. He's also been up-and-down at best as a receiver out of the backfield. He has had the pedigree of a good running back -- he just never actually was one.
The optimistic spin is that there's a reason he was a first-round pick. A return to full health and a lack of other established options in Arizona could be exactly what he needs to get back there. By signing Eric Winston, the Cardinals have upgraded to "at least trying" to upgrade the offensive line again, and Bobby Massie can slide over to guard to get some extra bulk up front.
And if it's not meant to be, well, it cost Arizona almost nothing to find out. If Ryan Williams is healthy -- and actually good -- in camp, Mendenhall likely doesn't have enough cachet with Arians to hold Williams out of the lineup.