NFL running backs are often under-appreciated, underpaid, and many have very short shelf lives. An idea held by many smart football people is that a good or even very good running back can be acquired later on in a NFL Draft and then held onto for the majority of that player's best days via a cheap rookie contract. It's one that, on paper, makes a lot of sense.
Keep in mind, when reviewing the list below, that the top young running backs in the NFL are on rookie deals, and thus they have very small cap numbers. Offering millions upon millions of dollars for a RB who isn't a top-five or even a top-three back is, to put it bluntly, bad business. Unfortunately, the NFL is filled with such cases. Here are the top 10 running back busts for 2013.
10 Chris Johnson - Tennessee Titans: $12 million in 2013
Johnson is not a conventional bust in that he didn't have a bad 2013. He rushed for over 1,077 yards, and he also had ten total touchdowns; six rushing and four receiving.
He makes this list because only one running back, Adrian Peterson, had a larger cap number ($13.9 million) than did Johnson last season. Peterson was the MVP for what was a lousy Minnesota Vikings team, while Johnson finished behind ten other running backs for most rushing yards on the year. His cap number goes down to $10 million in 2014, but there's speculation that he and Tennessee could part ways in March.
9 Darren Sproles - New Orleans Saints: $3.75 million in 2013
I'm sure there are some out there who would call me crazy to even mention Sproles in this list. He was, after all, fourth on his team in receptions with 71. That said, there is speculation that the Saints could cut Sproles to save some cash.
He doesn't make crazy money, be he also contributed a “meh” 824 total yards from scrimmage. As with other cases, however, the Saints can get that type of production from a younger player who still has upside and would have a much cheaper contract.
8 Steven Jackson - Atlanta Falcons: $2,916,666 in 2013
I admittedly went back and forth on this one. Jackson has taken beatings in just about every one of his ten years in the league, and he will go down as one of the great backs of his era. His best days are clearly behind him though, and as has been proven by other clubs, the Falcons could get better production at a cheaper price from a younger player.
The magic number for running backs nearing the light at the end of the tunnel is 30 years old. Jackson turned 30 last summer. He's an athletic marvel, and him beating the trend wouldn't be shocking. Jackson's cap number goes up to over $4.1 million next season, but he's just not worth it at this stage of the game.
7 Ahmad Bradshaw - Indianapolis Colts: $1,918,750 in 2013
The Colts had a disastrous season in the way the team handled its rushing attack. Bradshaw, who has a history of foot injuries, signed a one-year deal with Indy last offseason, but he played in only three games with the team before having season-ending neck surgery in October. The belief is that he would be third on the depth chart of the Colts were he to return to the team; and that isn't happening.
Bradshaw was, if I'm being technical about it, more of a miss than a bust. The Colts gave a guy who has had successful seasons and who has won championships a decent deal. It didn't work out. These things happen.
6 Michael Bush - Chicago Bears: $3.355 million in 2013
Backup running backs are extremely important, especially for a team that has one of the best in the game in the backfield. That said, Chicago does not need to spend over $3 million for such a player, especially when he averages 3.1 yards per carry and will turn 30 years old this coming summer.
The Bears need a short-yardage option, one who is also going to finish the season with at least 200 total rushing yards. Bush isn't that player. It seems a guarantee that he will be cut.
5 Ray Rice - Baltimore Ravens: $5.75 million in 2013
Several years back, somebody within the league warned me about Rice only having so many good seasons left in him. At a generous 5'8" and 212 lbs, Rice was an ideal candidate to get banged up earlier than some other running backs his age. That was exactly what happened in 2013, as he was reportedly hurting even before the start of the season.
Rice admitted earlier this past week that playing with an injured hip was a wrong move. Doing so played a part in his averaging only 3.1 yards per carry. I would take a healthy Rice on my team any day of the week.
Now he just has to show that he can get and remain healthy for an entire season.
4 Maurice-Jones Drew - Jacksonville Jaguars: $6.8 million in 2013
It's already been confirmed by the Jaguars that they will allow Jones-Drew to test the open market. He didn't rush for 1,000 yards despite appearing in 15 games, he only scored five touchdowns and his yards per carry average plummeted from 4.8 in 2012 to 3.4 last season.
MJD is going to have to do more than just drop some weight and then keep those pounds off in order to get a deal that is to his liking this coming spring. He's going to have to show during workouts and physicals that he can still go week in and week out.
The Jags did well to run the best offensive player in franchise history into the ground.
3 Arian Foster - Houston Texans: $8.250 million in 2013
Foster has had a rough stretch of time over the past several months. He elected to have season-ending back surgery in November. He was also sued by a woman who is claiming that Foster and others forced her into having an abortion.
As demonstrated by New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in 2013, coming back from back surgery is no easy task for anybody, let alone a football player. Foster's rehab will be one of the biggest NFL stories of the spring and summer months.
2 Trent Richardson - Indianapolis Colts: $1,165,901 in 2013
Unless things change and in a massive way, Indianapolis is going to regret trading for Richardson for years to come. Richardson regressed after being traded by Cleveland to the Colts in September, and he ended the season with a 2.9 yards per carry average. There is some guy on an NFL practice squad who could contribute that on Sundays.
Add in that Indianapolis gave up a first round pick to get Richardson, and you could argue that he's the biggest bust of them all. Who could have imagined during his Alabama days that he would be labeled as a guy who doesn't run hard and who doesn't hit holes up front?
1 Darren McFadden - Oakland Raiders: $9,685,084 in 2013
Some team is going to give McFadden a deal this offseason. I'd shy away if I was a general manager unless McFadden and his people offered quite the discount. He has never survived a full 16-game NFL season, he only played in ten games in 2013, and he averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season.
McFadden will, unless he finds a way to elude an injury bug that finds him every fall, go down as a case of “what could have been.” His 1,157-yard campaign back in 2010 feels like ages ago.