We continue our examination of potential player movements this offseason with a look at running backs. The list of names fit for a change of scenery is rather thin, but in a league where previously obscure runners like Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis and Jerome Harrison rose to fantasy prominence at various points, a fantasy owner can never know too many names.
The players are listed in an inexact descending order of fantasy prominence.
1. DeAngelo Williams, 6th-year FA (CAR)
If a CBA measure is implemented that extends last year's temporary free agency system, Williams would be considered a restricted free agent. If basically any other conceivable arrangement surfaces, however, he'll almost definitely be unrestricted. One can safely assume that Carolina is hoping for an extension or last year's arrangement, as Williams definitely has a bit of trade value. One team that predictably has been linked to Williams is the Denver Broncos, where former Carolina coach John Fox is taking over. Although he is a former top-15 pick, Knowshon Moreno almost definitely doesn't have what it takes to shoulder the running game Fox plans to implement. Williams, on the other hand, had 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns as a runner for Fox in 2008. Injuries and a 4.1-yard rushing average from last year indicate that Williams isn't the same player he was in 2008, but he's still good enough to significantly increase the talent pool at running back if he should land in Denver. If he's stuck in Carolina another year, the prospect of splitting carries with the formidable Jonathan Stewart is not as appealing as a competition with Moreno.
2. Ahmad Bradshaw, 5th-year FA (NYG)
Bradshaw has always been an impressive runner, but it wasn't until last year that he received a big workload. He turned his 323 touches into 1,549 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage, but his seven fumbles were a problem, as was his rushing average of 3.8 yards in the final eight weeks. Still, Bradshaw has proven to be a good fit in the New York backfield alongside Brandon Jacobs, so look for New York to bring him back for perhaps a slightly reduced role in 2011.
3. Joseph Addai, 5th-year FA (IND)
Addai has shown solid productivity in Indianapolis' highly profitable offense, totaling 17 touchdowns in his last 23 games, but injuries have become about as common as the touchdowns for Addai these days. Still, he's just good enough to hold off other backs in Indianapolis, depriving fantasy football players of the potential fantasy goldmine that used to make Edgerrin James so valuable. It perhaps would have been nice to see if fourth-round pick Delone Carter could seize the starting spot in Indianapolis, but that likely won't happen in 2011 with Addai expected to re-sign with the team. For as much as his injuries limit him, Addai remains a standout pass blocker, a trait that's difficult to overvalue in Indianapolis' pass-happy offense.
4. Michael Bush, 5th-year FA (OAK)
Bush is perhaps the most intriguing player on the list. He's not as accomplished as Williams, Bradshaw or Addai, but his upside is undeniable. It's tempting to imagine what he'd be if he could secure a feature back role rather than the timeshare arrangement he's had in Oakland the last three years. Bush is the rare big back who can catch passes and make big plays, and his upside might be unmatched as far as potential free agents goes. The problem for fantasy owners is that Oakland appears set on holding onto him, though the selection of Taiwan Jones in the fourth round of the draft could make Oakland more open to trade talks than it might have been before the draft.
5. Ronnie Brown, UFA
Few players had more disappointing 2010 seasons than Brown. Although it was the first season in his injury-plagued career that he had the chance to start all 16 games, his production fell off a cliff as he averaged 3.7 yards per carry and ran for just 734 yards. Considering his previous career low was an average of 4.2 yards per carry, the dropoff was certainly puzzling. Assuming Brown hasn't lost a step at this point, he's a good candidate to rebound in 2011, provided he's in the right situation. As it stands, though, he'd have to find a new team before he's a desirable running back option in most fantasy leagues. The Dolphins didn't pick Daniel Thomas in the second round to sit on the bench, so Brown can expect to split carries and maybe even play off the bench if he comes back to Miami.
6. Cedric Benson, UFA
Unimpressive as he was last year while averaging 3.5 yards per carry and fumbling seven times, Benson seems to have a starting job waiting for him in Cincinnati if he doesn't make any outrageous contract demands. Benson stated this offseason that he thinks he deserves a big contract, but maybe he'll realize otherwise and accept a modest offer from Cincinnati once free agency opens. In any case, even if he's in Cincinnati, Benson figures to have a rough go of it in an offense that looks likely to start rookie Andy Dalton at quarterback.
7. Jerome Harrison, UFA
It's tough to believe that a player who ran for 561 yards and five touchdowns in a three-game span in 2009 wouldn't be useful for some team, so Harrison might be the top sleeper on this list. He ran for 99 yards on 21 carries in his Week 17 start against Dallas last year, so the small back could represent a big bargain for a team looking to run a committee rushing attack in 2011.
8. Ricky Williams, UFA
It's tough to tell what the 34-year-old has left in the tank, as well as if there's any demand for him in the free agent market, but it might not be wise to rule out a player who most thought was done in 2004 … as well as 2005 and 2006. Williams averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year in a dysfunctional offense, so he might have a bit left at this point, but it's unlikely he'll get much more than a bench role this season.
9. Jason Snelling, 5th-year FA
Snelling is the rare big back who basically specializes as a pass catcher. He only saw two games with double-digit carries last year, including one in which Michael Turner was out with an injury, yet he finished the year with 44 receptions. His average of just 3.7 yards per carry indicates that he lacks upside for a bigger role than the one he has in Atlanta, but Snelling is an interesting player to monitor in PPR leagues at least.
10. Tim Hightower, 4th-year FA
Despite possessing above-average receiving ability and an average of 4.8 yards per carry last year, Hightower is firmly on the outside looking in at this point, as the combination of Chris Wells and second-round pick Ryan Williams greatly exceeds his own talents. Still, like Snelling, Hightower has PPR potential if he's on the field. The problem is that it's tough to see him leaving Arizona, and Wells and Williams are both very talented.
A few undrafted rookies to keep an eye on are Damien Berry (Miami), Derrick Locke (Kentucky) and Noel Devine (West Virginia). Berry is the only one of the group who might project to a feature role someday, but his unimpressive showing at the Combine made him unattractive in the draft, even though he showed very good lean and aggression as a runner at Miami, where he was moved from defensive back late into his career. Locke and Devine are both undersized big-play threats who will probably need to impress as special teams players before getting a serious audition for a running back role.