NFL Free Agent RB Signings - Reggie Bush to Detroit and Steven Jackson to Falcons
Reggie Bush became the first of the big-name, free-agent running backs leave the market when he signed a four-year contract with the Detroit Lions. Bush's deal is reportedly for $16 million with a $4 million signing bonus.
It will be an even bigger bonus for the Lions' offense, which finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing last year at 1613 yards. While Detroit will benefit as a whole, no single teammate will enjoy Bush's presence more than quarterback Matthew Stafford. This is an ideal fit for Stafford, who not only gets a bona fide running back to draw attention from opposing defenses, but he also gets one whose specialty is pass-catching out of the backfield. Bush is averaging 53 receptions in his seven NFL seasons. Never has he caught fewer than 34 balls, and that total came when he played a mere eight games with the Saints in 2010. The former former Heisman Trophy winner (yes, double "former" if you know what I mean) averaged a relatively modest 39 catches in two full campaigns with the Dolphins, but he was dealing with a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill last season and in 2011 he was on the receiving end of passes from Matt Moore and Chad Henne.
Detroit's offense, on the other hand, will continue to be of the high-octane variety. The Lions finished third in the league in yards at 408.8 per game despite barely having a semblance of a running game. They were second in passing yards per contest at 307.9, trailing only Drew Brees' Saints. Calvin Johnson, of course, set the all-time record for receiving yards with 1964 while hauling in 122 strikes from Stafford. The Bush signing is good news for Megatron simply because it likely means wins for Detroit and it also means more touchdown opportunities for everyone on offense. Johnson's yardage total, however, is not going to be repeated. Bush is going to cut into the percentage of passes that Johnson catches and Stafford won't have as many attempts, either, because there is no way the Lions are going to be as bad as they were in 2012. They won't be playing from behind the entire time, which will allow them to run clock with either handoffs or short passes to Bush.
This is bad news, fantasy-wise, for fellow running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell. Leshoure and Bell are generally between-the-tackles runners and therefore vastly different from Bush, but sharing a backfield with someone that could be close to having feature-back status (if not all the way there) certainly won't help their production levels. Seeing the majority of the work in 2012, Leshoure rushed 215 times for 798 yards and nine touchdowns. His scores may not take too much of a hit with Bush on board, but his carries—and therefore his yards—will suffer a significant setback. As for Bell, he may have had marginal fantasy value if the Lions had not snagged another running back. Now that they have, Bell basically has none unless either Bush or Leshoure gets hurt. The status of Kevin Smith, meanwhile, hardly changes. Smith slowly got worked out of the rotation as last season progressed, so his value was already negligible. Now it is past negligible, if there is such a thing.
With Bush no longer available, the Atlanta Falcons looked to fill the Michael Turner void with another veteran, Steven Jackson. Of course, Atlanta always seemed to be more interested in Jackson than Bush—or any other running back—in the first place. General manager Thomas Dimitroff tried to land Jackson from St. Louis as early as last season's trade deadline, but a swap never came to fruition. The Falcons finally got their man via free agency when Jackson signed a three-year, $12 million deal.
The three-time Pro Bowler has been a serviceable fantasy option at best since being arguably the game's top runner in 2006, when he rushed for 1528 yards and 13 touchdowns while also catching 90 passes. He has not found the endzone more than seven times on the ground since that season and he has averaged just 4.75 scores over his last four campaigns. Jackson, however, has been stuck with a dismal team and a woeful supporting cast—including a porous offensive line and an air attack that earned no respect from opposing defenses.
To say the case won't be the same in Atlanta would be a gross understatement. The Falcons are set at just about every position with Matt Ryan at quarterback, a dynamite receiving duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White, and they have already addressed the tight end spot (convinced Tony Gonzalez to return) and the offensive line (re-signed Garrett Reynolds and Sam Baker). After finishing 10th in the NFL in total offense two seasons ago, the Falcons were eighth in the same category last year. That bodes extremely well for Jackson, who won't be seeing a constant dose of eight-man defensive fronts like he did in St. Louis; not with one of the league's most feared passing games surrounding him. Furthermore, consider this: Turner had 102 carries inside opponents' 10-yard lines over the past three seasons, second most in the NFL behind only Arian Foster. In the same span, Jackson had 43—tied for 17th most, one spot behind Cam Newton (who was only in the league for two of the last three seasons!). Also keep in mind the style of offense in which Jackson will be playing. In his first campaign under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, on passes behind the line of scrimmage Atlanta's offense had 66 more completions and 559 more yards than it did in 2011.
Why do Atlanta's pass-happy efforts benefit Jackson, you ask? Well, he is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the business. Not once since his rookie year—when he played sparingly and finished with 14 catches—has Jackson hauled in fewer than 38 passes in any season. As mentioned earlier, he made 90 receptions in 2006 and as recently as 2009 he recorded the second highest single-season catch total of his career (51).
The fact that Atlanta will continue to have a presence in the backfield can only benefit guys like Gonzalez, Jones, and White. Obviously it helps Ryan more than anyone, as the sixth-year signal-caller should be able to improve upon career-best numbers in 2012 (4719 yards and 32 touchdowns) with a feature running back who is far more adept at pass-catching than Turner. Ryan averaged 442.5 attempts in his first two seasons, 568.5 in his next two, and then had 615 last year. That number should soar even higher in 2013. The fantasy stocks of Gonzalez, Jones, and White would have preferred a running back who doesn't steal as many receptions, but this signing should not hurt anyone in Atlanta. Now it just remains to be seen if Jackson has as much wear and tear on his body as Turner did. Stay tuned.