Bush, Jacobs and the eye of the beholder

Man, running back really is a funny position these days in the NFL, isn't it? Last week, Mike Tolbert, who has 303 carries and 19 touchdowns over the past two seasons, signed a free-agent deal to be a fullback on a Carolina Panthers team that has two starting-caliber tailbacks. Thursday, Michael Bush, who had 977 rushing yards and 418 receiving yards in 2011, signed a free-agent deal with the Bears, who have designated star running back Matt Forte as their franchise player.

I have New York Giants asking me what all of this means for Brandon Jacobs, who was released a couple of weeks ago after he and the Giants couldn't agree on the size of the pay cut he would take in order to remain on the team. A lot of people think the slow and weird running back market means Jacobs is likely to return to the Giants, since it portends a lack of opportunity to find a better deal elsewhere. I think that's possible, but I don't think it's that cut and dried. I think it comes down to whether there's a team out there that has a specific role in mind for Jacobs.

Of the top 15 running backs (according to our Scouts Inc. grades) who hit the open market when free agency opened last Tuesday, Bush is just the fourth to sign. And all four have been backs who spent 2011 in time-share or backup roles. (Jacobs ranks No. 3 on this list, since I'm not counting the two guys at the top who got franchised and therefore didn't hit the open market.)

What's it all mean? Well, teams have come to realize that there's not much value in throwing big free-agent bucks at running backs when good ones can be found in the middle and late rounds of the draft. But it also shows that running back beauty today is very much in the eye of the beholder.

If you're a free-agent running back on this year's market, you need to hope some team has a very specific role or job in mind for you. The Panthers wanted Tolbert because they saw in him a fullback who could pick up big yards for them in short-yardage spots or at the goal line. The Bears wanted Bush because ... well, they always seem to want a high-profile backup behind Forte since they don't like to give Forte the goal-line carries. Also, it's possible Forte could hold out, demand a trade or refuse to sign his franchise tender. Forte's unhappy in Chicago, and the Bears helped their leverage by signing a guy who showed he could handle starter's duties last year in Oakland when Darren McFadden got hurt.

Jacobs wouldn't have fit either of those roles, which is why he's not a Panther or a Bear. But that doesn't mean there's not a team out there who sees Jacobs as a fit for what they need in their backfield. He brings some things other running backs don't bring. He's by far the biggest and most physical back on that Scouts Inc. list, taller and heavier than even the guys who are being signed for fullback roles. He's as physical a runner as there is in the league, and he's got open-field speed that befits a much smaller guy. No, he's not the same terrifying force he was earlier in his career, but he can help, as he did the Giants in 2011. He's also got two Super Bowl rings, which is something I'm fairly certain no one else on the list can claim. And yeah, that kind of thing does appeal to teams.

The Giants have a spot for him -- in the same championship time-share in which he spent 2011 with his buddy Ahmad Bradshaw. They haven't filled it yet, and as the central point of this post indicates, there's no rush for them to do so. If Jacobs decides he wants to go back and take the offer they gave him two weeks ago, there's a decent chance that spot will still be waiting for him. But he's not in any rush either. There are still teams with holes in their backfields, and one of those teams might just decide Jacobs is the guy they want. Running back is a strange and sl0w-moving market this year, and I don't think we can know anything just yet about where Jacobs fits into it, and whether he goes back to the Giants or not.