Running back is easily the position with the greatest opportunity
for a rookie to make an immediate impact on a fantasy owner’s
roster. The list of the best all-time rookie fantasy performances
for tailbacks clearly illustrates this fact:
|Rookie RBs At Their Best
For seven of the past ten seasons, a rookie runner ended the season
no lower than 8th overall for fantasy RBs. Since rookie RBs are
rarely taken in the first two rounds of re-draft leagues, that’s
potentially quite a bargain for the discerning owner. I remember
drafting Clinton Portis in the 9th round of a re-draft league in
2002. Portis fell this far because he wasn’t the opening day
starter, but it was worth sitting on the player to see if he got
a shot at playing time.
That’s really the key—how many carries will the rookie
see? Will the rookie be the feature back from day one, or will
he at least be the sure-fire backup to the starter? Neither Dominic
Davis nor Corey Dillon were on this list, but their rookie stretch
runs as injury substitutes for Edgerrin James and Kijana Carter,
helped many owners win championships.
Historical statistics for the last 54 years are remarkably consistent
when one profiles rookie production by an average range of rushing
attempts. Since 1950 there were 1,545 rookie running backs in
the NFL. As one would expect, the overall average performance
for the these rookies is pretty under whelming due to the fact
a lot of rookie running backs are drafted as backups, special
teams contributors, and developmental projects. On the other hand,
the data is worth examining when broken down by total carries
in a season:
|Rookie RBs - By Attempts:
As with any NFL RB, a rookie that earns 300 or more carries in a
season is going to put up fantasy quality numbers equivalent to
a #1 RB in an owner’s starting lineup. Most of the rookies
accomplishing this feat were highly touted starters from opening
Since it appears there will at least be 2-3 opening day rookie
starters at RB in 2005, it’s worth considering the amount
of rookie RBs each decade that have hit this 300+ carry total.
After the first five seasons of the millennium, the NFL is on
track for at least 4 rookie running backs to reach the vaunted
mark—pretty close to the amount of backs that did so in
the previous two decades. Out of 1545 total backs ever to have
a rookie season it’s highly unlikely to happen for just
any runner, but a fantasy owner can usually count on the pool
to be limited to first day draft picks at the position.
Rookies earning 250-299 carries are generally starters from opening
day or prospects that gradually earn more time as the season progresses.
Although the fantasy totals aren’t as impressive as the
300+ carry workhorses, the production is still worthy of a starting
roster spot to an owner. In some cases, these backs assume the
workhorse role at mid-season and carry fantasy owners down the
|Rookie RBs - By Attempts:
Nearly fifty percent of these rookie performances occurred in the
1990’s and the projections for the first half of the millennium
appear the NFL is on track to have another 4-5 rookies approach
these stats in the next five years.
Talent and opportunity are the keys for a rookie runner to have
an immediate impact. The talent level of the 2005 RB draft class
is excellent—maybe as good of class that fantasy owners
have seen since 2001:
- LaDanian Tomlinson—A perennial top five back.
- Deuce McAllister—A perennial top ten back.
- Michael Bennett—A quality fantasy starter when
featured and healthy.
- Anthony Thomas—2001 rookie of the year and still
a capable runner.
- Lamont Jordan—Finally gets his chance in Oakland.
- Travis Henry—Quality starter prior to emergence
- Kevan Barlow—Starter with potential on the right
- Rudi Johnson—Took over for Dillon and never looked
- Correll Buckhalter—Capable of starting when featured
- Derrick Blaylock—Can put up some quality fantasy
games when called upon.
2005’s class has that depth of talent. Once again, the
key is the opportunity. There is already an oft-mentioned glut
of RBs in the NFL, but due to the short-career span of the position,
chances are the situation will change quickly. Domanick Davis
and Mewelde Moore were never meant to see the field as rookies.
They weren’t even the #2 RBs on their depth chart. Although
these two players illustrate why it’s worthwhile to know
something about rookies drafted after the 3rd round, their chances
of starting are slim, and having a significant and lasting impact
over the course of the season, even slimmer.
Based on their chances for carries, here are the rookie RBs and
my view of their potential fantasy impact in 2005:
Right Here, Right Now
Carnell “Cadillac” Williams,
Buccaneers: Jon Gruden is notorious for his RBBC approach
as a head coach, but he’s never before had a prospect this
talented. The last time Gruden coached a running back approaching
this level of skill was as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia
with Ricky Watters. A lot of fantasy owners expect Williams to
be a part of an RBBC with Michael Pittman, Charlie Garner, and
Mike Alstott. But consider what Watters did as the Eagle’s
Gruden made it clear the organization drafted Williams with the
fifth pick overall because they expect to give him 25 touches
per game, and feature him in the offense. When asked if Cadillac
would be the opening day starter for the Bucs, Gruden’s
response was “There's no question about that. You don't
pick a guy this high to make him a nickel back or make him an
exclusive role player". Ricky Watters in the three seasons
above averaged 20 carries per game and the receiving yardage alone
indicates the total touches are more in the range of 25-30 per
game. Gruden has been enamored with Williams’ talent for
a long time. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been talking about
watching Auburn highlights on ESPN while game planning for Sundays.
Gruden never claimed he was making Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley,
Michael Pittman, or Thomas Jones his featured runners in previous
seasons. Some question the pick, but would any manager in the
business world outside of sports place the bulk of the responsibility
on a player like Michael Pittman with his recent history? This
is a player one misstep away from serving time. Even those in
the world of sports aren’t going to take that risk too often.
Regardless of this point, Pittman is an athletic back with good
receiving skills, but he doesn’t possess the same talent
as Williams to carry the football.
What makes Williams so special? First and foremost, it’s
Cadillac’s vision and patience as an interior runner. This
is what separates great NFL running backs like Priest Holmes and
Marshall Faulk from great athletes like LeShon Johnson and Leland
McElroy that carried a football in college with success but not
in the pros. Power and speed mean little if the player can’t
set up his blockers and exploit the small openings in the defense.
Williams is a terrific interior runner. If he weren’t,
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville certainly wouldn’t have made
Williams the starter and goal line option over a punisher like
Ronnie Brown. Speaking of punishing running styles, Williams both
knows how to avoid a big hit and deliver a blow. Backs like Corey
Dillon, Curtis Martin, Ricky Watters, and Walter Payton possessed
similar skills and these two traits helped them earn lengthy careers
for a position with the shortest span of longevity in the NFL.
As a freshman, Williams had a 41-carry, 167-yard, and 2–td
game against a University of Georgia defense featuring the following
- Safeties: Thomas Davis (Panthers) and Jermaine Phillips
- Linebackers: Boss Bailey (Lions) and Will Witherspoon
- Defensive Linemen: Charles Grant and Jonathan Sullivan
(Saints), and David Pollack (Bengals)
41-carries as a freshman against these players is a statement.
So were Cadillac’s 4 receptions for 78 yards. The main concern
about Williams is whether he can be a durable starter in the NFL.
Williams suffered two injuries at Auburn, but neither were wear
and tear issues with joints. He broke his leg and his collarbone.
Bone breaks are generally non-threatening to a career unless the
bone is shattered and not a clean break. Williams’ injuries
weren’t that serious. Although the SEC isn’t close
to the NFL, it sends as many, if not more players to the pros
than any other conference in recent years. This is the arguably
the most athletic conference in college football. Williams carried
the load successfully against top-notch competition as much as
any RB in the draft. Williams had fourteen games in his college
career with over 20 carries—including many against top tier
|2004 @ Tennessee
|2004 vs. Georgia
|2003 vs. Tennessee
|2003 @ Arkansas
|2003 vs. Alabama
|2003 @ USC
|2002 vs. Syracuse
|2002 vs. Arkansas
|2001 vs. Arkansas
|2001 @ Georgia
These are well-coached defensive units and Williams was able
to maintain at least a 4 ypc average in all of these performances.
Although these defenses knew Williams was Auburn’s primary
weapon, they still couldn’t render him ineffective.
So then why is Ronnie Brown rated as the better prospect? Brown
passes the eyeball test for NFL personnel staff. He’s 230
lbs, as fast as Williams, a great receiver, and an excellent blocker.
To scouts and general managers, this makes Brown a more NFL-ready
Why wouldn’t Tommy Tuberville make Brown the starter if
he were the better overall player? Tuberville is a terrific coach
that handled his running back situation better than most college
coaches with three major talents at the position. Don’t
forget Brandon Jacobs was at Auburn for a couple of years as well.
Although Williams and Brown deserve the credit they receive for
being good teammates, don’t think for a minute Tuberville’s
leadership didn’t have a profound impact on making the situation
work as it did.
Tuberville knew he couldn’t maintain continuity and rhythm
on his offense if he rotated three backs in and out of the lineup.
At the same time, he wanted to keep these great runners at the
university. He made a great decision to clearly define the roles
for Williams and Brown so they could make an impact on the field.
The odd man out was Brandon Jacobs, but not without first trying
to convert Jacobs to a different position. The point is the coaching
staff that saw more of both backs than anyone for the last four
years thought Williams was the better starter for their system.
Obviously, the decision was probably very tough considering the
fact Brown had enough ability to be the first RB off the draft
Because NFL teams had to split hairs in the same way Coach Tuberville
had to at Auburn, there is a tendency for over-analysis: what
the NFL-types liked from Ronnie Brown somewhat overshadowed Williams’
capabilities in those same areas. First of all, Williams is 5-10,
215 lbs.—certainly big enough to be an NFL feature back.
Second, Williams is a more than capable receiver. He didn’t
get a lot of opportunities because it wasn’t his defined
role, but he made some critical receptions on game day. Anyway,
why would Jon Gruden draft a back that can’t be a weapon
out of the backfield as a receiver when his entire offensive philosophy
is tailored towards this type of personnel?
Gruden is a great offensive coach. He’s made more journeymen
quarterbacks into statistical leaders at their position than anyone
outside of Denny Green. Jeff George, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson,
and last year Brian Griese even had respectable moments. The offensive
line is solid and the defense is still strong enough to keep the
game close. This situation and Cadillac Williams’ skill
set makes him the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the
Year, and the fantasy rookie with potentially the greatest impact
to a roster. A 1200-yard season on the ground with another 300
in the air with 8-9 touchdowns is definitely within the realm
of possibility. Those are fantasy numbers worthy of a top ten
back that will be available as a late #2 RB or early #3 RB in
J.J. Arrington, Cardinals:
This is a case where the player’s situation may eclipse
his corresponding talent. Arrington, arguably more so than Aaron
Rodgers, was the catalyst of the California offense. The Cal Bear
rushed for 2018 yards, 15 touchdowns, and averaged 7 yards per
carry. His performances included a 21-carry 112-yard effort versus
The 5-8, 206-lb., runner’s style and physical dimensions
places him somewhere along the spectrum of Brian Westbrook and
Tiki Barber. While Marcel Shipp is a tough, intelligent runner,
he doesn’t possess the game-breaking skills of Arrington.
Dennis Green, like Jon Gruden with Carnell Williams, is a talented
offensive mind in the pro game that clearly had his eye on Arrington
for a while and expects the rookie to contribute, if not start,
The Cardinals offense has a chance to fulfill much of its upside
in 2005 with Fitzgerald and Boldin on the outside and Warner behind
center. Although Warner hasn’t displayed the same level
of performance he did as a Ram, he’s an effective pocket
quarterback—something Josh McCown hasn’t learned just
yet. Warner piloted the Giants to a shot at playoff contention
all the while behind a sub-par offensive line and his only good
outside receiver (Amani Toomer) gutting out a hamstring injury.
Last year, the Cardinals were a predictable offense due to injury.
Emmitt Smith isn’t a great receiver out of the backfield;
Boldin and Fitzgerald were either sidelined, or played gimpy for
half the season; and that certainly didn’t help a young
player like McCown. Green knows that an explosive back is the
one thing that can make help the offense improve. He has a flair
for placing game breaking runners in ideal situations for fantasy
|Green's Back History
The downside with Green is he hasn’t had much luck with
selecting runners that can stay healthy for an entire season.
Fortunately for fantasy owners, Arrington has rarely been overvalued
in drafts at this point due to his size, second round draft status,
and Marcel Shipp as the incumbent. Although I believe Ronnie Brown
will likely start from week one and be at least as good of a dynasty
prospect, Arrington is the guy I believe could have the strongest
finish to the season and make a greater fantasy impact for 2005.
Ronnie Brown, Dolphins: Most
fantasy owners consider Brown the best back in the draft and the
one with the greatest potential impact. From appearances, it’s
difficult to argue with them. Nick Saban said the Brown put more
of his LSU players in the training room over the course of his
career in Baton Rouge than any other player. This is a 5-11, 230-lb
runner with sub-4.5 speed, great hands, and better skills as a
blocker than any back in the draft. Brown is the ultimate downhill
runner. He’ll make his cut and either run over you or run
past you. This is the kind of back that will make a offensive
line look better than they really are—something Miami will
need as Saban rebuilds.
Detractors of Brown’s status claim the Auburn back up didn’t
have enough performances to show whether he can be an every down
back. Although Brown didn’t have more than 16 carries in
a single game from 2003-2004, his 2002 performances as the injury
replacement to Carnell Williams indicate he’s capable of
being the feature back in an NFL offense:
|Can Brown Carry The Load?
|2002 @ Florida
|2002 vs. LSU
|2002 @ Mississippi
|2002 vs. Georgia
|2003 vs. Penn State
The 37-carry 184-yard bowl performance versus Penn State was
where many people took notice of Brown as a prospect. The high
extraordinarily high average per carry against this quality of
competition is another attractive reason for scouts to rate him
as a top tier player.
The only reservation I have with Brown’s impact in re-draft
leagues is the state of the Dolphins in 2005. A.J. Feeley did
nothing to demonstrate he’s starting material in 2004. Gus
Frerotte is a more erratic version of the Bengals’ Jon Kitna—a
streaky player capable of great fantasy games, but needs a lot
of help around him. In fact, that’s why Kitna won the job
over Frerotte in Cincinnati prior to the team drafting Carson
Palmer. It’s not unreasonable to expect the Dolphins to
struggle. Their division is stacked with quality rush defenses
and they will attempt to force Miami to an air attack. As good
as a receiver that Brown may be, he’ll need a decent quarterback
to find him in coverage. Gus Frerotte and his regular, 3-touchdown/4-interception
games isn’t one to inspire confidence.
Then there’s Ricky Williams. As of this writing, the best
thing that can happen to Ronnie Brown is either Williams doesn’t
return to the team, or arrives severely out of football shape.
If Williams defies expectations and returns to form, or at 195
lbs, looks like the second coming of Barry Sanders, Brown could
be wind up in a similar role as he did at Auburn. But Williams’
presence in the locker room is a definite wild card. No one knows
how Williams will impact the morale of this team—most assume
it will be a huge negative.
As a dynasty owner, I’d rank Ronnie Brown second to Cadillac
Williams over the long term and nearly equal in ability. The greatest
issue is the Miami offense. Although Nick Saban and former Vikings
coordinator Scott Linehan have a good track record for developing
prolific offenses, don’t count on it changing that quickly
in Miami’s favor in year one. But as Coach Saban rebuilds,
expect Brown to evolve from an 800-1000-yard rookie, to at least
a 1200-yard runner with double-digit touchdowns.
Cedric Benson, Bears: There
is a respectable contingent of fantasy owners that view Benson
as the most talented back in this draft. At 5-10 and 220 lbs.,
Benson is a workhorse known for a physical running style that
punishes opposing defenders late in the game. Many compare Benson
to a young Stephen Davis—a power back with a nice burst
of speed, but not the kind of acceleration that will consistently
get him outside of the tackles. I think Benson’s style lies
somewhere between Davis and Curtis Martin—a slashing runner
that avoids the big hit.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle did a story featuring
a view of Benson according to C.O. Brocato, regarded as one of
the best NFL scouts in the business. A 30-year veteran of the
scouting game, Brocato was one of the first to identify Barry
Sanders as a great talent—while he was backing up Thurman
Thomas. Brocato believes Benson compares more favorably than Ricky
Williams at similar points in their careers:
"Yeah, and this kid's got that kind of ability, too,"
Brocato said. "He's faster than Williams. Ricky was a straight-ahead
runner with a burst. Benson can do everything Ricky did, and he's
got some moves, too."
This is the kind of perspective that should have most fantasy
owners sit up and take notice. At he same time, I remember reading
a Sports Illustrated feature in 1998 that said Ricky Williams
displayed Barry Sanders-like moves as a Longhorn. Much of this is
highly debatable, but there’s no denying that Benson is a
proven back at a big-time college program. He carried the load for
four seasons and his totals improved every year as the offensive
talent around him decreased in quality. Although not known as a
receiver, Benson’s receiving totals compare favorably with
prospects generally regarded as good pass catchers and he’s
demonstrated the goods in Bears training camp.
Then, Brocato compared Benson to two more Heisman Trophy winners,
both of whom are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I saw him make some cuts that reminded me of Sanders,"
he said. "He's not as quick as Sanders — nobody is,
either — but based on what I've seen, he's almost as quick.
Hey, he's strong, too. Almost as strong as Earl."
…"I'm telling you right now, based on what I've seen,
Benson's got a chance to be special — real special."
As special as Earl Campbell?
"Hey, don't get carried away; nobody's as special as Earl."
Based on experience and running style, Benson is arguably the
most NFL-ready back, but there are equally detracting factors
at work here. First, Benson must compete with incumbent Thomas
Jones for the starting job. Jones had a decent year for a horrible
offense. This is a back that showed signs of finally playing to
his first round potential while with Jon Gruden in 2003—a
player Gruden hoped to retain in Tampa.
The Bears’ new offensive coordinator Ron Turner plans to
use a power running game this year. Although Benson seems like
the ideal fit for this scheme, fantasy owners in re-draft leagues
need to be careful not to over value Benson. Lovie Smith still
has Thomas Jones as the starter, and he indicated after mini-camp
that Chicago plans to go with an RBBC in 2005.
Benson could be a decent fantasy backup even in this situation.
His red zone skills are excellent, and an upgrade over Jones.
While his chances of seeing a lot of red zone looks aren’t
as promising in this inexperienced offense, it is likely he’ll
earn more carries as the season progresses. Although it’s
never prudent to predict injury, Thomas Jones doesn’t have
a history of durability.
It would be reasonable for dynasty league owners to choose Benson
over Arrington as one the top three backs in the rookie draft.
Yet, the Chicago rookie hasn’t demonstrated a lot of maturity
leading up to his professional career in football. Benson had
what the media generally perceives as minor brushes with the law
while a student at Texas. Many regard him as a spoiled athlete
at a major football school. His comments about wanting to win
the Heisman more than a national championship (check this) and
his tear-filled interview with ESPN’s Suzy Kolber moments
after his selection in the NFL draft lend to this perception.
It’s his immature behavior that has many feeling Benson
is the most likely prospect to be a bust. I think Benson is deservedly
a high-rated prospect that experienced some serious backlash for
reasons both in and out of his control. This has made him somewhat
of an underrated fantasy rookie. He’s not the breakaway
threat of the first three backs, but he may be the best interior
runner of the prospects already mentioned and he’s certainly
displayed the stamina.
If Benson becomes the undisputed feature back, expect similar
totals as Ronnie Brown 800-1000 yards with 6-7 touchdowns. If
not, don’t bother unless he’s available after the
fifth round—which he’ll be a potential value that
could finish the season with some strong performances—ala
Kevin Jones and Stephen Jackson.
“Just Give Me Three Inches of Daylight”
Frank Gore: The Gut Check profiled
Gore recently. In summary, Gore is a super talent overcoming
injuries as a collegian. He appears to be recovering his old form,
and that was enough to convince new 49ers coach Mike Nolan that
the Hurricane is expected to at least split time with incumbent
Kevan Barlow in 2004. It’s not a stretch to see Gore take
over the job as soon as mid-season.
Ryan Moats: The 5-9, 210 lb.,
back out of Louisiana Tech is the Eagles’ insurance policy
for Brian Westbrook in case of injury or departure. Moats’
running style has been most favorably compared with his idol Barry
Sanders and least favorably with journeyman Amos Zereoue. Based
on watching Moats play and that Andy Reid selected the runner,
I’d compare him favorably to Westbrook, but with greater
power and explosiveness as an inside runner and more development
needed as a receiver. This is a back that has the potential to
be an effective interior runner at the next level. He makes sharp
cuts, has elite balance, and great vision. Moats had over 30 carries
in eight games during his college career. Although he posted impressive
totals versus Miami and LSU, each game was a serious blowout in
the opposing team’s favor and his high carry performances
weren’t against teams of this caliber.
Correll Buckhalter is recuperating from a second, serious knee
injury and it’s unlikely he’ll be back to full speed
until 2006. While Buckhalter will be healthy enough to get some
carries, it still provides Moats some opportunities to relieve
Brian Westbrook or be in the backfield with the Eagles’
starter split out as a receiver. Yet for re-draft leagues, Moats
won’t have an opportunity unless Westbrook gets hurt. This
makes Moats a good insurance policy in 2005 and a prospect with
a chance at starting opportunity in 2006. Draft him late in re-drafts
and early second round in dynasty leagues.
Depth With Upside
Marion Barber III: Julius Jones
is one of the hot, young fantasy backs this year. That said, Marion
Barber is the kind of player than could get an opportunity initially
filling in for the starter and never giving up the role. Coach
Parcells has already compared Barber to former Jet Leon Johnson,
an impressive all-purpose threat prior to injury. It is quite
likely the Johnson comparison is a conservative estimate coming
from a cautious Parcells. Barber left college a year early probably
because he had to share time with Laurence Maroney and didn’t
want to continue doing so as a senior. It’s too bad, because
he has the size (5-11, 215), vision, burst, power, and elusiveness
to have been a first-round pick next year with a bit more seasoning.
Recently, Big Ten backs have flopped in the NFL. Many times his
has to do with the back playing behind a great offensive line.
Vernand Morency: Based solely
on what I saw from Morency in 2004, he has the skills to develop
into a starter. He has great game speed and demonstrated his explosiveness
against quality competition as both an inside and outside runner:
Morency averaged over five yards per carry against Colorado, Texas,
and Oklahoma last season.
Morency’s stocked dropped prior to the draft due to several
things. His 40-time was lower than expected and he is already
25 years old. Additionally, he only had one season to display
his skills at Oklahoma State and missed most of 2002 with an ankle
Unless injuries derail him, Domanick Davis is entrenched as the
Texans starter. Houston drafted Morency to provide more adequate
depth than they received from Jonathan Wells or supplemental draft
project, Tony Hollings. It will likely be a competition between
Hollings and Morency for the backup role. Although Morency is
regarded as a raw prospect in many respects, he had far more experience
than Hollings did as a collegian. Most fantasy owners expect Morency
to beat out Hollings, but if he doesn’t, there will be quite
a few leagues where the rookie was over valued—especially
dynasty leagues. While Morency has the raw skill to be an effective
back as a rookie, it won’t happen unless absolutely necessary.
Therefore, he’s at best, a late round re-draft pick and
Maurice Clarett: For fantasy
owners there is not a more polarizing rookie. Few don’t
know about the rise and fall of a talent that carried his team’s
offense to a national championship victory as a freshman but promptly
got into legal and academic trouble thereafter. Clarett eventually
got kicked off the team and lost a highly publicized challenge
of the NFL’s age limit. After sitting out a year of football,
Clarett arrived at the 2005 NFL combine out of football shape—a
result of too much weight training and not enough NFL-position-specific
training—and quit in the middle of his combine drills. Despite
all these negatives, the Denver Broncos selected Clarett at the
bottom of the third round.
It’s worth noting the New England Patriots contemplated
selecting Clarett as an early, first-day pick in 2004. That itself
speaks volumes about Clarett as a football player. The Patriots
are known for placing a high value on character and football intelligence,
so their high level of interest in Clarett indicates some respected
NFL personnel view Clarett’s issues more as a byproduct
of immaturity than any serious personality flaws.
The Broncos obviously felt the same way and are willing to give
Clarett a fresh start. When in football shape, Clarett is a runner
with excellent vision, power, and acceleration. Clarett also displayed
nice receiving skills his freshman year and had a knack for making
big plays. Some compare his style to Edgerrin James. I think it’s
a fair comparison, although I’m very hesitant to characterize
his talent on that level—although the potential is there.
I do believe Clarett is worthwhile prospect despite his off field
issues because his freshman year clearly demonstrated the runner
is a fine football player. One of the most memorable moments of
Clarett’s only college season occurred versus Miami in overtime
of the national championship game. Hurricane safety Sean Taylor
intercepted a pass and making a run back that would at least put
Miami in excellent field position to win the game. Instead, Clarett
ran down Taylor from behind and punched the ball out of the safety’s
hands. This play demonstrates the excellent on field awareness
and effort that coaches such as Bill Belicheck, Bill Parcells,
and Mike Shannahan all publicly coveted despite the controversy.
I see Clarett more as a project this year. Mike Anderson and
Tatum Bell will battle it out for the starting job in 2005, but
each runner has limitations. Anderson is coming off injury and
is getting old for an NFL running back. Bell has great physical
talent, but the fact he’s not the undisputed starter and
potentially behind Anderson says a lot about the second-year back’s
overall skill set. Bell doesn’t possess the best vision
and has a bit of difficulty holding onto the ball—neither
are traits that compare favorably for Bronco backs of old.
What this means to me is if Clarett gets into football shape,
demonstrates maturity as a professional, and learns the offense,
he’ll be ready to compete for the job in 2006. The rookie
is a downhill runner like Mike Anderson but with better vision
and quickness (when in shape). If the Broncos struggle with injuries
or in the win-loss column, Clarett might get a chance this year,
but don’t count on it.
Brandon Jacobs: The former
Auburn Tiger-Southern Illinois Saluki has been one of the most
talked about rookie backs during NFL mini camps. At 6-3, 250 lbs,
the Giants drafted Jacobs with the hope he’d be everything
they hoped for out of Ron Dayne: a power runner with speed, capable
of developing into a workhorse power back. Based on very early
returns, the Giants think they got their man and have slated him
as their goal line and short yardage back heading into the season.
Although Tiki Barber is coming off his best season, he has stated
that he thinks it would make sense for him to be used more sparingly
if his career is to last longer than another year or two.
Why did Jacobs last so late in the draft? He’s an unproven
collegian, and in a bit of reverse paralysis by analysis, personnel
types feel the rookie is too big to be an every down starter in
the NFL. Stuck behind Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn,
Jacobs saw limited time in lopsided victories and decided to transfer
once Tommy Tuberville realized he couldn’t convert him to
defensive end or tight end. Being third on the depth chart with
these two backs does nothing to detract from Jacob’s talent.
There isn’t one back on this list that could have beat out
both Brown and Williams to become the undisputed starter.
As for Jacobs’ size, there aren’t any NFL backs that
have ever possessed this height-weight combination. While Eddie
George, Chris Brown, and Eric Dickerson have proven that taller
runners can be successful, there is still many in the NFL that
feel this height is a detriment to a back because it’s more
difficult for a runner this size to drop his hips and maintain
a smaller surface area for targeting defenders. Jerome Bettis,
Craig Heyward, and Christian Okoye approached Jacobs’ weight,
but were shorter backs.
There are a lot of early positives with Brandon Jacobs. First,
he doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear. Second, he’s
in great shape—a truly muscular 250 pounds—rare for
a back his size. Third, Jacobs has demonstrated a great attitude
throughout his college career. And finally, he’s convinced
the Giants’ coaching staff with his limited collegiate and
mini camp performance that he’s a tailback. Look for Jacobs
to see 5-10 carries per game in 2005. He could be a sleeper in
touchdown-only leagues. He should be drafted as Barber’s
primary backup in re-draft leagues, and as a late second-early
third round pick in rookie drafts.
Ciatrick Fason: Fason was getting
projected as a 2nd round pick in many circles before falling to
the Vikings as their third, fourth-round RB drafted in as many
years. The Florida Gator has the size-speed-receiving skills to
excite scouts. His style as been compared to Deuce McAllister
of the Saints, but he’s still raw as a runner. His vision
isn’t on par with the top prospects in this draft and he’s
more of a one-cut runner, but he had some great performances last
year against some defenses filled with pro prospects. Michael
Bennett and Mewelde Moore have to be considered the front runners
for the starting job, but Fason could sneak into the Vikings lineup—neither
Moore or Bennett have shown the ability to last an entire season.
If Fason does earn the job, he could be a nice fantasy find in
2005—making him a worthwhile late pick in re-draft leagues.
In rookie drafts, Fason has been available most of the time between
Eric Shelton: Shelton is a
power runner with speed for his size. Many fantasy football owners
are anticipating Shelton to be a surprise this year. In quite
a few drafts I’ve observed, these owners have revealed a
quiet sense of excitement about drafting the former Louisville
Cardinal. There is good reason—Shelton is a great fit for
the Carolina offense and doesn’t appear far from getting
a lot of playing time. Stephen Davis is only running at half speed
after injuring his knee, and DeShaun Foster has only played one
full season in three years. Shelton is one of the backs on this
list that could make a quick ascent this summer. At this point,
draft him late as a backup but be prepared for his stock to rise
fast if anything happens to the backs ahead of him.
Alvin Pearman: The Virginia-alum
is the best receiving back in this draft—he once caught
16 passes for 135 yards against Florida State. He’s also
a heady football player that posted some big-time numbers against
quality competition in the ACC. He’s a not a big back at
5-10, 205 lbs, and to make matters worse, he doesn’t make
up for it with speed. His 40-yard time has ranged from 4.5-4.7,
but he’s one of those backs that plays bigger and faster
in game conditions. The Jaguars are impressed with Pearman thus
far and with Fred Taylor’s knee still a question mark, Pearman
could surprise. At this point it’s still best to draft as
if Fred Taylor will be healthy and LaBrandon Toefield will be
the backup. If Pearman sees the field with either of these backs
healthy, it will most likely happen in a third down role to exploit
his receiving skills.
Cedric Houston: Houston never
completely fulfilled his potential at the University of Tennessee.
He’s a contact runner with adequate speed and nice vision.
He’s also an adept receiver and excellent blocker. So far,
he sounds like a potential starting back in the NFL, right? The
problem is Houston has a bit of a fumbling problem and difficulties
remaining healthy. When on the field, Houston is a physical player
that can wear down a defense. While he’s not super fast,
he has enough skills to develop into an effective backup that
could surprise as a starter. Most likely Houston will be the #3
RB—so don’t waste your time drafting him in re-draft
leagues if the Jets depth chart is healthy. He’s a decent
late round pick in dynasty leagues with large rosters.
Darren Sproles: When a back
is 5-5 and 185 lbs, even I can’t believe he’ll be
an NFL starter. That said, Sproles has enough talent to make a
huge impact as a 3rd down runner, kick returner, and slot receiver.
When scouts compared Brian Westbrook to Dave Meggett, they were
wrong—Westbrook has more capability of being an every down
threat—but Sproles is a dead ringer for the former Giant.
Expect Sproles to be an exciting playmaker, but not a consistent
one to draft. If your league counts special teams touchdowns he
might be draftable in a very deep league. Otherwise, enjoy watching
him on TV, but leave him on waiver wire unless LT, Chatman, AND
Michael Turner wind up in the training room.
Late Round Gambles and Longshots
Damien Nash: The Missouri junior
entered the draft after quitting his team. Although this sounds
pretty ominous, it’s been quietly mentioned that Nash and
his coach had some personality clashes and not necessarily the
sole fault of the runner. It’s rare for this type of information
to find it’s way to the media, so it’s worth paying
giving it some credence—especially when an organization
such as the Titans drafts him late. Then again, with the recent
off-field issues of Titans personnel, this may no longer be true.
Nash has some skills. At 5-10, 210lbs, Nash has shown he can gain
yards after contact and take it the distance. He injured a knee
in 2002 and early in Titans camp had his knee checked out because
it was bothering him again. There are many fantasy owners picking
Nash as the default #2 RB to Chris Brown (if the Titans don’t
deal for a veteran presence), but I don’t think he can beat
Jarrett Payton or Joe Smith—NFL Europe products that have
demonstrated they are ready to contribute if called upon.
T.A. McClendon: The North Carolina
State runner was on par with Maurice Clarett after an excellent
freshman season, but injuries to his patella tendon and hamstring
hindered his career. On the field, McClendon had some major problems
holding onto the ball. When McClendon ran a slow 40 time and the
scars from surgeries made him look more like a candidate for early
retirement than a draft-able rookie prospect, he wound up signing
with the Falcons as a free agent. If McClendon somehow regains
his health and can shore up his fumbling, the Falcons could have
a back with first or second round talent. At 5-11, 225 lbs, McClendon
is a powerful runner in the mold of Stephen Davis. Keep tabs on
Atlanta’s training camp before seriously considering him.
If he stays healthy, don’t be surprised if he’s playing
in NFL Europe next spring.
Anthony Davis: Davis looked
great at Wisconsin, but so did Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett.
Davis is 5-7 and 195 lbs with excellent speed and acceleration.
He’s also a physical back for his size. The problem is he’s
not big enough to dish out punishment and doesn’t have the
skills of a smaller back like Warrick Dunn. Davis’ highlight
reel is mostly filled with runs where he doesn’t have to
gain yards after contact, which isn’t a good sign for an
NFL prospect because it’s rare when an NFL offensive line
blows the defense off the ball like the Badgers did to its opponents.
If Davis makes the Colts, he’s in a great situation to have
productive games as an injury-replacement but don’t count
on it. Davis will definitely be in NFL Europe next spring and
will likely make the NFL as a return specialist, at best.
Walter Reyes: The Syracuse
product, and Maurice Clarett’s cousin, is just big enough
at 5-9, 200 lbs to get serious consideration as an RB on a depth
chart. This also has to do with the fact that he’s a very
tough runner with speed and receiving skills. The Titans signed
him as a free agent, but faces a lot of competition to make the
team. Since he’s not a tackle breaker and has fumbling problems,
don’t consider drafting him at this time.
Kay-Jay Harris: Harris will
have to beat out Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Leonard Henry
to earn playing time. Although the former Mountaineer has the
size and speed to develop into a quality runner, he’ll likely
do it elsewhere after this summer. Harris also lacks the instinctive
skills—vision and patience—at this point in his career
and will need a lot of work and reps. Harris is already older
than most rookies, so don’t count on him developing into
a major fantasy contributor.
Nehemiah Broughton: Broughton
is an intriguing prospect. The Redskins rookie is 6-0, 245 and
has decent speed and shiftiness for his size. He’s been
projected as a fullback during the draft, but he has skills as
a runner. Broughton was made for the Joe Gibbs’ offense
because he’s a patient runner that breaks tackles—John
Riggins anyone? Broughton has a chronic problem with his left
knee—he’s torn his ACL a couple of times. Watch Broughton
during camp because he could supplant Ladell Betts as the primary
back up. If so, he’s the potential Mike Anderson of 2005
if Portis goes down.