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Rookie Impact
Runing Backs

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
Last Name First Name FF Pts Rookie Year Rd # Ranking
Dickerson Eric 341.2 1983 1 5 1st
James Edgerrin 315.9 1999 1 2 1st
Portis Clinton 289.2 2002 2 19 4th
Sims Billy 288.4 1980 1 5 1st
Taylor Fred 266.4 1998 1 4 4th
Martin Curtis 264.8 1995 3 4 2nd
Warner Curt 261.4 1983 1 5 4th
Sanders Barry 259.2 1989 1 5 4th
Rogers George 258.0 1981 1 6 4th
Anderson Mike 256.9 2000 6 3 4th
Faulk Marshall 252.4 1994 1 2 4th
Anderson Ottis 251.3 1979 1 5 4th
Walker Herschel 241.4 1986 N/A N/A 4th
Cribbs Joe 232.0 1980 2 1 3rd
Campbell Earl 227.8 1978 1 3 2nd
Tomlinson LaDainian 220.3 2001 1 3 7th
Edwards Robert 216.6 1998 1 4 8th
Woods Ickey 216.5 1988 2 4 6th
Woods Don 211.1 1974 6 8 3rd
Bettis Jerome 209.3 1993 1 3 2nd
Average 254.01 4th

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: 300+ Range
Atts Range RBs Rush Atts Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs FF Pts
300+ 1950-2004 14 335.43 1420.0 11.57 38.64 328.57 1.07 250.71
300+ 1970-1979 2 316.5 1527.5 10.50 26.50 178.00 1.00 239.55
300+ 1980-1989 5 344.4 1483.8 13.60 42.40 378.2 1.40 276.2
300+ 1990-1999 5 338.6 1361.2 11.40 38.0 338.00 1.20 245.52
300+ 2000-2004 2 324.0 1300.0 8.00 43.00 331.50 0.00 211.15

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 day.

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 stretch:

Rookie RBs - By Attempts: 250-299 Range
Atts Range RBs Rush Atts Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs FF Pts
250-299 1950-2004 20 277.15 1168.40 8.6 24.95 196.95 0.6 191.74
250-299 1970-1979 1 254.00 988.00 8.0 45.00 347.00 0.0 181.50
250-299 1980-1989 5 283.80 1248.40 8.0 22.20 181.80 0.4 193.42
250-299 1990-1999 10 273.80 1081.90 7.4 24.30 180.30 0.8 175.42
250-299 2000-2004 4 283.00 1329.75 12.5 25.00 220.00 0.5 232.98

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 of McGahee.
  • Kevan Barlow—Starter with potential on the right team.
  • Rudi Johnson—Took over for Dillon and never looked back.
  • Correll Buckhalter—Capable of starting when featured and healthy.
  • 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 feature back:

Ricky Watters
Last First Yr G GS Rush Atts Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Yds Rec TDs Rank RBs FF Pts
Watters Ricky 1995 16 16 337 1273 11 434 1 5th 242.7
Watters Ricky 1996 16 16 353 1411 13 444 0 3rd 263.5
Watters Ricky 1997 16 16 285 1110 7 440 0 9th 197.0

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 NFL players:

  • Safeties: Thomas Davis (Panthers) and Jermaine Phillips (Bucs)
  • Linebackers: Boss Bailey (Lions) and Will Witherspoon (Panthers)
  • 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 competition:

Cadillac Career
Year Atts Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
2004 @ Tennessee 24 95 4.0 1 1 2 2 0
2004 vs. Georgia 19 101 5.3 1 4 20 5 0
12/4 @Tennessee 19 100 5.3 1 2 11 5.5 0
2003 vs. Tennessee 36 185 5.1 1 2 16 8 0
2003 @ Arkansas 35 150 4.3 1 1 3 3 0
2003 vs. Alabama 26 204 7.8 2 0 0 0 0
2003 @ USC 21 94 4.5 1 1 8 8 0
2002 vs. Syracuse 40 202 5.1 2 2 5 2.5 0
2002 vs. Arkansas 24 99 4.1 1 2 13 6.5 0
2001 vs. Arkansas 19 177 9.3 1 3 -2 -0.7 0
2001 @ Georgia 41 167 4.1 2 4 71 17.8 0

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 back.

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 board.

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 most re-drafts.

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 USC.

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, right away.

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 success:

Green's Back History
Last First Yr G GS Rush Atts Rush Yds Rush TDs Rec Yds Rec TDs Rank RBs
Smith Robert 7th 2000 16 295 1521 7 348 3 246.9
Allen Terry 4th 1992 16 266 1201 13 478 2 257.9
Bennett Michael 17th 2002 16 255 1296 5 351 1 200.7

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?
Year Atts Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
2002 @ Florida 22 163 7.4 2 1 54 54 1
2002 vs. LSU 18 95 5.3 2 0 0 0 0
2002 @ Mississippi 33 224 6.8 3 2 5 2.5 0
2002 vs. Georgia 25 124 5 1 2 33 16.5 0
2003 vs. Penn State 37 184 5 2 1 1 1 0

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."

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."
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.

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 injury.

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 insurance policy.

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 rounds 2-4.

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.

Specialty Playmakers

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.