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2003 Rookie Running Backs
by Jake Richmond
March 10, 2003

A handful of NFL rookies will step up every year and make fantasy owners take notice. Historically, rookie rushers merit the most fantasy consideration as they have a better chance at putting up big stats than any other position and while this year’s tailback class appears weaker than in years past, countless NFL enthusiasts are still doing their best at separating the next Clinton Portis from the next Rashaan Salaam.

Keep in mind that all predictions at this early date are based on the rookie being given a chance to start in Week 1. And now, the Top 5 Rookie Running Backs Rankings.

1. Lee Suggs, Virginia Tech – NCAA fans knew Suggs as one half of the dynamic VT running back duo nicknamed “The Untouchables” when he teamed with the younger Kevin Jones to form the most ridiculous-stat-building backfield in college football. Suggs himself exploded on the college scene in 2000 when he rushed for 1207 yards and 27 touchdowns as a sophomore. After losing his entire junior season to a knee injury, he returned in 2002 to play in all 14 games, racking up 1329 yards and 22 TDs on the ground. And what’s even more scary is that Suggs barely had 60% of his teams handoffs. Sure, VT ran the ball a lot, but Suggs managed to score on almost one of every ten rushes, which is flat-out silly on a team with VT’s schedule. And make no mistake – He is much more than his statistical resume.

Suggs elevates himself above fellow rookie rushers as the best “pure runner”. He has an incredible ability to accelerate through quickly closing holes with enough force to throw off the first would-be tackler. This also makes him invaluable at the goal line. He has been routinely timed around a 4.40/40 and that speed can make him extremely dangerous once he improves his slightly flawed outside running. While fumbling is often the bane of rookie rushers, Suggs received national attention for his 401-carry streak without putting the ball on the ground. He does NOT fumble.

THE FANTASY VERDICT: If Suggs goes to a decent team, he will impress immediately. Don’t hesitate to call his name early in the 4th round of your fantasy draft.

2. Justin Fargas, USC – Fargas's recent 4.38-second run in the 40-yard dash at the combine was enough to convince skeptics that he's for real (for perspective, Michael Bennett's combine time was 4.40). No one can doubt Fargas's raw talent – he was the top prospect in the country coming out of high school (in one high school game, he actually flipped over oncoming defenders, landed on his feet, and ran 30 yards for a TD). He has everything you look for in an NFL prospect: good size (6-1, 220), great vision and patience, and the ability to break tackles. That he does not have a household name is due in part to the unusual path he took in college.

Fargas started in Michigan, but never got on track due to a coaching style not suited for his strengths and, more importantly, injuries (his only real concern). After transferring to USC before the 2001 season, Fargas was injured again and had to wait until 2002 to showcase his true talent. And showcase he did. After only 43 carries in his first six games, he exploded in the second half of the season and averaged 127 yards per game with 5.5 yards per carry in the four of his six games with at least 18 carries – all against solid competition. Fargas continued to impress even after the season. At the Senior Bowl practices, Fargas was highly praised by pro scouts after he showed great hands in addition to his ball-carrying skills. To put it simply, the kid's got game. In addition to almost certainly being the fastest back in this year's draft, Fargas is just plain hot.

THE FANTASY VERDICT: Be willing to wager an early 6th-round draft pick that Fargas continues his hot streak in the NFL.

3. Larry Johnson, Penn State – Although Johnson didn't rack up his 2,087 rushing yards against the nation's top defenses, do not dismiss his huge season as a fluke. Why? Simply because he averaged 7.7 yards per carry – the most by any other running back who reached the 2K mark. If the stats exaggerate Johnson's ability as a runner, it's only by a slight margin. Johnson's great year was the product of a big runner (6-1, 228) with great vision (he finds almost all the cutback lanes) and an incredible break-tackle ability which he uses to throw off defenders of all sizes. He's also the best receiving back in the class.

Though Johnson can run a 4.50/ 40, he's not considered very elusive. He runs with an upright style, much like Eddie George, and is more likely to lower his shoulder at would-be tacklers instead of trying to make them miss. Remarkably enough, though he takes plenty of hits, he's had no major injuries to date.

THE FANTASY VERDICT: Has definite NFL potential, especially after coaches have an offseason to tailor his running style to fit the pro level. An early 7th-rounder.

4. Onterrio Smith, Oregon – Other than a healthy Willis McGahee, Smith is the only back in the class who could compete with Suggs and Fargas in a foot race. He's been reported to consistently post 40-yard times in the 4.40-4.45 range and is probably the best outside rusher in the draft. Quickness and agility are Smith's bread and butter. Due to his slightly smaller frame (5-10, 218), he won't overpower many defenders and yet his outstanding change-of-direction skills make him difficult to tackle. He has an uncanny ability to keep his momentum through cuts and jukes (see: Clinton Portis).

The drawback to Smith is his lack of power running ability. He's not the type of back who will push a pile forward for three or four yards and may lack confidence early in the season if he gets tackled behind the line on a regular basis (see: William Green). However, once he jukes those first few NFL linebackers out of their jocks, Smith can blossom into an every-down homerun threat.

THE FANTASY VERDICT: Only slightly behind Johnson, Smith will be a great 7th-round pickup who could raise eyebrows in the second half of next season.

5. Chris Brown, Colorado – Very similar to Larry Johnson, Brown is a big kid (6-2 1/2, 220) who runs a little upright and drags or runs over defenders in his way. In fact, Brown finished only three spots behind Johnson on the rushing list last year with 1,840 yards and 19 touchdowns. Brown has excellent body control and balance and can change direction much more effectively than Larry Johnson. He's very good at deciding when to deliver the first blow to an oncoming tackler and when to move quickly out of the way. For his size, Brown is very fast in the open field (4.55 40), but he doesn't have the acceleration of the better outside runners. Since scouts heavily disparage a lack of "burst through the hole", they often cite it as Brown's biggest fault.

THE FANTASY VERDICT: Brown is talented enough to be successful in the NFL, but just because he's in the top five in this year's class doesn't necessarily make him worthy of anything earlier than a 9th-round pick. Take a flyer on him if he lands in a good situation.

As Tony Kornheiser would say, "That's the list!". Make sure to pay attention to the rookies' individual workouts since many players who didn't run at the combine will do so at their own workouts.