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Pre-Season Positional Battles - Running Backs
by Paul Sandy
Updated July 30, 2003

Arizona Cardinals

Favorite: Emmitt Smith
Contenders: Marcel Shipp

Fantasy Impact
Last season, Marcel Shipp turned out to be one of fantasy football’s nicest midseason surprises. Like Michael Pittman before him, Shipp overtook Thomas Jones for the starting job and ended up with 1,246 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns. Unfortunately for Shipp (and fantasy owners), the Cardinals decided to sign future Hall of Fame inductee Emmitt Smith this offseason. The team will likely leverage the talents of both players, so don’t expect to see a 1,000 yard rusher in 2003.

The Latest
Barring a preseason injury, Emmitt Smith will enter the 2003 season as the starter. Marcel Shipp, an excellent receiver, will handle the third-down duties.

Chicago Bears

Favorite: Anthony Thomas
Contenders: Adrian Peterson

Fantasy Impact
The Bears are a team in transition. This spring they signed former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. Rumors around the Windy City indicate that Stewart is having trouble assimilating to Offensive Coordinator John Shoop’s complicated offensive scheme. If the former Steelers quarterback can’t stand and deliver, it would leave Chris Chandler and rookie Rex Grossmen to fill the role. In case you have trouble reading between the lines, things could be ugly for the Bears offense this fall. It’s probably best to avoid drafting Chicago ball carriers until the sixth round or beyond – no matter who wins starting job.

The Latest
Anthony Thomas, who averaged just 3.4 yards per carry last year, will battle second-year back Adrian Peterson for the starting tailback position. Although Thomas hasn’t lost any weight since last year, he reported to mini-camps in better shape and added muscle.

Dallas Cowboys

Favorite: Troy Hambrick
Contenders: Michael Wiley and Aveion Cason

Fantasy Impact
The offseason departure of Emmitt Smith opens the door for new blood in the Dallas backfield. During his tenures with the Giants, Jets and Patriots, Bill Parcells groomed players like Joe Morris, Otis Anderson and Curtis Martin into fantasy superstars. Can he do the same in “the Big D”? Probably, but it may take a couple years. In his first year as New England’s head coach, Leonard Russell was his leading rusher with 1,088 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. In Parcells’ first year coaching the Jets, Adrian Murrell led the team with 1,086 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. Detect a pattern? Don’t be afraid to pick the starting running back for Dallas. But don’t bet the farm either.

The Latest
Projected starter Troy Hambrick is fat. He reported to the team’s first mini-camp at 250 lbs. and must lose 10 lbs. before training camp begins. If he fails to do so, Parcells has told him he will be fined $235 per pound per day. For someone who boasted about being ready to be the starter, Hambrick reporting to camp overweight isn’t a good sign. As the summer unfolds, look for increased competition from Michael Wiley and perhaps even draft-day acquisition Aveion Cason.

Houston Texans

Favorite: Stacey Mack
Contenders: Jonathan Wells and James Allen

Fantasy Impact
Although just a second-year franchise, the Texans are poised to make significant strides in offensive scoring. Quarterback David Carr looks like he’s the real deal and the team features a promising group of young receivers. With that in mind, don’t count on any one Houston running back to anchor your fantasy squad’s backfield. Last year, Carr’s three rushing touchdowns equaled that of the team’s leading running back Jonathan Wells. If the offensive line can stay healthy (they lost three starters to injury last year, including Tony Boselli), the Texans starting running back could approach 1,000 yards and six touchdowns.

The Latest (Updated July 30, 2003)
At this point the Texan backfield is crowded. Although Mack has never technically been a starter, he saw heavy duty behind Fred Taylor in Jacksonville. He is considered the favorite to win the job and expects to start. However, don’t write off Houston’s other running backs. Allen is a former 1,000 yard rusher. Wells is a second-year player who showed strength running inside the tackles at times last year.

Minnesota Vikings

Favorite: Doug Chapman
Contenders: Onterrio Smith, Moe Williams and Larry Ned

Fantasy Impact:
With Michael Bennett sidelined for at least the first half of the season with a foot injury, Head Coach Mike Tice will spend training camp and the preseason testing out his remaining running backs. Among the contenders for the starting position are Moe Williams, rookie Onterrio Smith, and Doug Chapman, who spent the final 10 games of the 2002 season on the IR. There are a lot of question marks surrounding Bennett’s recovery period, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly where the winner of this position battle should be drafted. If Tice starts courting NFL veterans like Ricky Watters and Jamal Anderson, it could signal that the coach believes Bennett will miss the entire season. It would also make the prospects of drafting a Viking running back before the late rounds of the draft a little easier to digest.

The Latest: (Updated July 30, 2003)
According to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Tice unexpectedly inserted Larry Ned into the first string offense during a training camp practice. Although the coach had previously given the nod to Chapman, the move may indicate that the gap is closing. In addition to Ned, expect Chapman to receive competition from Moe Williams, who has a couple 100-yard games under his belt in his career, and rookie Onterrio Smith. Tice has stated he wants to keep Williams in his current role, but he may not be afforded that opportunity if Chapman, Ned and Smith fail to step up. At this point, Smith is the wildcard. The former Oregon Duck is clearly a big play threat – with touchdown jaunts of 51, 57, 61 and 73 yards over his college career. However, entering the draft, many pro scouts questioned his ability to be a workhorse running back due to his upright running style.

Philadelphia Eagles

Favorite: Duce Staley
Contenders: Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook

Fantasy Impact
After a couple down years, Duce Staley bounced back nicely last season and rewarded fantasy owners with 1,030 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. With Donovan McNabb expected to continue mooching a several goal line carries, Staley’s 2002 production seems about on par with what we can expect from Philly’s ground game this year. Whether Staley remains the starter or is transitioned to a third-down role (he excels in the passing game, catching 51 balls in 2002), remains to be seen.

The Latest (Updated July 30, 2003)
Staley has yet to show up for training camp and Andy Reid is beginning to show signs of frustration. In an after-practice press conference, Reid said the team is prepared to proceed without last year’s starting tail back. “As a football team, we'll continue to move on and again, I'll say the same thing about Duce's situation that I'll say about any player," said Reid. "When you miss camp, it's not a good thing. I expected him here; but we have a great nucleus here and high expectations. If somebody is not here, I expect the next guy to step up." That next guy is Correll Buckhalter, who is coming off a knee injury. Early reports out of camp have the third-year back making crisp cuts and running at full speed. Staley is still your starter, but if he’s not in camp by the first preseason game, Buckhalter could steal the gig and become a legitimate fantasy threat.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Favorite: Jerome Bettis
Contender: Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala

Fantasy Impact
Fantasy owners who can decipher the nuances of the Pittsburgh backfield in the upcoming training camp and preseason will position themselves to find excellent value in the middle rounds of their draft. Consider for a minute that Jerome Bettis tallied nine touchdowns last year. For those of you scoring at home, that’s one more than Fred Taylor, two more than Corey Dillon, three more than Michael Bennett and the same as Ahman Green. And “the Bus” did it despite seeing significant carries in just 10 games. Make no mistake; the Steelers will score touchdowns and rack up yards on the ground again in 2003. It’s just a matter of which running back will be carrying the ball when, where and how much.

The Latest
On June 10, reported that Head Coach Bill Cowher expects all his running backs to contribute to the offense in 2003. Ack! The early feeling here is that this will be a true running back by committee situation with Bettis and Zereoue splitting the majority of the carries. The cold hard truth is neither Bettis nor Zereoue appear equipped to carry the full load. Bettis has taken too much punishment throughout his career and Zereoue is considered to be too small to be a featured back.

Currently, most 12-team mock drafts have both backs projected in the sixth or seventh round. At this point, take Bettis first. He’s looking healthy in mini-camp and should get more carries in the fourth quarter and goal-line situations.

San Francisco 49ers

Favorite: Up for Grabs
Contenders: Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow

Fantasy Impact
Not much has changed with the San Francisco offense. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on who you ask. In 2003, 49ers are expected to again rank among the league’s highest scoring teams. With so many points being scored by this squad, the fantasy football community is desperate for Dennis Erickson, Frisco’s new head coach, to choose either Garrison Hearst or Kevan Barlow as the primary ball carrier. If he does, expect nothing less than a top 10 fantasy football running back by season’s end.

The Latest (Updated July 30, 2003)
On July 28, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the starting position still belongs to Hearst despite increased competition from Barlow. Running backs coach Tim Lappano says, "Right now, we're just going to continue where it left off, but we're definitely going to get Kevan in the football game a little bit more." Unless Barlow or Hearst gets injured, this will surely be a running back by committee situation.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Favorite: Michael Pittman
Contenders: Mike Alstott, Thomas Jones and Aaron Stecker

Fantasy Impact
After carrying the ball 29 times for 124 yards in the Super Bowl, the future looked bright for Michael Pittman. That is, until he allegedly smashed his Hummer into a car carrying his wife, child and babysitter. He has since been charge with two counts of felony assault. The moment of impact sparked an instant running back competition in Tampa. And the victor could emerge as one of the preseason’s top sleepers.

The Latest (Updated July 30, 2003)
Despite his legal troubles, Michael Pittman is still the starter according to a July report on Head Coach Jon Gruden says, "I want to repeat that we like Michael Pittman. He had 1,200 yards of all-purpose yardage, and he's an outstanding player.” In the same report, Gruden indicated if Pittman is not part of the team, Stecker would be the starting tail back. Avoid drafting Tampa running backs until this situation becomes clearer.

Washington Redskins

Favorite: Trung Canidate
Contenders: Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson

Fantasy Impact
Last year, Washington’s top two running backs (Stephen Davis and Kenny Watson) accounted for 1,749 all-purpose yards. Rookie Ladell Betts tacked on another 461 yards. Impressive backfield production, especially considering the early media hype surrounding coach Steve Spurrier’s Fun and Gun, pass-oriented offense. If one running back emerges as the clear starter and claims two-thirds of the backfield touches, it will be a huge fantasy football season.

The Latest
Former Rams backup Trung Canidate has been working with the first-team offense throughout mini-camp and is the frontrunner. Based on Spurrier’s early comments regarding his new running back’s game-breaking speed, it will take a tremendous effort during the preseason for Betts or Watson to supplant him. Even so, keep an eye on this situation, as Canidate has never proven he has the talent and durability to be a full-time starter.