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The Year of the Rookie Running Back
David Dorey
July 24, 2008
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Write it down – this will be the biggest season for rookie running backs in recent memory. It has to be.  There could very well be up to 12 rookie runners hitting the field this year so about one out of every three teams will have a rookie running back with fantasy value.  Most years there are usually around four notable rookies and almost never more than six. This year it could very well end up as a dozen.

Nothing spawns unbridled optimism like rookie running backs and for good reason. No other position has the success rate for rookies that the rushers do. Not even close. Not to diminish elite talent of the few, but if the rest of the offense does their job correctly, the running back only has to squirt through a hole in the line to gain the standard four yards. Here are the dozen rushers coming to your fantasy draft.

Already Starters

  1. Darren McFadden (OAK) – The Raiders may have the look of a committee backfield but McFadden comes off winning the Doak Walker Award two years in a row while being the star at Arkansas.  Selected with the fourth overall pick, no question McFadden gets all the work he can handle. He was considered the best running back in the NCAA two years in a row.
  2. Jonathan Stewart (CAR) – Even if DeAngelo Williams gets the first hand-off in week one, there is no pretense that Stewart is anything less than the fulltime powerback that the Panthers have been craving for years. Taken with the 13th overall selection, the Oregon star rushed for 1,722 yards and 22 scores with a 6.2 yard average last year and was drafted for his every-down ability.
  3. Matt Forte (CHI) – Already anointed as the starter once Cedric Benson was released, the recent addition of ex-Lion Kevin Jones was just for depth.  Forte rushed for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns at Tulane last year. He is used to being the workhorse and the Bears still crave everything that Benson wasn’t.
  4. Kevin Smith (DET) – The Lions made no free agent moves other than dumping Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett which opens the opportunity wide for Smith. He’s another NCAA workhorse who comes off a season at Central Florida where he gained 2567 yards and 29 touchdowns. Tatum Bell is just change of pace and Smith is the consummate fulltime player.

Complementary Backs (AKA “on the field with the ball”)

  1. Felix Jones (DAL) – No doubt that Marion Barber is the primary back in Dallas but the Cowboys did not spend their 1.22 pick on anything less than a significant contributor. The fast and shifty Jones is a perfect complement to the bruising Barber plus they already have the “Jones” jerseys. Felix was the complement to Darren McFadden at Arkansas and is tailor made for a tandem backfield.
  2. Chris Johnson (TEN) – When the Titans used their 1.24 pick on the East Carolina back, it signaled that LenDale White now becomes half of perhaps the most true “thunder and lightning” backfield in the NFL. Johnson runs a sub 4.3/40 and will show up in the backfield or even split out wide. White may own all those goal line carries but who has the ball outside the ten yard line depends on Johnson.
  3. Steve Slaton (HOU) – The Texans compensated for the oft-injured Ahman Green by signing the oft-injured Chris Brown. That means that not only will West Virginia’s Slaton offer a third down role, the reality is that Chris Taylor has fallen from favor and Slaton could end up the eventual starter despite being only 5’9” and 198 pounds. Drafted with the 3.26 pick, he could end up being the next Domanick Davis who was drafted 12 spots deeper back in 2003. 
  4. Jamaal Charles (KC) – Chiefs may have gotten a steal with Charles selected at the 3.10 pick. Kolby Smith did not impress as the back-up to Larry Johnson in 2007 and now Charles is not only slated to offer relief and back-up duty, he’ll be change of pace enough to warrant fantasy attention.  Johnson needs more rest and if he ends up injured again – Charles will be the one to step in.

Could be the Annual Rookie Shocker

  1. Rashard Mendenhall (PIT) – Sure, Willie Parker is the starter there but he only ranked 53rd in rushing scores (2) despite being 3rd in carries (321). The Steelers inherited a gift when Mendenhall fell to the 1.23 pick and at 5’10” and 225 pounds, he is the prototypical power runner that Parker proved he wasn’t last season.  The Illinois star set school records in 2007 with 262 carries for 1,681 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in just 13 games. If Parker gets hurt, or even if Mendenhall shows him up, the starting job could change hands.
  2. Ray Rice (BAL) – Willis McGahee was brought in last year to invigorate the rushing game and he turned in almost exactly what Lewis had been doing. The Ravens picked up Rice with the 2.24 pick and he’s done nothing but impress so far while McGahee has yet to prove durable or committed enough to attend all mini-camps. There’s more opportunity here for Rice than may seem.  The Rutgers’ star left the school as the all-time leading rusher with 4.926 yards and 49 touchdowns on 910 carries. He may be short at 5’8” but he has never played like it matters. Some expect him to be the next Maurice Jones-Drew.
  3. Ryan Torain (DEN) – Just being a Denver rookie should be enough to warrant a fantasy draft spot but the ex-Arizona State back has been impressive in camp. The Broncos love nothing more than a new primary rusher every season and the Broncos have already parted ways with Travis Henry. That leaves Selvin Young – who is not considered capable of full-time work – and Michael Pittman as he pulls the shades down on his NFL career.  Torain could end up as the new leading rusher for the Broncos for the sixth consecutive year.
  4. Tim Hightower (ARI) – The 5.16 pick out of Richmond may seem the least likely to show up in box scores this year but at 6’0” and 225 pounds, he has the prototypical size and at least decent speed with a 4.56/40 at the combine.  He’s a tough runner that set school records and gained 1,829 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last year.  J.J. Arrington has never been more than a third-down back and Marcel Shipp’s window has already closed. That means the 30-year old Edgerrin James must stay healthy or Hightower becomes the waiver wire darling in every league.

The NFL stable is full of hungry rookie tailbacks looking for the opportunity to play. And if there is any constant in the NFL, it is that the game and players always change. Better write that down, too.

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