At no position is it easier for an NFL rookie to make a fantasy impact than at running back. Conversely, no position has a shorter NFL lifespan. And with more and more teams using the two-pronged backfield attack, even teams with established runners have moved quickly to acquire a second runner; just last year, all five backs selected in the first round went to teams (the Raiders, Panthers, Cowboys, Steelers, and Titans) that already had a lead dog.
Moreover, teams had success finding their primary back in rounds two (Matt Forte to the Bears) and three (Kevin Smith to the Lions, Steve Slaton to the Texans. And with the expiration date on backs like Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and maybe even Brian Westbrook fast approaching, some of the better backs may wind up serving a Felix Jones-like apprenticeship before making their splash in fantasy circles—while some later picks may prosper given the right opportunity.
Day One Candidates
Much like the quarterback position, if not for the underclassmen we may have had a first day without a running back going off the board. In fact, it will be a mild upset if the first five backs selected aren’t underclassmen.
Heading most lists is Ohio State’s Chris “Beanie” Wells, who offers the rare size/speed combo platter as well as vision, burst, and innate running ability—but also comes with plenty of questions about his durability. No less an authority than two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin called Wells the best back in Buckeye history, but nagging injuries (foot, hamstring, concussion) cost him three full games and portions of several others during his abbreviated Ohio State career. Critics pound the durability issue and wonder if he’s soft, able to differentiate between playing with pain and a legitimate injury; Wells supports will point out that Adrian Peterson entered the league with similar concerns about his ability to stay healthy. At some point in the first round the potential reward will outweigh the risk.
Those shying away from Wells as the top-rated back tend to prefer Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno. Comparisons to Clinton Portis and LaDainian Tomlinson indicate how highly scouts think of Moreno, and a pair of productive campaigns in the über-tough SEC provide testament to his skills. The knocks on Moreno are slight: a little on the small side, maybe lacks elite top-end speed. But there’s no denying his ability, and his receiving skills make him a candidate to be an every-down back from the get-go.
Pittsburgh’s LeSean McCoy is less heralded than Moreno but possesses similar size and athletic ability. But while McCoy offers burst, vision, and pass-catching skills, scouts are concerned about his ball security (or lack thereof) and foibles in pass protection. Both are coachable traits, but they may limit McCoy’s impact as a rookie as well as drive his value down a bit on draft day.
Much like Rashard Mendenhall a year ago, Iowa’s Shonn Greene is looking to turn one impressive Big Ten season into an early selection on draft day. At 235 pounds Green is thicker than Moreno and McCoy, but he’s also not as fast. He does hit holes quickly and has the strength to move piles, and despite being 24 years old he enters the league with relatively low mileage after just one season starting for the Hawkeyes. Though he may lack top-end speed, he has the strength, vision, and quickness to be a productive between-the-tackles runner in the NFL—though he’s likely a second-round selection.
A handful of other backs could still hear their name called on the draft’s first day, including Donald Brown Connecticut. Brown led the nation in rushing with 2,083 yards and capped his UConn career with 261 yards in the International Bowl, but doubters point to similarly successful Huskie backs who failed to make the NFL grade. You could also compare Brown to Kevin Smith, who put up big numbers at the collegiate level without sporting eye-popping combine measurements and carried his success on to the NFL. A team that puts less stock in 40 times and more in film study could make Brown a Day One selection.
A back who looks good on paper as well as film, 235-pound Rashad Jennings of Liberty runs in the sub-4.5 range but played off the radar after transferring from Pitt to be closer to his ailing father. Three 1,000-yard seasons and two Big South Offensive Player of the Year awards later, Jennings looks to bring his physical attributes, vision and quick feet to the big stage—again invoking the Kevin Smith comparison. At minimum he looks to provide the inside game to the thunder/lightning tandems that are all the rage; whether that gets him a call on Saturday or Sunday during draft weekend likely depends on how long teams wait before plucking the players ranked ahead of him on most draft boards.
Be Very Afraid
Wells enters the NFL with the biggest boom/bust factor, but of the other notables it appears that Arian Foster’s value is falling the fastest. The Tennessee alum could have turned pro after a successful junior campaign; instead he returned to the Vols but couldn’t even muster the 685 yards he needed to supplant Travis Henry as the school’s all-time leading rusher. An injury at the Senior Bowl didn’t help matters, and now Foster enters the draft with concerns (injuries, ball safety) and question marks. If Foster’s value falls far enough, however, he’ll flip from being a bust candidate to a late-round risk with the potential for some upside.
Take A Chance On…
Plenty of later-round backs have emerged in previous seasons; last year alone Kevin Smith, Steve Slaton (both third round picks), Tashard Choice (fourth), Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain (both fifth), and Peyton Hillis (seventh) were all productive fantasy backs who weren’t drafted until Day Two. Here are three to keep an eye on, assuming of course they land in a situation that plays to their strengths:
Andre Brown’s career at North Carolina State was hindered in part by a fractured left foot; as a result he never carried more than 175 times in a season and never produced a 1,000-yard campaign. However, he’s a versatile back with good size and superior pass-catching ability who could make an impact if given the opportunity.
Another Brown, TCU’s Aaron Brown, also brings receiving skills to the table. The knock on Brown is that he’s built more like a wide receiver, too slight to consistently run between the tackles at the NFL level. However, he does have speed and kick return abilities, both of which could be put to good use while Brown waits for a chance to play regularly. Given his skills, a zone-blocking team or a team with an established between-the-tackles runner looking for a speedy change-of-pace type would provide the best fit.
Speaking of bigger backs, teams looking for that inside presence might be intrigued by Gartrell Johnson of Colorado State. Johnson’s 285-yard, two-TD performance in the New Mexico Bowl likely opened some eyes, and while his lack of speed might remove him from some draft boards there are plenty of teams who can find room for a punishing 220-pound runner with good vision and decent hands.
Who Needs One?
Running backs are becoming a more disposable commodity at the NFL level. On the one hand, teams may shy away from using an early first-round pick on a runner; on the other, more and more NFL clubs are using two backs and aren’t afraid to use a later Day One selection to add a second quality runner.
That means it wouldn’t be at all surprising for the Browns to move on a replacement for Jamal Lewis with the fifth overall selection… or wait until Round Two and hope talent still remains on the board. Waiting might be the smarter move, as the Chiefs and Bengals are unlikely to address their needs with the third and sixth picks, respectively, and other teams who could be in the market for a complementary back—the Broncos, Redskins, and Chargers—could all conceivably go another direction as well. The Buccaneers have a stable of banged-up backs and may be in the market for a go-to guy, while the Eagles have two shots in the first round and could be eyeing a replacement for Correll Buckhalter and heir to Brian Westbrook. And with the imminent release of Edgerrin James, the Cardinals are expected to be looking for a back with the 31st pick in Round One.
A second-round selection isn’t nearly as costly as a first-rounder, so teams might be more willing to use this pick on a complimentary back. In addition to the teams listed above, you can add the Texans (a bigger back to team with Steve Slaton), Colts (a back to replace the aging Dominic Rhodes and spell the oft-injured Joseph Addai), and Giants (if Brandon Jacobs and/or Derrick Ward leave via free agency) to the mix.