Note: This series contains
excerpts and sample profiles from my 2008 Rookie Scouting Portfolio,
an FFToday.com publication available
for purchase here. The RSP provides play-by-play examples
that back up my observations of each prospect’s performance.
For my takes on previous rookie impact quarterback classes check
here for impact articles from 2006
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
For nine of the past thirteen seasons, a rookie runner ended the
season no lower than eighth overall for fantasy RBs. Since rookie
runners are rarely taken in the first two rounds of re-draft leagues,
it remains a potential bargain for the discerning owner. Here are
five, top-twenty backs who were far from top-twenty picks in the
fantasy drafts of their rookie years.
None of these runners had an ADP of 5 or higher with the exceptions
of Bush and possibly Peterson. Add Selvin Young in 2007 and Laurence
Maroney, Jerious Norwood, and Wali Lundy in 2006 as rookies that
made a significant fantasy impact and you have 9 rookies who were
within the top 48 fantasy runners during the past two seasons.
As I have mentioned for the past three seasons, the key is how
many carries or targets the rookie will 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.
Three years ago I provided a
historical analysis based on 54 years of rookie production tiered
by rushing attempts. The result was the same 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.
Rookies earning 250-299 carries are generally starters from opening
day or prospects who 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. Peterson, MJD, Addai, and Bush were more in line with
seeing increasing opportunities from mid-season, on. Both Bush
and Drew also had receiving yardage within the top 30 all-time
rookie performances in this area.
Four of these top performances have come in the past decade. Still,
only seven of the runners on this list compiled fantasy totals over
200 points. If two of the seven on the list made it happen just
last year, you know that it’s not likely you should count
on an RB to be highly involved in both dimensions of offensive production
during his rookie season.
| Top 30 Receiving
Performances (Yardage) For Rookies
Of course you can’t really factor this 200-point barrier
into some of the players on this list because they performed in
an era prior to 1978. But 20 of the 30 backs on this list performed
in the 16-game era and 13 of them did not earn at least 200 fantasy
Jones-Drew and Bush are very similar backs in terms of their
talents. Both are excellent return specialists because they are
uncommonly gifted open-field runners with more than enough skill
to be good between the tackles, tailbacks. I would say they fall
into the Gale Sayers School of backs. Herschel Walker, although
not even close to Sayers in terms of his style as a runner, also
fits due to his multi-dimensional talents as runner, receiver,
and return specialist.
Marshall Faulk could have been a star pupil in this aforementioned
school of backs, but he wasn’t given return duties. Faulk,
James, and Sims carried the load from Day One. There are some
decent receivers in the 2008 class or rookie runners and they
are already getting projected as slot receivers in their respective
offenses. Even so, don’t expect more than 250-350 yards
Talent and opportunity are the keys for a rookie runner to have
an immediate impact. The 2008 class appears to have as deep a
pool of talent as the group from 2006, but I’m skeptical
it will turn out this good. This year’s class was the most
difficult group of backs I have evaluated because several of these
backs have blue chip athleticism, but have significant holes in
their game. In addition there are some small-school prospects
I like to eventually make an impact a few seasons from now.
In the months leading up to the draft, many touted Darren McFadden
as the next Adrian Peterson. Some even thing he’ll be better.
The arguments I hear are based on McFadden’s favorable stats
and performance in the SEC. What rarely comes up is the success
of a two-back system in a gimmick offense.
Since late last fall, I have believed McFadden is nothing like
Peterson as a runner. In fact he has enough deficiencies in his
game that he will disappoint owners expecting him to be a top
tier back. This is not something I say flippantly; McFadden might
have been the most difficult player I’ve had to evaluate.
His speed, acceleration, and ability to play hurt makes him a
prospect who just might prove the theory that speed covers up
a variety of ills in a football player. Unfortunately, as much
I as I hope McFadden, who demonstrates a good work ethic, succeeds,
I’m too skeptical to rate him anywhere near the top of the
rookie class. I will explain later.
Here are my RB rankings from the RSP. The listed score is the
best of any evaluation I did on each player. The comparisons are
my way of summing up a prospect because I believe all players
are stylistically influenced by a number of different players
who came before them. The order in which I list them is how I
rank them (best to worst) on a spectrum of stylistic similarities.
The “x” is where
I believe the prospect will eventually fall along this spectrum
if he fulfills his potential as a pro. The dashes indicate an
approximate skill gap between the players in terms of where they
fall and a slash indicates these players will likely be the same
in skill set.
| Pre-Draft Ranking
- Based On Talent
||Balance; Vision; Elusiveness; Plays
Williams--Dorsey Levens--LaMont Jordan
||Vision; Stamina; Burst; Leverage
||Emmitt Smith--Tony Dorsett--X-------Karim
||Balance; Power; Burst
||Terrell Davis---Ottis Anderson--X---Mike
||Change of direction; Vision; Speed
||Vision; Change Direction; Acceleration
||Vision; Balance; Elusiveness
||William Andrews-Jamal Anderson---X/Earnest
Byner---Lamar Smith/Gary Brown-Leroy Hoard
||Speed; Cuts; Receiving
||Tiki Barber---Thomas Jones-X---Michael
||Curtis Martin--Garrison Hearst--Terry
||Corey Dillon-Robert Edwards---X/James
||Ahman Green--Robert Smith--X/Tatum
||Charlie Garner--Reggie Bush---X---Leeland
||Stephen Davis--Rudi Johnson----X-Antowain
||Vision; Receiving; Balance
||Thurman Thomas--Warrick Dunn--X--Napoleon
||Power; Vision; Balance
||Jamal Lewis--Deuce McAllister---X---Marcel
||Burst; Balance; Elusiveness
||Priest Holmes-Brian Westbrook--X-Dominic
||Power; Balance; Footwork
||Jerome Bettis---Brandon Jacobs--Najeh
||Power; Balance; Lateral Cuts
||Corey Dillon-Robert Edwards---Cory Boyd/James
||Receiving; Elusiveness; Balance
||Charlie Garner--Reggie Bush---Chris
Understand that this ranking is a pre-draft ranking based on
talent. My fantasy ranking for them in 2008 is what I will list
momentarily. Here’s quick recap of my impact rankings from
2007. The notes in bold are my updated thoughts on what happened.
| Recap - 2007 Impact
Rookie RB Rankings
||Lynch gets the nod over Peterson because
he is the better all around player at the position,
runs with more discipline, and plays well even when
he’s hurt. He’s a load carrier and a game breaker in
the sense of what Jacksonville hoped from Fred Taylor
long ago. Update: Lynch
was a borderline starter last year and never dropped
below 8 fantasy points in any start. Peterson outshined
him, but Lynch proved he was a starting-caliber talent.
||Raw talent alone, Peterson is one of
the top two players in this entire draft. If he can
be more disciplined as a runner—choices and ball protection—he
has the type of rare power-speed-balance combos shared
among the all-time great backs of the Brown-Dickerson-Campbell
lineage. Update: AD’s highs
were much higher than I could have imagined. He definitely
proved he is a rare player on the rise.
||Yes, the Rutgers fullback ceded time
to Ray Rice, but it’s because he knew he could make
the team better with two great options on the field
rather than one. He’s highly versatile as a runner,
blocker, and receiver. He has excellent power and 4.5-speed.
He also leaps tall defenders in a single bound—seriously.
Leonard was one of the best players I graded LAST YEAR.
He’s still one of the best in 2007. Update:
He struggled behind a banged up line, but was workman
like as a substitute for an injured Steven Jackson.
In other words, he wasn’t a world-beater at RB. He’ll
be a full-time FB this year.
||Bradshaw has the best vision of any
back in this draft and runs with a sound combination
of power and elusiveness. A sleeper. Update:
He awoke the fantasy world late in ’07
||Not extremely powerful, but hits the
hole like bullet train. Very strong finisher that should
develop into a decent option. Update:
Missed the year with an injury.
||Dynamic 3rd down back that could be
a lot more if he either adds weight without losing speed,
or proves he can gain yardage after contact at the line
of scrimmage. Underutilized in college and could surprise
as a pro. Update: He is
impressing his new team in Philly and could see significant
time as Westbrook’s understudy.
||Runs with the vision and movement of
a back like Emmitt Smith, but holds onto the ball like
Tiki Barber—early in Barber’s career. Update:
The undrafted rookie is now the incumbent starter in
Denver. Anyone draft him even in a dynasty league last
year? (I did…)
||A solid player that can do everything,
but lacks an elite characteristic to his game that makes
him a game breaking weapon. Update:
Walker is still hanging around in Houston, but he’ll
have to fight of Steve Slaton this year unless Green
and/or Brown get injured putting on their equipment…
Overall, not a bad top eight, including three players picked
late on the second day in 2007 or not at all. Here are my 2008
Impact Rookie RBs:
Kevin Smith, Lions: I think Kevin Smith not only has the most
upside of any runner this year and has enough untapped potential
to become an pro bowl runner if he continues to develop. Smith
has his detractors, but his issues are minor compared to some
of those backs touted higher.
There are several things I like about Kevin Smith. First is his
vision. Some evaluators I highly respect believe Smith dances
too much, but far more often than not I saw Smith make quick decisions
at the line of scrimmage and hit the hole hard. When he danced,
he was generally trying to avoid penetration deep into the backfield.
Remember, Smith was the Central Florida offense after Brandon
Marshall and Mike Walker left in consecutive seasons.
Smith has the rare ability to change direction due with the quick
turn of his hips. This trait is commonly associated with good
cornerback prospects when they are required to change direction
from a back pedal to a full-out sprint with a receiver. The reason
Smith enrolled at UCF was the fact more prominent programs recruited
him as a corner rather than a runner. Sounds a lot like former
UGA CB-turned RB, Robert Edwards.
George O’Leary promised Smith he would use him as a running
back and Smith didn’t disappoint. It’s the ability
Smith has to turn his hips with a quick snap that allows him to
change direction on the run or by planting his feet. This is a
talent that Marcus Allen had as a back. Another thing these two
college greats share is deceiving speed. Both possessed gliding
speed the casual observer mistakes them for being slower than
average. This is far from the case. Smith won’t outrun half
the corners in the NFL on a breakaway run, but he’ll still
be fully capable of having more big-play runs than the average
Where Smith gets a bad wrap is his supposed lack of power. More
observant people bring up the runner’s tendency for his legs to
go dead when a defender wraps him up. First, let’s all thank Mike
Mayock of NFL.com for giving the average fan a new term to use
on message boards across the country. I should note Mayock used
this term in his on-air, pre-draft analysis of Darren McFadden,
but it also accurately applies to Smith.
The difference between Smith and McFadden as power runners is
that Smith has the fundamental body lean most runners possess
when encountering contact at the line of scrimmage. Smith may
not churn his legs effectively on a consistent basis, but he does
lean forward and gain extra yardage as a result. This is something
I’ll discuss as a key reason why McFadden is a back I have
issue with as an instant impact prospect.
Since Smith demonstrates good fundamental skills as an inside
runner and has natural strength in the core areas of his body,
he will become a more effective tackle breaker as the years pass
and he gains more upper body strength—something early reports
out of camp say he’s already working on. One of the crazier
criticisms I heard about Smith was he wasn’t big enough
a 6-1, 217. I guess they saw him as a small school runner and
assumed he was a small runner. Maybe it was the fact he has the
face of a 16-year old. All I know is it’s an ignorant viewpoint.
He also carried the ball a ton at UCF against defenses loaded
up to stop him. Against a strong Mississippi State defense last
fall, Smith was nicked up a few times at different points of the
game, but still managed to come back to carry the load and be
productive. Several fantasy owners rightly question whether Smith’s
workload will cause him to break down prematurely in the pros.
Sure, 450 carries in a season is the NCAA record, but Barry Sanders,
Marcus Allen, and Herschel Walker didn’t break down in their
careers and they had high carry rates in their collegiate careers.
The area Smith needs the most work is as a receiver out of the
backfield. He’s inconsistent in this area, but he arrives to an
offensive system in Detroit similar to the one he ran in college
except the Lions have a strong receiving corps and veteran quarterback.
Tatum Bell may not even beat out Wisconsin alum, Brian Calhoun,
who may not have the physical skills of Bell, but has excellent
vision and receiving skills. I fully expect Smith to be the starter
and have a season on par with Cadillac Williams’ rookie year of
1178 yards, 4 scores and 81 yards receiving. If Williams could
have these numbers with an offensive line that was also regarded
as a lackluster unit, but with a worse QB and receiving corps,
I think Smith’s chances are good.
Certain Future; Uncertain Present
Stewart has the skills but will share the
ball with Williams in CAR.
Stewart, Panthers: The Oregon runner earned the highest score
I’ve ever given a player on my Rookie Scouting Portfolio
evaluation system and his grades were consistently franchise player
level. He’s not the force of nature that we see from Adrian Peterson,
but if Dr. Frankenstein combined the vision, toughness, and lateral
quickness of Emmitt Smith with the size, speed, and receiving
skills of LaMont Jordan you would have a player like Stewart.
You would also have players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky
Williams at his best. Although he didn’t have the kind of career
Tomlinson and Williams had in college, Jonathan Stewart is this
kind of player. What impresses me most about him in addition to
the physical skills that earned him freakish scores in Nike’s
SPARQ training while a prep athlete is his ability to play with
injury. The knock on Stewart is his durability, but he gutted
out a toe injury at the end of the 2007 season and produced against
one of the best defenses in college football in the process while
star QB Dennis Dixon was gone for the year.
What complicates matters for Stewart is landing on the same team
as DeAngelo Williams. The third year vet out of Memphis was a
solid #2 fantasy RB for the last five weeks of the 2007 season.
Williams catches the ball well, has better than advertised strength
and could be a slid starter in his own right. I won’t be surprised
if Carolina utilizes this talented duo in an committee situation
along the lines of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones Drew who were
13th and 18th last year in fantasy points per game.
The fact he opted for toe surgery after the combine should encourage
fantasy owners that we haven’t seen him at his physical best,
but leave them to pause about his opportunity to gain the confidence
of the Carolina coaching staff due to missed practice time. Fortunately
running back is the one position where it is generally easiest
to pick up the offensive system. Edgerrin James had a rookie season
to end all rookie seasons and if you recall, he learned the offense
away from the Colts complex and the team praised him for his preparation
when he did get into training camp. I believe Jonathan Stewart
is the best back in this draft class, but I’m not sure he’ll have
an opportunity to prove it to fantasy owners on a weekly basis
in 2008. His upside and the return of Jake Delhomme make Stewart
a reasonable mid-round selection in re-drafts, but he’s not a
lock to be the force in which he’s capable.
Mendenhall, Steelers: I was slow to warm up to Mendenhall
because of the spread offense at Illinois and the fact he had
trouble beating out competition for the starting job prior to
2007. It turns out that competition, Saints undrafted rookie Pierre
Thomas, was a pretty good player who outplayed Ohio State alum
Antonio Pittman for a position on the New Orleans depth chart.
Mendenhall is an economical runner with a good power-speed combo.
He won’t string a lot of moves together, but he has a talent
for being a physical, yards after contact runner. He also catches
the ball proficiently, which is a good thing considering his blocking
in college was shaky. The problem was his body positioning and
gauging the speed in which defenders came off the line of scrimmage.
I can see Mendenhall eventually becoming a factor as a first and
second down back in the Pittsburgh offense and relegating Parker
to third down situations. If he can develop his pass protection
skills, he could produce as a starting quality runner down the
stretch in 2008.
Big Man In A Little Coat (Good player;
Bears: Kevin Jones just signed with Chicago, but I’m not sure
he was ever as talented as Forte when fully healthy. Based on
early reports out of Chicago, I seriously doubt that Jones is
anything more than insurance after cutting Cedric Benson. Jones
is a nice option for the Bears to wait upon in case Forte doesn’t
work out or he works out as a solid complement with more upside
than Adrian Peterson or Garrett Wolfe.
Forte, like Smith, is accustomed to being the marked man in an
offense that was even more overmatched than UCF’s unit. One of
the advantages of my Rookie Scouting Portfolio evaluation system
is a player’s performance is not dependent upon his statistical
production. Case and point are my evaluations of Joseph Addai
and Trent Edwards in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Neither performer
had great statistical efforts against top competition, but they
demonstrated the necessarily skills to project as impact players.
I saw quality skills from Forte against LSU that convinced me
that Forte has NFL starter talent. Not only did the Tulane runner
demonstrate the kind of vision, first step, and instincts he’ll
need against pro defenses, but he also won the MVP award of the
Senior Bowl. This is not to say top tier college talent is on
the same level of pro talent, but when you watch a college back
playing behind an offensive line that only had two lineman strong
enough to bench press the weight that 80% of the LSU squad was
capable of lift, you get the sense that Forte had to do more with
less just to perform on par with more highly-touted backs.
I also believe Tulane head coach Bob Toledo—UCLA’s
former head coach—when he said last season that Forte will
be a good NFL starter due to his skills as a runner and receiver.
So far, offensive coordinator Ron Turner has nothing but great
things to say about Forte:
I love Matt Forte. He will definitely be an every-down back.
He's got the size; he's got the hands. He's smooth as an athlete,
very smooth. After nine practices, I'm not afraid to call anything
in the offense with him. He's made a couple of mental mistakes,
but not very many. He's handling it very well. How many touches
do I see him getting? A lot. I can't answer that as far as a number,
but a lot. I'm excited about him.
Before we all get too excited about Forte’s impact this year,
remember that Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson averaged 3.4 and
3.3 yards per carry in 2007. To make matters worse, Muhsin Muhammad
and Bernard Berrian are no longer with the team. If there is a
worse looking offense in the league, you’ll have to look hard.
This is definitely a situation where the player’s skills don’t
match his surrounding talent. If Forte averages 3.7-4 yards per
carry I would consider his rookie year a success and if he’s even
more productive, expect great things from this runner because
he’ll have to be a miracle worker.
Just One Chance…
Ray Rice, Ravens: The Ravens made an excellent pick here. Rice
is a compact, hard-nosed runner with vision. What I love about
Rice is his stamina. He had several 20- and 30-carry games. I
even watched him come off a 36-carry game five days prior to posting
39-carries for 181-yards against a South Florida team that had
only allowed a 100-yard rusher once in the equivalent of a season
and that one other back was none other than Rice the year before.
Early reports out of Ravens camp are that Rice has learned the
offense quickly and is getting opportunities as a slot receiver.
The Rutgers star is a player in the mold of John Harbaugh’s
personality as a coach and I believe he’ll win over his
teammates quickly with his toughness and talent.
Willis McGahee had a fine season last year, but I think he’s
on a shorter leash than it appears. For starters, McGahee had
to be taken out of games in the fourth quarter due to lack of
conditioning. He has also rankled the new coaching staff for being
one of the players not working out with the team this spring.
Ray Rice is the type of player that will either light a fire under
McGahee’s behind or it won’t be long before McGahee is playing
for his third team in his career. If you’re a dynasty league owner,
I’d be all over Ray Rice in a rookie draft.
Spot Time With A Future
McFadden, Raiders: McFadden might be the most difficult player
I have evaluated for the RSP. His speed and acceleration are better
than all but one back in this class. He also played productively
during his career while coming off toe surgery and dealing with
bruised ribs. When McFadden can run a play as designed, he can
break it open for huge gains because of his elite speed. Although
he doesn’t make strong lateral moves, he has the ability to bend
a run in a direction while running at a high speed. This is a
rare ability, but it is still not as effective against a defense
as a runner with sharp changes of direction.
The problem is this former QB repeatedly demonstrated noticeable
deficiencies that I believe will prevent him from making a consistent
impact as an NFL runner: falling backward when making direct contact
against first and second level defenders because he runs with
poor leverage; the tendency for his legs to go dead upon the initial
wrap-up; lacking the ability to change direction with a hard plant
and cut; impatience with his blockers; and poor ball protection
techniques. Many people have compared McFadden to Eric Dickerson
Peterson, but the only thing McFadden currently shares with these
two backs is his speed.
McFadden’s power is actually something worth calling into
question. I am not skeptical of his strength and athleticism.
He has plenty of both to be an elite NFL running back. The problem
is his knowledge of how to use it. Any type of power you generate
when it comes to delivering or deflecting a blow comes from the
legs and hips. Not only do these body parts have to be strong,
but they also need to be positioned well to transfer energy from
your body to your target. They explain this in more detail on
shows that study the physics of martial arts—for example,
National Geographic did a special where they hooked up UFC fighters
like Randy Couture to sensors that measure force and flow of energy
throughout the body.
I know it seems a bit like a jump to apply this to a running
back, but its not. Think about a runner heading through the line
of scrimmage and they are come face to face with a DT, LB, or
DB greeting them head-on. If the runner’s hips and knees are bent
then his shoulders will have to be leaning forward so he can explode
into the contact. When he makes contact, the energy transfers
from his legs in the ground, up his hips, and to the point of
contact with the defender. A great runner has learned through
a combination of repetition and intuitive assimilation of practice
and game situations (natural talent) how to subtly change the
angle of contact in close quarters and deliver enough of a blow
to at least "shed" the tackle, if not just knock guy on his butt.
This is why a back such as Eddie George who "ran too high" coming
out of college actually was a good NFL player. He was taller than
the average back, but he knew how to lower his shoulders and bend
his knees and hips so more times than not he exploded into contact.
The same can be said with Eric Dickerson. Most people remember
his "upright" running style, but if you watch highlights
that don't involve him running through creases untouched for 40-
60 yards and looking like Carl Lewis in pads, you'll see a guy
who could get low very quick and deliver a blow with his shoulders
into contact. Adrian Peterson is capable of the same thing. I
never once worried about his upright running style. The guy has
monstrously great balance. When I first thought about comparisons
to Peterson vs. McFadden I would watch how McFadden would get
yanked out of bounds by the arm a hit to the hips, or a horse
collar and see right away from the standpoint of balance Peterson
is uniquely different--he stayed in bounds on plays like this
all the time (which is what is one of quite a few things special
about his skills). But this also has to do with hip and leg alignment
and good use of his strength.
When I see McFadden in the hole he gets yanked backwards more
than many backs (even compared to 6-0, 200-lb Felix Smith) in
the hole or knocked down on is butt from head-on hits because
his knee bend and hip bend is just not there. How can you tell?
Look at his shoulders. A back like George or Dickerson often ran
as if their shoulders were a big hand on a clock pointed to the
number 2 or at worst between the number 1 and number 2. A back
like McFadden is somewhere between the 12 and 1 and never quite
at 1. It's why when he gets hit in the hole he'll fall backwards
more than the average NFL-quality prospect. A back like Edgerrin
James, who is unbelievably good at getting low, often gets closer
to the number 3 position with his shoulder lean as he is still
running forward. You can't do this unless your hips and knees
It is not to say that McFadden never lowered his shoulders, but
it was generally done in the open field with a significant running
start against a defensive back. To his credit, he will break some
long runs as a situational back because he showed the ability
to run the designed offensive plays at Arkansas to perfection.
Arkansas did a terrific job tailoring an offense around McFadden
and Felix Jones by forcing defenses to overplay one and get burned
by the other. SEC defenses have some of the best athletes in the
country, especially on defense. But these fast athletes are used
in highly aggressive defenses and they are susceptible to a glorified
counter play with play action that will force them out of position
when that play fake goes to an elite athlete in Jones.
The problems with McFadden show up when he had a reasonably normal
freelance opportunity and he didn’t possess the vision or patience
to allow these normal alternatives to develop. I’ve heard McFadden
can catch, but after watching six games over a two-year period,
I saw a runner who dropped easy passes on a consistent basis.
Robert Meachem caught a lot of passes in workouts last year with
his hands, but struggled as a rookie in game situations. Once
again, this is why game film is invaluable in telling how a player
does when the pads come on, the fans are screaming, and the veterans
are playing with a speed an intensity they’ve never seen before.
Like Reggie Bush, McFadden will learn that his speed isn’t as
much of an advantage in the NFL as it is in college football.
Speaking of Bush, I was very high on the USC back and still believe
he has the skills to live up to the hype if he can stay healthy
and stop pressing so hard to make the big play. In contrast, I
think McFadden is more of a project that can develop into a franchise
back if he corrects some serious deficiencies and works his butt
off to do so. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown the maturity off
the field and football has come rather easy to him. Having kids
out of wedlock or some college bar fights doesn’t make him a hardened
criminal, but I believe the odds are against him to take his work
ethic to the level of a LaDainian Tomlinson or Peyton Manning.
And McFadden needs to work this hard to make the jump or he will
most likely disappoint. The one way I could see how his evaluation
is off base is if McFadden’s injuries severely altered his running
style and he was generally cruising off his incredible speed,
but I’m skeptical this is the case. My best overall grade of McFadden
indicates he clearly has the talent to contribute in the NFL,
but needs a lot of work to be the primary offensive weapon.
Jones, Cowboys: Jones’ presence in the Arkansas offense did
wonders for Darren McFadden’s production and I wouldn’t at all
be surprised if becomes a viable situational back in the NFL,
but to rate him a top five back in this draft is a big leap of
faith in a player who only carried the football 20 times once
in his college career. Nearly two-thirds of Jones’ carries were
as a receiver on the end around with McFadden as the quarterback.
Linebackers and defensive ends won’t be as concerned about most
NFL quarterbacks as college defenders were with McFadden’s blazing
speed. The Wild Hog formation at Arkansas was mutually beneficial
to both players.
I think Jones has the skills to develop into a productive contributor
based on a game where he ran primarily out of the I-formation
as the RB, but there are several other backs that proved they
could produce without a decoy that runs a 4.33 40-yard dash. Jones
will contribute in the NFL as a kick return specialist and change
of pace runner, but I’m not as convinced he’ll be the lock as
a future starter as others. I have no qualms about drafting him
because he has some Clinton Portis potential, but even Portis
splitting time with Edgerrin James and Najeh Davenport showed
much more on film than Jones.
Jones stock could go up rapidly if he shows anything in training
camp that signals he’ll play the Julius Jones role to Marion Barber.
Right now it appears his greatest impact will be on special teams.
I do anticipate he’ll get the first shot as first back off the
bench to give Barber a rest. Consider Jones a late round handcuff.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: The rookie out of Texas has breathtaking
skills. He’s light on his feet, strings moves together effectively
in the open field, and gains yardage after contact better than
one would imagine from a 5-11, 200-lb., runner. He also possesses
amazing vision, spotting holes at the line of scrimmage that many
pro starters don’t anticipate.
He doesn’t lack confidence, either. He told the media when
he arrived at Texas that he would make people forget Adrian Peterson.
While he didn’t come close to achieving that feat, Charles
acquitted himself well for the Longhorns. Sometimes I wonder if
his cocksure nature didn’t impact his choices on the playing
field. Charles had the tendency to go for the big play when the
read in front of him would have yielded a productive result. He
also has lapses with ball protection.
If Charles’ approach to pro football is right then he is perfectly
capable of backing up Larry Johnson without a great drop-off in
production if he see extended time.
Titans: Chris Johnson’s speed makes Darren McFadden look like
a dump truck. The East Carolina product is even lighter on his
feet than Jamaal Charles and he hits the hole hard. He is a former
receiver and the Pirates had a difficult time initially finding
Johnson a position where they could capitalize on his skills other
than special teams.
I think Johnson has potential to be an every down back, but it
will take a ton of work on his part to develop into a between
the tackles runner. His vision is unproven when the hole in front
of him isn’t huge. He is far from being an after contact
runner and his pass protection skills are what one would expect
from a former slot receiver.
At this point, expect Johnson as a situational back lined up
in the slot in Mike Heimerdinger’s offense in Tennessee.
The rookie has proven to be a faster study than the Titans initially
expected and I do believe he’ll provide some big plays this
Broncos: I was highly impressed with Torain’s
ability to gain yardage after contact. Broncos head coach
Mike Shanahan says Torain reminds him of Terrell Davis and draft
analyst Mel Kiper had the Arizona State product as his second-rated
back before he suffered a season-ending Lis franc injury. He’s
a determined runner with the size be effective between the tackles.
I’m just not sure he has the speed to get into the second level
of the defense on a consistent basis. While he accelerates well
out of his cuts, he doesn’t possess the initial burst of the higher
profile prospects. He’s also an upright runner that takes as much
punishment as he dishes out. Regardless of his deficiencies, Torain
has enough talent to be selected as a late round back up that
can surprise if called upon to play.
Xavier Omon, Bills: My favorite sleeper this year is the sixth
round pick out of NW Missouri State who was the first RB in the
history of the NCAA to have four straight 1500-yard seasons. Omon
reminds me a lot of Earnest Byner, the Titans RB coach who starred
for the Cleveland Browns in the 1980s and carried the Redskins
to a Super Bowl victory in the 1990s. Like Byner, Omon is a big
runner with vision, balance, quickness, and receiving skills.
What I watched this guy do on an ice-covered field in the semifinal
game was a demonstration of exceptional balance and determination.
Although he possesses average speed at best for a pro runner,
I think he’s quick enough to produce if given the opportunity.
Tashard Choice, Cowboys: Count me as a fan of the Georgia Tech
star that originally backed up Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma, but
knew he would have to transfer to get a shot at playing time.
Choice, like Omon, lacks top end speed, but his vision, patience,
and power make him a better than average runner. The Cowboys will
likely have Barber and Jones ahead of Choice, but look for the
rookie to put up a good fight in training camp. If there’s
an injury to either back ahead of him, Choice will make the most
of his opportunity.
Late Round Gambles and Long Shots-Dynasty Only
Cory Boyd, Buccaneers: Boyd runs with excellent power and he
really catches the football well. Tampa’s backfield is filled
with veterans, so Boyd will need to have a great training camp
to stick with the roster. Still, it’s worth remember that
Andre hall was cut from the Bucs and turned up with the Broncos
the next year, performing well enough to in the mix in 2008.
Kregg Lumpkin, Packers: Lumpkin could end up a fullback if he
doesn’t regain his speed after dealing with multiple injuries
during his college career. He was never an inordinately fast runner,
but his overall skills have always been impressive. He’s probably
the best blocking RB in this class, runs with exceptional patience,
and will gain yardage after contact. He’s a smart player that
produced whenever he got a chance to start at Georgia and put
up some strong games against top competition. The former prep
All-American was only second to Reggie Bush in terms of how recruiters
regarded him as a runner. If Lumpkin can regain and maintain his
healthy, I think he could do what Ryan Grant did in 2007 when
given the opportunity.
Thomas Brown, Falcons: Lumpkin’s backfield mate at Georgia
is a tough, quick back with good balance. Brown also suffered
a major injury during his college career, but recovered quicker
than Lumpkin. He’s not a big runner, but he’s more
difficult to knock down than one might expect. What Atlanta will
like about Brown is his intensity. He’s high effort player
much like Tashard Choice. I don’t think he’ll see
the field as a runner once the season begins, but I wouldn’t
be surprised if he keeps working at his craft to the point that
he’ll push for a roster spot this year.