Fantasy owners were spoiled by the rookie class of 2008, when four draftees played their way into fantasy starter status and at least another half-dozen warranted roster spots and weekly starter consideration. Ultimately, nine rookie runners finished among the top 48 backs in typical combo scoring systems and two reached double-digit touchdowns. Lightning did not strike again last year, as Knowshon Moreno was the only rookie back to crack the top 32 fantasy scorers at his position, and only three classmates joined him among the top 50.
How does this year’s class stack up? There’s talent, to be sure; more importantly, there may be opportunities—either as a feature back or a significant member of a committee. So at minimum fantasy owners will need a basic understanding of what the key members of the 2010 running back rookie class are expected to bring to the table.
The Upper Echelon
With Chris Johnson posting a 2,000-yard season and Reggie Bush sparkling in the postseason, NFL teams are becoming more willing to overlook a lack of size when it comes packaged with world-class speed; that’s why C.J. Spiller sits atop most draft boards. But Spiller is more than just a sprint champion (actually, he finished second to wideout prospect Jacoby Ford in the ACC 100 meters last year); he was the only NCAA player to score a touchdown in every game last year and the first player in ACC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season. Open field skills? Check; Spiller returned four kicks for touchdowns in 2009, finishing his career with an NCAA-record seven. He shared the workload with current Brown James Davis for much of his collegiate career, but after Davis graduated to the pros Spiller was the featured ball-carrier last season. And despite checking in at 5-11 and 195 pounds, he didn’t miss a game in four seasons at Clemson. Spiller is also a tougher inside runner than he gets credit for, but when all is said and done it’s that speed that makes him an attractive option in just about any offense.
Weighing in some 40 pounds heavier than Spiller, Jonathan Dwyer provides NFL teams with power-rusher alternative to Spiller’s speed. Not that Dwyer is slow—he’ll likely run in the high 4.4s at the Combine—but at 235 pounds he’s the prototypical “thunder” to Spiller’s “lightning”. Dwyer brings more than just size to the table; he has good vision and deceptive speed, which would allow him to handle feature-back duties in addition to serving as a short-yardage guy. Scouts have compared him to Jonathan Stewart, with the notable exception that Dwyer has never missed a game due to injury. Dwyer was extremely productive through two different offensive systems at Georgia Tech, Chan Gailey’s pro-style scheme (in which he backed up current Cowboy Tashard Choice, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and scoring nine TDs) and the Yellow Jackets’ triple option his last two seasons (in which he tallied 1,395 rushing yards each year). He definitely has the size to fill an immediate role in the NFL, and like Stewart he also possesses the talent to excel as a feature back when the opportunity presents itself.
Jahvid Best raced to early contention for the Heisman before a concussion and back injury ended his Cal career four games prematurely, but he’s expected to check out medically and still rank among the first backs off the board on draft day. Perhaps a blink slower than Spiller, Best racked up 4,045 all-purpose yards in 31 career games and has all the attributes of an outstanding third-down back: good hands, great speed, and the ability to make tacklers miss in the open field. His size (5-10, 195) and injury history have NFL teams concerned about his ability to hold up to every-down duty, but 12 tackles as a gunner and an all-Pac 10 berth as a special teamer as a freshman suggest he’s not one to shy away from contact. And as noted above, if you have speed to burn the NFL will find away to put it to good use.
Averaging 6.5 yards per carry and 150 yards per game while leading the NCAA in rushing may not have been enough to put Ryan Matthews in the national spotlight—playing at Fresno State will do that—but he’s certainly on the radar of NFL scouts. Arguably the best all-around back in this year’s draft, Matthews has all the tools: good size (5-11, 220 pounds), decent speed (he’s expected to run in the high 4.4s at the Combine; anything faster will likely move him into the first round), soft hands, the ability to run effectively both inside and out and the work ethic and toughness to block and play through injuries. The latter—he battled knee and foot injuries throughout the 2008 season, and durability is a concern—bumps him behind other backs in his class, but there is little doubt that if he’s able to stay healthy he could fill just about any backfield role at the NFL level... including that of full-time feature back.
Everything came together in a kind of dream season for Toby Gerhart, culminating with Stanford’s first bowl appearance in eight years and a runner-up finish in the closest Heisman balloting in history. While his size (6-1, 235) might get him pegged as a power back and his lack of pigmentation has him drawing comparisons to Brian Leonard instead of, say, the similarly-sized Larry Johnson, he has the ability to be more than just a Mike Alstott-type of feature/fullback. Even if the league doesn’t see him as a primary ball-carrier, he could certainly find work as a strong inside compliment in a committee backfield, or even as a pass-catching fullback in a West Coast offense. And as we’ve seen more recently with the likes of Peyton Hillis and Le’Ron McClain, there are times when breakaway speed isn’t a prerequisite to 15-20 carries a game.
Be Very Afraid
You’ll see Joe McKnight going off the board in the first three rounds of most mock drafts or comfortably ensconced within the top 10 of most running back rankings. However, after failing to live up to the “next Reggie Bush” hype at USC it seems silly to ask him to outperform Bush at the NFL level—and that’s not exactly setting the bar too high. There is no question McKnight has plenty of speed, and he’s actually more physical than you might expect from a 6-0, 190-pound back; however, the nagging injuries that plagued him much of his college career raise durability red flags for his pro career. It all adds up to a top-end projection of McKnight becoming a poor man’s Bush in the pros, and that’s not a comparison which will have fantasy owners flocking to make him an early dynasty league pick.
Take A Chance On…
The last time most football fans saw LeGarrette Blount, it was on the news as he was sucker-punching a Boise State player following Oregon’s loss in the 2009 season opener. Blount sat out much of his senior season for that transgression, but earned back his roster spot and played in the Ducks’ final two games. He’ll be grilled at the Combine, but the NFL is full of second chances and right or wrong a 6-1, 245-pound frame and quick feet are bound to tip the scales of justice in Blount’s favor. Size-wise Blount compares to Michael Turner, and while he may not have Turner’s top-end speed he is definitely capable of handling the inside carries for an NFL team. In this age of committee backfields, if a team believes Blount has his act together he could be stealing goal line touches as early as 2010.
Who Needs One?
While plenty of teams near the top of the draft could use help in the running game, don’t expect to see backs going off the board until the middle of Round One. The Seahawks, Texans, and Chargers are candidates to make early plays for the elite runners, but the Lions, Redskins, and Browns all may be in the market for feature ball-carriers within the first two rounds as well. Spiller is being associated with the Seahawks in many mocks, and they’ll have two shots at him in the first 14 selections. The Texans and Chargers could see Dwyer as a complement to Steve Slaton or Darren Sproles, respectively, and if Matthews shows well at the Combine he could nudge himself into the lower end of round one as well.
Other teams such as the Chiefs, Steelers, and Eagles may be willing to use an early pick on a complementary back, and the Rams, Titans, Packers and Vikings may all be looking for a quality back-up runner in the middle rounds. In later rounds team will look to fill specific needs, be it for a back with third-down or return-game skills, with the size to handle inside carries, or as a developmental runner. Keep an eye on these late-round selections; almost one-third of last season’s top 24 fantasy backs entered the league as fourth-round picks or later, and three of them were completely ignored on NFL draft day.