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Rookie Running Backs
Scott Boyter
June 30, 2004

While it’s not that unusual for running backs to make little of an impact their rookie seasons, it’s looking especially desolate for the Class of 2004. Of the 12 runners selected in this year’s draft, only two look to have a serious chance of being “The Man” this season. The others will either be mired in dreaded “running back by committee” scenarios, buried on the bench or seeing slivers of playing time on special teams.

Here’s a breakdown of every running back drafted in 2004 and how they’ll be used this season.

Kevin Jones, Detroit Lions

Many observers tabbed Jones as the best runner available this year, and his stats back them up. Jones rushed for 3,475 yards in 37 games (a 5.6 yard average per carry) and scored 35 touchdowns. He also added 229 yards on 24 catches. Jones’ outside running ability is unquestioned, but his ability to break tackles on the inside is. Doubts remain about his pass-catching skills, especially catching the ball away from his body. Critics also say he tries to improvise too much by reversing field if a hole doesn’t open to his satisfaction. But Jones’ acceleration, outside explosion and cutback abilities will make him a threat to break a huge run every time he touches the ball.

Fantasy Outlook: Jones’ main competition in the Lion backfield will be Artose Pinner, Olandis Gary and Shawn Bryson. For the amount of money they’ll be paying Jones, it’s pretty much a lock he’ll be the No. 1. With Joey Harrington stretching out defenses by airing it out to receivers Charles Rogers and Roy Williams, Jones should see plenty of running lanes – at least early in the season. He’ll definitely be a worthy third running back on most fantasy squads.

Julius Jones, Dallas Cowboys

It’s still mystifying why the Cowboys decided to stockpile picks instead of choosing potential franchise running back Steven Jackson. Instead, Dallas took Troy Hambrick’s replacement in the second round. The pick of Julius Jones, of course, may or may not end up being a good one. He’s described as quick and shifty with excellent lateral quickness, and a huge threat in open space, but he’s also small, injury-prone and has a hard time breaking tackles. Jones missed a year of eligibility due to academics, but rebounded with an excellent season upon his return last season. He gained 1,268 yards, averaged 5.5 yards a carry and scored 10 touchdowns. However, look a little deeper and the numbers appear drastically skewed. He averaged 215.5 yards in games against Pittsburgh, BYU, Navy and Stanford, but could only average 50.8 yards in the Notre Dame’s other eight contests – including a paltry six yards on seven carries against Purdue.

Fantasy Outlook: With Hambrick’s departure to Oakland, the Dallas starting job appears to be Jones’ to lose. However, logic would dictate the Cowboys will bring a June 1 st cut victim (such as Eddie George) to camp to challenge him. If Eric Bickerstaff, Aveion Cason and Rashard Lee remain the only challengers, stamp Jones the starter. Not that he’ll be a viable fantasy pick in the first place – odds are good he’ll be taken out in goal-line situations for a larger back, and playing any Cowboy offensive player will be a huge risk. Jones is fourth starter on your fantasy team at best.

Chris Perry, Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati brought in the Doak Walker Award Winner as an insurance policy should the team choose not to extend Rudi Johnson’s contract past this season. Everybody fell in love with Perry after his performance against Ohio State, but his numbers were strong in the two years he started at Michigan. In 26 games Perry rushed for 2,784 yards (a 4.6 yard average per carry) and 32 touchdowns. The 6-0, 224-pound Perry is a power runner with just adequate speed, so don’t look for him to take it to the house on many long runs. He has above average hands (he had 44 catches his senior season) but lacks elusiveness in the open field. Perry looks to be the kind of guy who will be good at wearing down opposing defenses as the focal point of a ball control attack.

Fantasy Outlook: The Bengals basically showed no long-term faith in Johnson by only offering to add a year to his deal, so Perry looks like the back of the future. But don’t anoint Perry the de-facto 2004 starter just yet, although he’ll probably get a good number of touches sharing time with Johnson. Unless he proves worthy of a starting spot in training camp, his most significant role should be on third down because of his pass-catching ability. Stay away from both Perry and Johnson because of the uncertainty about their workloads this season.

Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams

The future has arrived in St. Louis, and the Rams should benefit for years to come – it just won’t happen this season. Jackson was just about the consensus No. 1 runner in this year’s draft, yet shockingly dropped to the 24 th spot in the first round. When Marshall Faulk finally decides to hang up his Hall of Fame cleats, Jackson will prove a more than worthy successor. SJ averaged 4.9 yards per rush and 10.3 per reception on bad Oregon State teams, scoring 39 TDs on the ground and adding six more through the air. Although he only played three seasons, Jackson’s 3,625 yards rank 10 th in Pac-10 history. The 6-2, 233-pound Jackson is a powerhouse who can bang for the tough yards up the middle, yet also has the speed to break away from defensive backs. This guy is the epitome of the term “total package,” and will ultimately make the teams that passed on him rue the day. Simply rue the day.

Fantasy Outlook: Jackson will eventually be a super-stud. Take him in a keeper league if you get the chance. But in more conventional leagues, Jackson will be a No. 4 back at best – unless Faulk is on your team. If that’s the case, nab Jackson or pay the consequences. While Faulk is the unquestioned Ram starter for 2004, he has still missed 12 games in the last three seasons, including six in 2003. It’s become not a matter of if, but when he’ll be hurt.

Quincy Wilson, Atlanta Falcons

Wilson is best known for his performance against Miami last season, when he bowled over Hurricane safety Brandon Meriweather on a 33-yard TD reception in a losing effort for West Virginia. But his college career was much more than a single highlight reel play. Even though he only started one season, Wilson ranks fifth in Mountaineer history in total yards, and his 474 rushing attempts are also fifth in school history. He ran for 1,380 yards (4.9 yards a carry) and 12 touchdowns last season. Wilson is a 5-9, 225-pound bowling ball who breaks a lot of tackles, but has average speed at best and no second gear.

Fantasy Outlook: Wilson is listed as fourth on the Atlanta depth chart at running back behind Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and James Fenderson. But considering how much Duckett has underachieved and Fenderson’s history of mediocrity, Wilson has an excellent chance at seizing the No. 2 spot with a strong training camp. He won’t be a factor on most fantasy teams, however, unless Dunn is injured. Leave him off your draft board but keep an eye on Wilson as a potential free agent pickup later in the season.

Cedrick Cobbs, New England Patriots

Texas and LSU fans know all about Cobbs, who torched the Longhorns for 115 yards and a score. Against the national champs, Cobbs exploded for 169 yards and a score – and 122 of those yards were in the first half. Cobbs was only the second runner to crack the 100-yard mark against the Tigers, and scored only the third rushing TD that LSU allowed. Cobbs is a powerful combination of size, strength and speed, hits the hole hard and can run over defensive backs with little effort. He also has excellent hands and an underrated blocker. The downside is he had only one good season at Arkansas due to injuries and disciplinary problems. However, he turned it on at the right time, churning out more than 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season.

Fantasy Outlook: Cobbs should turn out to be another draft day gem of a pick by the Patriot brain trust. He’ll likely not see very significant playing time this season due to the Corey Dillon acquisition, and should be avoided until the late rounds. But he’ll be worth a No. 4 running back slot on your team – Dillon was a warhorse with the Bengals, and if he finally succumbs to the wear and tear Cobbs could put up some surprisingly good numbers.

Tatum Bell, Denver Broncos

Bell went with the 2.09 pick to the Broncos and brings a sub-4.4 speed and explosive running style to Denver (sound familiar?). Bell is almost the exact size of Portis, has a tendency to get nicked up like Portis and comes in with a tag of fumbler just like Portis. He will cost much less than Portis as well. He’s an explosive runner that played for Oklahoma State since he was a freshman and is a threat to score each time he touches the ball – if he hangs on to it. He’ll also need time to develop pass blocking skills since he is a little under-sized.

Fantasy Outlook: Bell is buried in the seemingly never-ending line of Denver running backs, firmly ensconced behind Quentin Griffin, Mike Anderson and Garrison Hearst. He’ll see little action in the Bronco backfield at first as Quentin Griffin is the named starter and Garrison Hearst is cooling down his career there, as well as Mike Anderson who can change back from his current fullback spot. Bell is talented but will need opportunity and that may be hard to get this season. HC Mike Shanahan has no problem with the committee approach until he is confident one runner can take the entire load. Bell deserves to be the fourth or fifth back taken in a rookie fantasy draft from his potential alone, but he may be little more than unrealized potential this season.

GREG JONES, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Jones blew out his right ACL at Florida State in 2002 and when he returned in 2003, he only managed 618 yards and seven scores.. He was considered a certain NFL stud prior to the 2002 injury and he fell to the 55th pick by the Jaguars who had traded up to grab him. HC Jack Del Rio said he was not concerned about Jones knee when he drafted him and Jones is said to be about 95% of his true form. He is running as fast as his pre-injury days and with a 250 pound load, he will be hard to bring down.

Fantasy Outlook: The Jaguars are envisioning Jones as a “Mike Alstott” role player and have hinted at using both Taylor and Jones in the same backfield. Particularly in short-yardage situations where Jones can save wear and tear on Fred Taylor. Jones carries risk as any rookie would, and still has to prove that he has completely recovered from his 2002 ACL tear, but so far he has done everything he can to show the Jaguars move up may prove to be a steal. Even if Jones only plays the old "Stacy Mack" role, he could turn in a surprising year with scores and should Taylor go down with injury, Jones will likely be a hot item for fantasy teams.

The rest

Michael Turner ( San Diego), Joe Echemandu ( Cleveland), Bruce Perry ( Philadelphia), Brandon Miree ( Denver), Derrick Ward (N.Y. Jets)

Turner will be an afterthought with the Chargers unless LaDainian Tomlinson is hurt – he has a chance at reaching No. 2 on the San Diego depth chart, but L.T. hasn’t missed a game in three seasons. Echemandu, Perry, Miree and Ward will have to impress on special teams to even make their respective squads.