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Rookie Running Back Bonanza For 2005
Mike Courter
June 17, 2005

The 2005 NFL Draft offered a bonanza of rookie runners. After the last three years of no tailback being taken in the first half of the draft, this season three backs went in the first five picks – a new NFL record. With Arrington heading to Arizona, there could be four new starters in the league.

Ronnie Brown , Miami Dolphins

Nick Saban, in his first draft as the Dolphins head man, made a profound and immediate impact on the new face of the Miami franchise in the No. 2 selection overall of Auburn running back Ronnie Brown.

In taking Brown, clearly the best back in a strong running back draft class, the Dolphins have closed the door on flaky, ex-franchise back Ricky Williams and his me-first ways, and have pointed their corporate culture back towards team-focused players who will sacrifice personal glory to fulfill championship aspirations.

The former Seattle Mariners draft pick (2000), Brown’s body of work at Auburn, while graciously sharing carries with no. 5 overall pick Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and fourth round selection Brandon Jacobs in what was arguably the greatest backfield in NCAA history, is almost as impressive as the physical skills that wowed scouts at the NFL combine this Spring. The 6-1, 233 pound bruiser breezed a 4.43 forty while bounding 34 inches in the vertical leap and bench pressing 225 pounds 18 times, vaulting him to the top spot of 2005’s eligible backs.

Though Cadillac Williams was the starter in the Tigers backfield rotation, Brown showcased his abilities in 2002, when Williams was sidelined by injuries. Brown sparkled with a career high 1008 yards and 13 touchdowns on 175 carries (5.8 yds per carry). When Brandon Jacobs transferred to Southern Illinois in 2004, Brown split time with only Williams and responded with 913 yards rushing on 153 carries (6.0 yds avg) with eight scores. His 9-5/8 inch hands, noted prominently by scouts, helped him rank second on the team with 34 receptions for 313 yards and a touchdown.

Brown’s thick upper body with well-developed leg muscles allow him to be a downfield runner with good body lean that can also provide a sudden burst of speed when turning the corner. His ability to run through arm tackles matched with his soft hands make Brown particularly dangerous in the passing game. It is these special abilities that enabled Brown to etch his name onto several all-time lists at Auburn, despite never receiving the bulk of the carries in his four year stint as a Tiger.

Fantasy Outlook

Miami will look to their rookie back to revive their stalled ground game, which ranked next to last in the NFL last season (80.9 yds per game). The Dolphins offensive line needs improving and their schedule does not have a lot of soft spots but irregardless, barring injury, Brown will pay immediate dividends in all fantasy formats. Don’t be surprised, with a favorable showing in preseason, to see the first year Dolphin get selected as high as the middle second round in 12 to 16 team leagues.

Cedric Benson, Chicago Bears

The Bears immediately upgraded the league’s 25 th ranked rushing offense from 2004 when they tabbed the highly productive Benson, a starter all four years as a Longhorn, as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft. Benson was selected in the 2001 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played summer ball in Vero Beach in 2001 and 2002 all while tallying 2,346 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons.

Benson’s 5-10, 222 pound sculpted frame is buoyed by broad shoulders and thick thighs (500 pound squat) making a robust architecture that was the primary reason that 56 percent (3,108 yards) of his 5,540 rushing yards were gained after the initial contact by the defense. His consistent body lean translated into only 84 of his 1,112 career carries resulting in lost yardage. The 2004 Doak Walker Award winner’s running style has been described as “patient with a natural feel for cutback lanes”- a trait that will serve him well on Sundays. His senior season saw him rush for 1,834 yards (no.3 on Texas single season list) and 19 touchdowns (fourth best single season mark in UT history). His 6,161 all-purpose yards rank second only to his former idol, Ricky Williams (7,206). Want Consistency? Benson also set an NCAA record by scoring at least once in 37 games.

Fantasy Outlook

In today’s salary cap world, teams don’t draft someone fourth overall without plans to throw them in the frying pan right away. The Bears gave Thomas Jones big free agent dollars last off season and he played well at times but couldn’t stay healthy, which has been his history in the NFL the Bears toward the young workhorse from Midland Lee High School. Benson might start slowly due to the veteran Jones presence but expect a Kevin Jones-like 2004 fantasy trajectory as the season progresses, barring injury, of course. Benson looms as a solid third RB on your fantasy team with great upside in the latter months of the 2005 campaign.

Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs filled a glaring need with the second Auburn running back taken, fifth player overall. Jon Gruden is convinced that he’s found his ground game answer to the backfield quandary that’s existed since Warrick Dunn’s departure several seasons ago coupled with Mike Alstott’s rapid physical depreciation.

Williams' selflessness in the Tigers running back by committee is well documented but it should also be noted that he was the starter in that rotation over Ronnie Brown and Brandon Jacobs. Despite having to share the rock with those two game-breakers, Williams broke the Auburn records for rushing attempts with 741 and touchdowns with 45 (former record holder Bo Jackson had 42). Only Bo gained more on the ground (4,303) than Cadillac’s 3,831 yards in Auburn Tigers history.

At 5-11, 217 pounds, Williams doesn’t possess the girth of a Ronnie Brown but he makes up for his leaner frame with a heightened shiftiness that allows him to slip tackle attempts between the hash marks and then explode down the sideline, maintaining top speed throughout the run. His ability to reach a fifth gear instantly will translate well to the professional ranks where running lanes close much faster than at the college level. Though not known as a pile-pusher, Cadillac exhibits consistently square shoulders with an appropriate pad level to gain yards after contact.

Fantasy Outlook

Cadillac will be handed the keys to Tampa’s ground attack almost immediately. He represents what Gruden wanted to revive out of an aging Charlie Garner last year as well as a team-oriented, exemplary antidote to unstable problem child Michael Pittman. Williams should be selected anywhere from rounds two to four based on how well his offensive line looks at the start of the season.

J.J. Arrington, Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals early second round selection of the University of California product was widely hailed as the centerpiece of their best draft effort in many desert moons. Arrington’s college career started humbly at the College of the Canyons Junior College and culminated into arguably the most productive season of any college back in 2004. The All-American was the only player in the country to rush for 2,000 yards (2,018) on 289 carries equating to a 7.0 yards per carry average while crossing the goal line 15 times. Only Marcus Allen, in his Trojan days, gained more single season yards in Pac-10 history with 2,427 in 1981.

Arrington’s muscular yet compact (5-9, 214 lbs) frame comes complete with wide hips which enable him to burst through seams and elude defenders with above average stop and go action and a change of direction that’s executed with urgency. Ball security concerns that existed early in his career have been eased through his diligent work ethic. His 40 yard dash, ranging from 4.39 to 4.43, combined with impressive strength numbers (225 pound bench press- 18 times) provides him with the power to run through arm tackles and the separation speed from defenders once in the clear.

Fantasy Outlook

Arrington is yet another 2005 rookie back that’s poised for immediate fantasy production. Dennis Green has continued to tinker with Arizona’s mammoth offensive line while importing veteran Kurt Warner to stabilize the passing game. All supporting factors to create an environment for Arrington to produce, barring injury, eight to 10 touchdowns with a legitimate shot at 1000 yards rushing in his rookie season.

Eric Shelton, Carolina Panthers

Carolina’s second round selection of Shelton answers an emerging need for the club that surfaced last season as older veterans Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster became increasingly injured and undersized stop gap Nick Goings filled in admirably until he started to show signs of wear from overuse. In choosing the 6-1, 246 pound Shelton, the Panthers get a younger, more powerful Stephen Davis clone (minus the soft hands) that in 22 games with the Cardinals totaled 1,728 yards on 312 carries (5.5 avg) and 30 touchdown runs. His last season with Louisville ranked him sixth in the nation in scoring with 120 points (20 scores).

Shelton, strictly a north-south runner, boasts sculpted arms accompanying broad shoulders and thick legs and thighs giving him above average balance and a surprising flexibility to redirect himself when rushing lanes become clogged. He also manages to maintain low pad level despite his tall frame, offering limited juke and hip wiggle to bounce outside. The former fullback will not have to exit on passing downs either as his good hip snap as a blocker allows him to take on larger defensive linemen. Lest we forget the big fella’ also blazed a 4.54 in the 40 yard dash and his quick acceleration off the ball is highlighted by his 10 yard dash time of 1.59 seconds.

Fantasy Outlook

Shelton’s value will be much higher in leagues emphasizing touchdowns than other formats as he figures to be Carolina’s goal line guy right out of the gate. He’ll hold a large upside due to the brittle nature of Davis and Foster although Nick Goings will still figure into the mix again, most likely as the third down pass-catcher. Draft Shelton as your third or fourth back who could be a difference-maker for your team in the latter months of the season.

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers, seeking to resuscitate their lifeless running game from a year ago (30th overall, avg. 90.6 yds per game), are hoping to duplicate Buffalo’s successful reclamation project of formerly knee-injured Hurricane Willis McGahee with the selection of another skilled Miami runner, Frank Gore, seeking to make the long climb back from the dreadful ACL injury. One big difference between the former Hurricane stars is that Gore has had to recover from torn ACL’s in both his left knee (2001) and his right knee (2002), a devastating combination for any position but most critically at the tailback spot. For Gore to even will himself back to a position of being drafted in the third round is a testament to his heart and the abundant skill he possessed upon entering “the U” in 2001. As a true freshman, he totaled 562 yards with five touchdowns on 62 carries for an astounding 9.1 yards per carry. In a 28 game Hurricane career that saw huge amounts of lost time due to injury, Gore managed to rush for 1,975 yards on 348 carries (5.7 avg) and 17 touchdowns.

His solid upper body feeds into a tight waist and thick hamstrings which make him a tough inside runner who can move piles and maintain good balance after the initial contact. Though not as stiff as his political counterpart, his multiple knee injuries have curbed his speed bounce to the outside and leaves him with little wiggle in his run but he still possesses an effective elusiveness due to his leg strength.

Fantasy Outlook

Gore’s fantasy outlook is limited with both Kevan Barlow and the speedy Maurice Hicks returning to make a crowded backfield of question marks. His very low Wonderlic score (6) raises concerns about his ability to digest an overstuffed NFL playbook which could lead to a slow start and limited carries. There’s also the theory that he was brought in merely to light a fire under inconsistent starter Barlow. Before your draft, monitor how rookie 300 pound linemen David Baas (33r d pick –Michigan) and Adam Snyder (94 th pick-Oregon) have upgraded the San Francisco front and then determine whether Gore justifies a late round fantasy pick as a sleeper with a chance to take over towards the end of the season. Think Tatum Bell from the Broncos in 2004.

Vernand Morency, Houston Texans

Seeking higher quality depth at the tailback position, the Texans took the former Colorado Rockies minor league outfielder and Oklahoma State Cowboy with the 73 rd overall pick. After spending four seasons in the Rockies minor league system, Morency returned to football and made a significant impact for the Cowboys at the end of 2003 when starter Tatum Bell went down with an injury, gaining 918 yards and eight touchdowns on 135 carries (6.8 avg). The following 2004 season saw Morency garner 1,474 yards with 12 scores on 258 carries.

Morency’s high, thick calves and solid lower body make him a good downhill runner who hits holes hard. He runs with a short step which allows for above average lateral speed and veer quickness that makes him a strong off tackle runner. He’ll need to work on his pass catching ability as his hands were labeled questionable as an option out of the backfield.

Fantasy Outlook

Morency should not be drafted in leagues with less than 16 teams unless Dom Davis suffers a lengthy injury in August. Should he receive a decent amount of playing time he has the skills to produce.

Ryan Moats, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia, leveraging their plethora of 2005 picks, grabbed Brian Westbrook holdout insurance with the selection of the stout, elusive back out of Louisiana Tech as the 77 th pick taken. In Moats first year as a starter in 2003, he rushed for 1,364 yards and 10 touchdowns averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He also caught 27 passes for 251 yards, displaying his all-purpose prowess on the way to earning All-WAC first team honors. In 2004, he raised his game to a new level, being named WAC Player of the Year as he set school records in carries (288), yards (1,774) and touchdowns (18) and his 1,890 all-purpose yards set the Texas Tech single season record to boot.

The 5-8 , 210 pound slasher displays a suddenness out of his stance that quickly gains an advantage on opponents and his slightly undersized frame belies a deceptive power runner who can break tackles and maneuver through pile ups and then turn on the breakaway speed (4.49 forty) in the second level. Moats is seen as a cutback glider when navigating through a defensive secondary.

Fantasy Outlook

Moats won’t play a pertinent fantasy role, outside of special teams, unless Westbrook removes himself from the equation either through a holdout or significant injury. He shouldn’t be considered in fantasy drafts unless the logjam unfurls in his favor.

Maurice Clarett, Denver Broncos

The selection of the troubled, former Ohio State star as the last pick in the third round could very well serve as the smoking gun to two long held, league-wide beliefs, the genius of Mike Shanahan and the Broncos blocking system will churn out 1000 yard rushers no matter who you plug in.

Clarett was a much ballyhooed star upon leaving Harding High as the nations best prep player and his first season at Ohio State further cemented his legend as his 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns buoyed the Buckeye’s to a national title in 2002. Clarett’s punishing running style and exceptional vision became the face of a resilient Buckeye team that refused to die on their march toward greatness. Who can forget Clarett’s clutch play of stripping future pro Sean Taylor of the football after the Miami safety’s interception looked like it would crush the Big Ten champs title hopes?

The next two seasons that followed, filled with missteps, poor judgment and bad advice, are well documented and served to damage Clarett’s football resume as well as set him back physically in his quest to reach the professional ranks. Before being vanquished from campus, Clarett displayed a physically dense, muscular frame with well defined legs. A rugged package of excellent balance, good change of direction agility and serviceable hip swerve with a burst. Low pad level and an ability to not only drive the pile but also bounce around it were hallmarks of his performance as a collegian. But clearly the two year layoff took a toll on him as he appeared softer and decidedly slower at the 2005 combine.

Fantasy Outlook

On the surface, it appears that Clarett needs several chips to fall his way in order to become a fantasy factor this season amongst Denver’s large stable of backs. However, oft-injured Tatum Bell will be slotted as the starter when camp begins and he couldn’t stay healthy in a part-time role last year. Quentin Griffin and Mike Anderson will factor in for some carries but they too have struggled to stay on the field and Ron Dayne has a lot to prove with regard to regaining his Heisman form. All of which leaves the door open for a focused and disciplined Clarett to step up to the plate and possibly emerge as the guy somewhere along the line this year. Draft him in the middle to late rounds once you have your backfield starters established and perhaps you’ll mine some Denver gold for your fantasy team this season.

Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants

New York shrewdly used their fourth round pick to draft giant back (6-4, 260 lbs.) Jacobs as their long- sought short yardage / goal line answer. They hope his arrival will bring new meaning to the Giants “Big Blue” moniker. Jacobs went from one overstuffed backfield at Auburn in 2003 to another RB committee at Southern Illinois yet led a Salukis ground game that accounted for 42 of the team’s 65 touchdowns and 3,404 of the squad’s 6,032 total offense in 2004. In three collegiate stops and a total of 42 games, Jacobs gained 4,003 yards with 52 touchdowns on 595 carries (6.7 avg) while catching 12 passes for 136 yards and returning six kickoffs for 140 yards (23.3 avg).

New York sees not only a short yardage savior in the much-traveled big man but a change of pace power back (and eventual heir) to veteran Tiki Barber to pummel defenses late in games. Jacobs wide body frame features long, muscular arms for lead blocking and pass protection and for a player his size he ran a 4.56 forty-yard dash and impressed scouts with his very quick feet and excellent balance. The Giants were ecstatic to get a power runner who is quick to the hole and secures the football, filling a dire need in their offense.

Fantasy Outlook

A twofold fantasy effect exists with Jacobs entry into the Giants offensive mix. He’ll have immediate value right away in scoring-emphasized leagues but he’ll also have additional upside if Barber, who turned 30 years of age this April, the notorious milestone for running backs starting their decline, begins to falter or show signs of wear. Making Jacobs a “gravy”pick in the mid to late rounds of your fantasy draft just might be the move that has you hoisting your league’s trophy overhead at the season’s end.

Marion Barber III, Dallas Cowboys

The University of Minnesota product, the son of former NFLer Marion Barber Jr.(NY Jets), is a quick, powerful runner with adequate receiving skills who can also return punts, ranking seventh in the nation in 2003 (averaging 14.5 yards per return), making him the ideal complement to current Dallas starting back Julius Jones. In 38 games as a Golden Gopher, Barber carried the ball 575 times for 3,726 yards and 35 touchdowns and his 4,495 all-purpose yards rank second in school history. Despite sharing carries the last two seasons, Barber has etched his name into numerous all-time Gopher lists for touchdowns, 100 yard games and all-purpose yards.

Solid from the upper body through the waist and hips right to his calves, the 5-11, 221 pound Barber resembles a slightly larger version of Julius Jones. He’s a low to the ground type runner who explodes with strength and power and the hip flexibility to plant and change direction on a dime. Though not considered a burner, he has exhibited deceptive downfield speed and he consistently moves forward on his runs, a Parcells hot button.

Fantasy Outlook

Julius Jones is the starter and newly signed Anthony Thomas will assume the power back role in the Cowboys offensive scheme, limiting Barber’s fantasy value in the short term. However, keep in mind Jones’ troubled injury history dating back to his college years at Notre Dame, not to mention missing almost three months in his rookie season in Dallas with a fractured shoulder. If a similar scenario occurs again, Barber could experience a meteoric rise in the fantasy world, much like the Julius Jones phenomenon late last season. If you can afford to, take him late in your draft and stow him away for a rainy day rather then fighting for him on the waiver wire when his number is called.

Ciatric Fason, Minnesota Vikings

Casual observers might wonder why Minnesota, with Onterrio Smith, Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Mewelde Moore, would add another back to that bulging mix. But peeling the onion back reveals an inconsistent mix of the suspended (Smith), the aging (Williams) and the infirmed (Bennett and Moore) and you start to understand Mike Tice’s desire to add a young player who was the model of consistency at the University of Florida, playing in every game of his career (38) including 15 starts. In 2004, he earned All-Southeastern Conference first team honors while leading the SEC in rushing with 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns on 222 carries (5.7 avg), adding 35 receptions for 266 yards and a pair of scores in the pass-happy offense.

Fason’s upper body is well-developed with adequate density and his 6-1 frame allows him to grow his existing 207 pounds. His quick initial movement allows him to slide through holes and make the initial tackler miss. He’s a good route runner who flashes quickness coming out of his breaks, which could come in handy to Daunte Culpepper as a safety valve while the quarterback’s new downfield threats develop in the post-Randy Moss era.

Fantasy Outlook

Fason’s fantasy stature will hinge on how Minnesota’s training camp develops and if the breaks go in his favor. Summers in Minnesota are known for their freakishly large mosquito’s, but Mike Tice’s biggest worry centers around the injury bug, which seems to strike a Vikings running back every August. With Mewelde Moore also nibbling for playing time and Tice’s insistence on developing one running back to be his guy, Fason will most likely start out his career as an undrafted fantasy free agent but could very well end up being a rotisserie star in a year or two.

Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers

San Diego caught figurative and literal lightning in a bottle with their fourth round value pick, the diminutive yet explosive Wildcat from Kansas State. The 5-6 dynamo finished his college career as one of the most productive runners and all-purpose performers in NCAA history. Among the 23 records he set at Kansas State were career touchdowns (48) and career rushing touchdowns (45) while totaling an astounding 24 100 yard rushing games with five 200 yard performances, averaging 110.6 yards per game on the ground for his career. His 6,812 all-purpose yards leave him sixth on the NCAA’s career list. Within that all-purpose bucket is 4,979 rushing yards (6.1 avg), 609 receiving yards from 66 catches, 378 punt return yards and 864 kickoff return yards.

Sproles is fearless in hurling his compact structure through holes after exploding off the snap of the ball. His excellent hip swerve and balance allows him to comfortably run inside the tackles while preserving his 181 pound frame. Great vision and natural running instincts combined with the extra gear to separate from defenders in the open make him a threat every time he touches the ball. If Darren Sproles were a movie, the review would read “brilliant start and stop action…don’t blink or you’ll miss something special”.

Fantasy Outlook

With franchise back LaDainian Tomlinson and capable backup Jesse Chatman in front of him, expect the Chargers to use Sproles in a variety of creative ways to get him as many touches as possible, think Eric Metcalf of the Browns in the early ‘90’s. At a minimum, the insert of Sproles into the San Diego special teams/defense should make the unit deserve heightened consideration when filling that part of your roster during draft day. Outside of returning kicks, expect his first year in the offense to be mainly as an occasional slot receiver, but if LT goes down for any significant stretch, Sproles has the skills to produce in a sharing role with brittle big back Chatman.