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2006 Rookie Running Backs
Michael Courter
June 14, 2006

Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints

Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans wept for joy when the Texans chose to go defense (DE-Mario Williams- N.C. State) over offense with the No.1 overall pick, allowing college football’s most electrifying player to fall to their once hard-luck Saints, sending a surge of game-changing hope into the forlorn franchise’s future and a region desperate for any type of good news to distract them from the hardship that envelopes them daily.

The most media-hyped college player to arrive in the NFL in quite some time, Bush had forced himself onto everyone’s All American lists at the conclusion of his Trojan career after being one of the most highly recruited high school football players in the country out of Helix High School in La Mesa, CA.

So what has the last 12 month’s fuss been all about? The 5-11, 200 pound blur has rightfully been compared to former NFL great Gale Sayers after scoring touchdowns five different ways during his time at the University of Southern California (rushing, receiving, kickoff returns, punt returns and passing), averaging a touchdown every 15.0 times he touched the ball (41 TDs on 615 touches) and his two seasons of 2,000 plus all-purpose yards (2,330 in 2004 and 2,611 in 2005) tied an NCAA record. 

In only three seasons at USC, Bush’s obscene 7.4 yards per carry (420 rushes) resulted in 3,087 career rushing yards, placing him seventh in the running back-rich annals of Southern Cal while also finishing 19th on the career receptions list (89), second overall on USC’s kickoff return yards (1,420) and fifth on the Trojans career punt return yardage ranking (559).  His career 6,338 all-purpose yards (averaging 10.3 yards on each of his 615 touches) leaves him second in USC history (Charles White has 7,226 in 1976-79) and 13th overall in NCAA history.

Bush’s on-field heroics in 2005 were a weekly feed of material to news outlets of all mediums nationally, including the famous “Bush Push”, assisting Matt Leinart’s game-winning plunge over Notre Dame in the 2005 last-second, comeback thriller, his back-to-back rushing efforts of 294 yards against Fresno State and 260 against UCLA, the most ever by a Trojan in two consecutive games and his five consecutive 100 yard rushing games in 2005 (against Arkansas, Oregon, Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame) was a Trojan first since 1989 (Ricky Ervins also had five in a row).  Amazingly, the average length of his 16 touchdowns in 2005 was 31.9 yards.

Very similar body type to a young Marshall Faulk went he departed San Diego State for the NFL, Bush will most likely add 10 plus pounds to his frame as he matures into his early twenties without losing any of his explosiveness.  Though he will never be considered a power runner, he is surprisingly effective in between the tackles due to his slippery maneuverability through the line of scrimmage.  As it has been well-chronicled, Bush has a full toolbox of game-breaking skills, including speed (4.35 forty time), elusiveness, agility, explosion through holes in the defense, superior cutback ability, toughness, ball security and excellent hands to allow him to catch passes out of the backfield without breaking his stride.

Fantasy Outlook:  All indications are that the Saints plan to deploy Bush in a very similar way to how he was used at USC, with Pro Bowl RB Deuce McAllister playing the power back role served by LenDale White at USC to free Bush up to present nightmare match up scenarios for opposing defenses, especially defensive safeties who will have the unenviable task of trying to keep up with the dynamic runner/receiver.  Bush’s bayou arrival puts the exclamation point on a drastically improved New Orleans offense that will now be spearheaded by Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees, replacing the inconsistent, turnover-prone Aaron Brooks, with new offensively-inclined head coach Sean Payton running the show.  The Saints faithful will expect Bush to deliver on his great promise and Sean Payton will truly enjoy figuring out new and inventive ways to exploit Bush’s bountiful talents, making the second overall selection of the 2006 draft an early round fantasy football choice with the potential to produce meaningful stats as a No.2 starting running back in your lineup.

Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots

The New England Patriots addressed a glaring need at running back with the first round selection (21st overall) of running back Laurence Maroney out of the University of Minnesota.  Resident New England starter Corey Dillon will turn 32 years old and ever since capturing his elusive Super Bowl ring in 2004, the cumulative effect of over 2,400 career carries is rapidly rearing its ugly head in the form of injuries that linger and a diminished yards-after-contact average.  The arrival of the 6-0, 216 pound Maroney will infuse youthful speed and power into a Patriots backfield that went out with a whimper at the conclusion of the 2005 season.

The 2005 second team All American became the first player in Golden Gopher history and only the third in Big Ten Conference annals to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.  Despite starting only 14 out of 36 games for Minnesota, due primarily to sharing carries with current Dallas Cowboy Marion Barber III, Maroney finished second on the school’s career rushing yards list with 3,933, topped only by Darrell Thompson’s 4,654 yards (1986-89), also finishing second to Thompson’s 23 all-time 100 yard rushing games with 21, in which his team went 16-5 in those contests.  His 34 total touchdowns placed him fourth all-time in Minnesota history.  Finally, Maroney’s 4,797 all-purpose yards placed silver to Thompson’s gold (5,109) in school history but the breakaway threat stands alone with a school record of sixteen consecutive games of at least one run of 20 yards or longer.

The unanimous All Big Ten selection in 2005 ranked third in the nation (133.09 ypg.) in rushing yards and 11th in all-purpose yards (157.27 ypg.).  He rushed for 1,464 rushing yards and ten touchdowns despite missing one game and being bothered by a lingering high ankle sprain in his last two contests.

The Missouri native exudes a natural athleticism that combines good size and strength to punish tacklers and gain the tough yards with the breakaway ability to make sharp cuts and burst through the backside hole in an instant.  An able pass-catcher out of the backfield, Maroney will run away from linebackers assigned to cover him and the main knock against this exceptional talent has been his tendency to take plays off and not approach each and every snap with the same intensity, a weakness that will be immediately addressed under the watchful eye of coach Bill Belichick.

Fantasy Outlook:  The ailing Dillon missed four games and started only 11 contests last season so Maroney appears to be graduating to an NFL version of his carry-sharing arrangement from his college days.  Watch for Maroney to complement Dillon in a change of pace role with Dillon eventually shifting more toward the short yardage / goal line duties once Maroney demonstrates a strong grasp of the playbook and pass protection schemes to stay in on third downs.  Maroney should be drafted for RB depth with solid upside in the upcoming fantasy drafts and should deliver one or two standout games toward the end of the season, right around fantasy playoffs.

DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers

Carolina used the 27th pick of the first round to hopefully give themselves some ground game peace of mind, plucking durable and highly productive tailback DeAngelo Williams from the University of Memphis to add critical depth to a collective running back corps that can’t seem to stay healthy, led by brittle, fifth year starter DeShaun Foster and second year power back (6-1, 246) Eric Shelton, a second round pick by the Panthers last year who saw his rookie season evaporate on the Injured Reserve thanks to a broken left foot after a promising pre-season showing.

Starting 36 of 44 games since his freshman year at Memphis, Williams captured practically every school and conference career record for rushing, all-purpose yards and scoring.  His career total of 6,026 yards (on 969 attempts) rushing places him in elite company, fourth overall in Division I-A history behind record holder Ron Dayne (6,397 on 1,115 carries), Ricky Williams (6,279) and Tony Dorsett (6,082).  His statistics as a running back combined with his receiving prowess (70 receptions for 723 yards and five touchdowns) and excellence on kickoff returns (37 for 824 yards) allowed Williams to set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 7,573 and his 362 points score rank ninth overall in NCAA Division I-A history.  The 2003 & 2004 Conference USA Player of the Year exemplified consistency in his setting of the new NCAA record for Division I-A for the most 100 yard rushing games with 34, breaking Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett’s then-NCAA record of 33 games.  Williams also led the nation in scoring in 2004 with 22 touchdowns, a single season school record, which contributed to another all-time school mark, touchdowns scored (60).

NFL scouts believe the 5-9, 213 pound, self-described scat back will excel in the third down back role as a pro, as his running style has been described more as a dancer rather than a straight-ahead attacking style of a larger back, utilizing his elusiveness in the open field and quick feet and balance to enable him to manufacture large gains to the outside once he is past the defensive front seven.  Williams is viewed as lacking top end speed to escape pursuit for long gains, being quick rather than fast, and will need to improve his consistency as a pass blocker by shoring up his technique to take on much larger linebackers in the NFL.

Fantasy Outlook:   With starting running back DeShaun Foster a well established injury risk and big back Eric Shelton still remaining a mystery entering his second year, the opportunity for Williams to receive meaningful playing time remains strong.  Williams was arguably the most productive back (including Reggie Bush) entering this year’s draft but his 4.55 forty time and reluctance to attack the line of scrimmage at times allowed him to drop to Carolina at the end of the first round. 

The Panthers will have a very balanced, veteran-laden offense for which the rookie back can assimilate into at an appropriate pace and should he be called upon to pick up the baton when the inevitable injury fells Foster for any length of time, Williams has the tools to succeed and will likely emerge as a valuable contributor in fantasy football leagues toward the middle of the season.

Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts

With longtime franchise back Edgerrin James having departed for the free agent dollars of Arizona and veterans Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro both sporting spotty health records while playing part-time roles behind James, the Colts sought to address their most immediate need with their lone first round pick (30th overall) in the selection of LSU running back Joseph Addai. 

Addai was a four year letterman at Lousiana State University, gaining career totals on the ground of 2,576 yards (fifth in school history) and 18 touchdowns on 490 carries (eighth in LSU annals) with 66 receptions (fifth in LSU history amongst running backs) for 641 yards and six touchdowns.  Addai started 12 of 13 games in his senior year, gaining 911 yards and nine touchdowns (third in the SEC for 2005) on 187 carries with five games exceeding 100 rushing yards or more.

Addai stands 5-11, 215 pounds and boasts agile feet to make sharp cuts in bouncing runs to the outside when the middle lanes become clogged but has a tendency to run upright, limiting his power and quickness and creating the appearance of not playing to the speed that his 4.49 forty time projects he should.  He shows patience in following his blockers moving instinctively off their blocks and has good hands to catch passes out of the backfield, with open field vision and quickness and he performs pass blocking well, be it the cut or upright block, making him a strong performer as a third down back, which is most likely where he’ll spend most of his game snaps for the Colts.

Fantasy Outlook:  The Colts will employ the classic running back by committee approach to replace Edgerrin James in the short term, with Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro being first in line for carries and Addai helping out on third downs and possibly special teams.

Unless Rhodes and Mungro miss a large bloc of playing time this season, Addai does not appear to have the chance to be a major contributor statistically and thus, should not be a major consideration in most fantasy football drafts.

LenDale White, Tennessee Titans

Time will tell but the Titans may have received the S.O.D. (Steal of the Draft) of 2006 when the much-heralded Trojan power back plummeted to Tennessee in the second round as the 45th pick overall after being listed in the top ten of many pre-draft lists just a few short months ago.  Considered by more than one football pundit as a better pro prospect than his much-balleyhooed backfield mate based on his size and college production running between the tackles, weak pre-draft performances at the NFL Combine (15 reps of 225 on the bench press- Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler did 24) and the fallout from his USC Pro Day nightmare, where he revealed a six pound weight gain (from 238 at the Combine to 244), a “sense of entitlement” and a “doughy” upper body in the words of NFL scouts in attendance and a failure to participate in many of the agility drills due to what was later revealed as a torn hamstring, all conspired to tie a millstone around White’s once hopeful first round aspirations.

The 2005 second team All American finished his college career with 3,159 yards rushing, eighth best total in USC history, finishing only 10 yards behind teammate Reggie Bush (3,169) while his 52 career touchdowns smashed the long standing mark established by Trojan legend Charles White (49) and ranked second in Pac-10 Conference history (behind Oregon State’s Ken Simonton, who registered 56 scores from 1998-2001) while remarkably fumbling only four times on 541 carries (all in 2004). 

The “thunder” to Bush’s “lightning”, White rumbled for 1,302 yards on the ground on only 197 carries (6.6 ypc.), 904 yards coming after contact, during Bush’s Heisman Trophy winning campaign last season.  Despite not starting any of the thirteen games he played in last season, White still led country in scoring with 156 points (an avg. of 12.0 ppg.), breaking the Pac-10 single season record of 150 set by UCLA’s Skip Hicks in 1997 and his 24 touchdowns were tops in the nation that year, setting single season school and conference records.

White, who counts Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups as a cousin, is the prototypical NFL back, possessing an impressive size-speed combination that allows him to consistently break tackles and gobble up yards after contact.  The one true power back in this year’s draft, the 6-1, 244 pound bruiser will be able to shoulder an NFL-size workload of 25+ carries per game without losing the ability to aggressively approach the line of scrimmage and deliver a blow to would-be tacklers.  His pass blocking is excellent, from quickly reading defenses to using his ample size to stand up blitzing linebackers in their tracks, allowing White to stay on the field for all three downs in a series.  White will not be able to runaway from a lot of tacklers, lacking the burst and explosiveness to break long gains as his physical tools are much better suited for a power running scheme.

Fantasy Outlook:  Jeff Fisher is hoping he found his new Eddie George for the next decade in the youngster from Denver, Colorado after several seasons of wishing the talented but injury-prone Chris Brown would evolve into a reliable franchise ball carrier.  Fisher has publicly stated that top pick Vince Young and White represent the identity that the team is looking to get back to, being able to control the ball offensively with the running game, passing when necessary and playing sound defense.

Former USC and current Titans offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, vouched for White on draft day, providing the once-Maurice Clarett-labeled prospect a true chance to play a meaningful role for the Titans in his rookie campaign.  White makes for a promising sleeper pick in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts as a third or fourth back, depending on league size, with the most value coming in touchdown only leagues.

Maurice Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

Word out of Jacksonville was that despite a running back depth chart that currently lists veterans Fred Taylor, Greg Jones, LaBrandon Toefield, Alvin Pearman amongst others before training camp starts, the powerfully-built 5-7, 209 pound dynamo with the sub 4.4 speed (4.39) was too compelling to pass up and coach Jack Del Rio sees an immediate need for explosiveness addressed in both the punt return game and in the backfield.  In post draft press conferences, Del Rio went so far as to imply that the 5-7 Drew could grow into a large role at tailback for Jacksonville. “He’s short, but not small” Del Rio commented to the local Jacksonville media regarding the thickly-muscled burner.

In only three seasons, Drew established himself as one of the most productive and lethal all-purpose backs in the collegiate ranks during his days at UCLA. In 36 games as a Bruin (in which he started 22), Drew accumulated 2,503 rushing yards (ninth best in school history) and 26 touchdowns on 481 carries, also adding 64 catches for 819 yards and seven scores with his combined touchdown totals leaving him in ninth place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 234 points.  Drew excelled in the kick return game as well, averaging 23.2 yards per return on 25 punts, breaking the UCLA career record while also scoring four touchdowns on those returns and he also gained 787 yards and two touchdowns on 32 kickoff returns, finishing his three seasons with a school record 4,688 all-purpose yards.

Widely considered a high character prospect, Drew decided to turn pro early to honor the wish of his beloved grandfather who suffered a heart attack in the stands at the Rose Bowl during the UCLA-Rice game on September 10th, 2005 and died shortly thereafter.  Drew had lived with his grandparents, Maurice and Christina Jones, throughout much of his youth and changed the name on the back of his jersey from Drew to Jones-Drew for the remainder of the 2005 season in honor of his deceased grandfather.

Fantasy Outlook:  Regardless of Drew’s obvious talent, the stockpile of veteran talent in front of him effectively chokes off his fantasy potential for 2006.  Fred Taylor doesn’t have much left in the tank past this season but Greg Jones has already positioned himself to step into the lead role should Fred falter and second year back Alvin Pearman excelled in the third down pass-catcher out of the backfield role last season, leaving Drew to battle LaBrandon Toefield for touches in the kick return game while providing second tier depth insurance for the Jacksonville backfield.

Brian Calhoun, Detroit Lions

After addressing their primary need to strengthen their defense with their first two picks, LB Ernie Sims (1st round) and SS Daniel Bullocks (2nd round), the Lions felt fortunate to see the gifted tailback from Wisconsin available in the third round and used the 74th overall selection to bring Brian Calhoun on board to help solidify their backfield behind starter Kevin Jones.  Detroit envisions using Calhoun as a slot receiver, punt returner and handing him a few carries each game to spell starter Kevin Jones on occasion.

After spending his first two seasons at the University of Colorado, Calhoun decided to transfer closer to his Milwaukee home and attend the University of Wisconsin after Colorado coaches tried to persuade him to move from running back to receiver.  The move cost him a season of eligibility in football during the 2004 campaign so he kept himself busy on the track team with the 4x100 meter relay and helped win the 2005 Big Ten Conference Championship that Spring.

Calhoun made his one and only football season with the Badgers count in 2005, becoming only the second player in NCAA Division I-A history to record 1,500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.  The former transfer from Colorado accumulated 2,207 all-purpose yards last year, second most in school history and he rushed for 1,636 yards (fifth most in Badger annals) on a single season school record of 348 rushing attempts (seventh-most in Big Ten history) and added 53 receptions for 571 yards, both school single season records for a running back.  His nine 100 yard rushing games tied him for fourth all-time in Wisconsin history.

The 5-9, 202 pound back relies on his quick feet to make tacklers miss and bounce runs to the outside when the middle lanes are clogged.  At barely 200 pounds, Calhoun will not overpower tacklers but rather use his vision and elusiveness to make substantial gains in the open field.  Excellent pass-catching hands out of the backfield, Calhoun plucks throws out of the air and adjusts easily to balls thrown behind him (he caught over 93% of passes thrown his way).

Fantasy Outlook:   Even if starter Kevin Jones continues to be a health risk entering his third season, Calhoun is staring up at veterans Artose Pinner, Shawn Bryson and Arlen Harris on the running back depth chart and the Lions will most likely employ him as a slot receiver in certain packages and as a punt returner in his rookie campaign, mitigating his fantasy football value, though he may see some time as a third down specialist toward the end of the season once his rookie learning curve is lessened.

Jerious Norwood, Atlanta Falcons

In the closing weeks before the draft, Atlanta had targeted the highly-productive back from Mississippi State as the eventual replacement for 31 year old Warrick Dunn, with fourth year back T.J. Duckett, entering the final year of his contract, seemingly falling out of favor with Falcons management, who tried, and failed, to pull off a draft day deal with the Steelers involving Duckett.  Norwood graded high on the Falcons character screening process as well as recording top measurables in the running back group at the NFL Combine, including placing first in the 40-yard dash (4.40), three cone drill (6.81), broad jump (10 foot 2) and the vertical leap (36.5) while finishing second overall in the short shuttle (4.25) and long shuttle (11.52).

Norwood played 46 games for the Bulldogs, starting 29 of those contests, setting a career school record with 3,222 yards on 573 carries (5.6 ypc.), fumbling only four times, with 15 touchdowns while also performing as a receiver (43 catches for 186 yards and two scores), punt returner (43 yards on four punt returns) and kickoff return specialist (15 returns for 309 yards).  The 2005 second team All-SEC running back’s 3,760 all-purpose yards ranks third in school history.

Norwood possesses natural running instincts combined with the explosiveness and top end speed (registered a 4.37 forty time prior to pre-draft workouts) to finish off long runs.  Agility, balance and nimble feet help him get through the hole quickly and when he chooses to run aggressively, he runs through arm tackles and gains consistent yards after contact.  He appears svelte for a 200 pound back and tends to run upright but has demonstrated a flexibility to lower his shoulder and advance the ball using leverage.  Norwood practices responsible custody of the ball, rarely fumbling, and can make the quick cut to the backside hole with frequency, an asset in Atlanta’s Alex Gibbs-inspired zone blocking techniques at the line of scrimmage.

Fantasy Outlook:  T.J. Duckett remains a critical figure to Norwood’s fantasy football value in 2006.  Dunn will remain the starter, but is a year older and will continue to fight off pesky ailments that arise during the season, allowing Norwood the chance for carries while Dunn gets a momentary breather.  If Duckett is moved out of town altogether, Norwood could become a pivotal mid-season pickup for fantasy teams if he becomes part of the Falcons goal line package in Duckett’s absence.