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2007 Rookie Running Backs
Michael Courter
June 28, 2007

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (1.07)

Peterson, with his NFL-ready frame of 6-2, 219 pounds, was widely known as the best player coming out of high school ranks in 2003 after his outstanding senior season at Palestine High School (TX) which saw him gallop for 2,960 yards on 252 attempts (11.7 yards per carry) and scoring 32 touchdowns.  He was awarded the Hall Trophy as the Ballpark National High School Player of the Year and was named the MVP of the US Army All American Bowl.  Intensely recruited by top Division 1A programs and widely rumored to be thinking about jumping straight to the NFL from high school, Peterson eventually chose the University of Oklahoma over Arkansas, Texas and Miami (FL).

Peterson was an instant success for the Sooners, rumbling for 1,925 yards on 339 carries with 15 touchdowns and catapulting himself into the 2004 Heisman race, finishing as the runner-up to USC’s Matt Leinart, the highest finish ever for a college freshman.  The first-year player lived up to the enormous hype that surrounded him upon his arrival in Norman, Oklahoma and fanned the flames of even greater expectations in the seasons to come.

The next two campaigns were solid, but unspectacular after a sizzling freshman season.  In 2005, an ankle injury forced him to miss the Baylor game and parts of four other contests, but he still managed to gain 1,108 rushing yards (5.0 avg.) and 14 scores.  While finishing with 1,012 (5.4 avg) and 12 touchdowns,  the 2006 season was injury-plagued as well, as Peterson, playing in front of his father, Nelson Peterson, ( recently released from prison,) for the first time, broke his collarbone while diving into the end zone to punctuate a 53-yard touchdown run against Iowa State.  He would miss the team’s final seven regular season games before returning for Oklahoma’s memorable OT loss to upstart Boise State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns, including a 25 yarder in overtime that briefly moved the Sooners ahead on the scoreboard.

Peterson, despite needing only 151 yards to surpass Billy Sims on OU’s all-time rushing list, decided to skip his senior season and offer his now 6-2, 225 pound package of size and speed (a recorded 4.38 forty time) to the NFL, and subsequently became the seventh overall choice in the 2007 NFL Draft, selected by the Minnesota Vikings.  The former Sooner is truly what God had in mind when molding an elite caliber NFL back and he will become the centerpiece of Brad Childress’ offense in Minnesota, despite managing only single digit reception totals in his three seasons at Oklahoma.  However, his above average height combined with his relentlessly punishing running style has already produced injury concerns during his days as a collegian and could prove to be an Achilles heel in the NFL as head-hunting safeties like Roy Williams (Cowboys) and Sean Taylor (Redskins) will be looking to take advantage of Peterson’s rookie learning curve.

Fantasy Outlook:

AD, Peterson’s childhood nickname referring to his ability to run at top speed “All Day”, will most likely end up a fantasy football tease of the Laurence Maroney circa 2006 variety, a wondrous talent package, that if, not chained to a burdensome two-back system sharing carries with a respected veteran RB (Chester Taylor), would be a significant scoring factor right away, worthy of a mid-second round pick in fantasy drafts.  However, due to Taylor’s injury propensity, Peterson has a larger upside than most top rookies forced into a committee situation and should blossom into a dangerous member of fantasy lineups in the last quarter of the regular season, if not sooner.  Behind one of the top offensive lines in football, fantasy owners should feel comfortable drafting Peterson sooner rather than later in their upcoming drafts and should be able to use his young legs in a 2nd to 3rd running back capacity in week one.

Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo Bills (1.12)

After trading disgruntled Willis McGahee away to the Baltimore Ravens this past off season, the Buffalo Bills immediately moved to address one of their many positional needs by tabbing University of California standout back Marshawn Lynch with the 12th overall selection in the 2007 Draft.  Ironically, Lynch followed No. 7 overall pick Adrian Peterson (MIN) once again, having been ranked the No.2 running back coming out of high school by Rivals.com  in 2004 behind the much heralded former Sooners star. 

The 5-11, 225 pound tailback was San Francisco East Bay’s Player of the Year in 2003 after amassing 1,722 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in only eight regular season games and an additional 375 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in the two post-season contests that followed.  Lynch also excelled as a track sprinter and basketball player in his high school career at Oakland Tech.

As a true freshman at Cal, Lynch played primary backup to senior JJ Arrington, who would go on to become a 2nd round pick (44th overall) of the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, gaining 628 yards and eight scores on 71 carries while also catching 19 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns.  The former Oakland Tech star would capture the starting job in 2005, following Arrington’s departure for the NFL, and amass 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, despite missing two games due to a hand and finger injury.  He would also go on to earn Las Vegas Bowl MVP honors after a 24 carry performance that netted 194 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Despite playing with a sore back and two sprained ankles in his final season at Cal, Lynch garnered numerous awards, including being named All American, All-Pac10 first team and Pac10 Offensive Player of the Year, after compiling 1,356 yards (avg 6.1) and 11 touchdowns on the ground, while adding 34 catches for 324 yards and four scores as a receiver.

In the newfound character emphasis era fueled by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Lynch’s high selection in the first round of the 2007 Draft speaks volumes about his undeniable on-field talent, as the Bills were willing to look past numerous off-the-field incidents during his college years, which included sexual assault accusations by a former girlfriend (a charge later dropped due to “grave inconsistencies” and lack of evidence) and him being the victim of mistaken identity in a drive-by shooting outside his alma mater, Oakland Tech, where Lynch was attending his younger sister’s graduation.  He was not the intended target of the shooting, no one was injured and the shooter actually called Lynch’s mother later on to apologize.   

Fantasy Outlook:  
Even though Adrian Peterson was selected before him, it is Lynch who is in line to receive more playing time due to the personnel differences on each back’s perspective teams.  Lynch will not have any significant veteran back to snatch carries from as longtime backup Anthony Thomas was acquired strictly to provide veteran insurance to the Bills tailback position.  Many pundits have commented on Lynch having a similar style to Indianapolis Colts back Joseph Addai.  A slippery runner with the patience to wait for a hole to appear and the necessary second gear (4.46 forty at the Combine) to pull away from pursuing defenders, Lynch has also displayed sticky mitts (9-5/8 inch hands) that make him a reliable receiver out of the backfield and will keep him on the field for all three downs, a valuable trait for fantasy owners.  Though the Bills line was mediocre last year, they’ve recently added upgrades in the form of free agents, Derrick Dockery (OG) and Langston Walker (RT), which should make the rookie from Cal a viable fantasy selection in rounds three to five this Summer.

Kenny Irons, Cincinnati Bengals (2.49)

Seeking to reinforce the running back depth behind workhorse Rudi Johnson, the Cincinnati Bengals selected University of Auburn running back Kenny Irons with the 49th pick overall in the second round of the 2007 Draft.  With current second-string back and third down specialist Chris Perry (a 1st round pick in 2004) showing a troubling proclivity for the injured list since his pro career began, missing more than half of his games due to injury and he won’t be ready for the start of this year’s training camp with a still-mending ankle, the Bengals are hoping that Irons can be the guy to pick up the slack in their depleted backfield depth chart.

After lettering as a true freshman for Lou Holtz at South Carolina, Irons was placed in a difficult spot after Coach Holtz promised incoming freshman RB Demetrius Summers the starting job in exchange for his signature on signing day before the 2003 season.  Irons only saw action in only five games for the Gamecocks in 2003, prompting him to transfer to Auburn University to reunite with his brother, David Irons, a defensive back for the Tigers.  Observing NCAA rules, Irons was ineligible for the 2004 campaign, but spent his time wisely on the sideline by learning the position at the feet of future NFL stars Cadillac Williams (Buccaneers) and Ronnie Brown (Dolphins).  His contribution on the scout team simulating the upcoming opponent’s running back was viewed team-wide as a critical piece to their undefeated 2004 season.

Irons caught fire in 2005, taking over for injured starter Brad Lester early in game against the University of Arkansas, never looking back and finishing the game with 182 rushing yards on 33 carries.  The former Dacula High School star would finish the year with 1,293 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns for the defending SEC champions.  After finishing 2005 with such a flourish, Irons fell woefully short of inflated expectations, suffering a series of nagging injuries that limited him to 941 yards and four scores on 198 carries.

The outspoken ball carrier, hailing from the football-rich Irons family tree, was able to redeem himself in the eyes of NFL scouts after his final college season through a series of solid pre-Draft workouts, including the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine and Auburn’s Pro Day, recording a 4.45 forty yard dash and a 38 inch vertical leap.

Fantasy Outlook:

Irons has minimal fantasy value for 2007, with Rudi Johnson firmly entrenched in the starting role and Chris Perry still in the rotation primarily in the third down, pass-catching role.  Irons touches will be strictly tied to Perry’s ability to stay healthy, so there is a decent chance he’ll be able to contribute, but not in a meaningful way for fantasy football purposes.

Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers (2.63)

The Green Bay Packers, seeking to bolster the competition for the starting running back spot that was vacated by longtime fixture and former Nebraska RB Ahman Green, who flew south in the off season to play for the Houston Texans this year, grabbed another Cornhusker tailback, Brandon Jackson, in the second round of this year’s draft with the 63rd overall pick.  Jackson will join a growing group of contestants vying for carries, including Vernand Morency, Noah Herron, Arliss Beach and P.J. Pope.

The 5-11, 210 pound junior was an early entry in this year’s draft after coming off a strong junior season which saw him be named as a first team All Big 12 selection  and determining that his mother, a diabetic who works a demanding RN job in a nursing home, could use his financial support sooner rather than later.

In 2006, Jackson’s only year as Nebraska’s primary ball carrier, the former Horn Lake Mississippi High School star gained 989 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground while snaring 33 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, all while not taking over the starting job until the sixth game of the season.

The Packers see an instinctive running style, a somewhat refined ability to pickup blitzes and top end speed (4.41 forty time at a campus workout) and his second round draft status should give Jackson a leg up on most of his backfield competition.

Fantasy Outlook:

Jackson will barely register on fantasy football radar’s when the season starts, but could emerge as a quiet contributor as the season progresses, given the uninspiring competition that he currently faces in the Green Bay backfield.  Incumbent Vernand Morency showed flashes last season but was inconsistent at key points of games and seemed to be constantly nicked up by various ailments, in fact, it would not surprise anyone to see the Packers add another established veteran to their running back mix once the next round of Summer cap cuts occurs.

Lorenzo Booker, Miami Dolphins (3.71)

Seeking a productive change-of-pace back to give Ronnie Brown a breather in between the twenties, the Miami Dolphins selected the 5-10, 192 pound Florida State product in the third round of the 2007 Draft with the 71st overall pick.

Widely regarded as the nation’s top running back prospect coming out of high school, Booker posted a surreal 2,878 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns while hauling in 16 passes for 300 yards and three more touchdowns, finishing his three year schoolboy career with 8,502 rushing yards and 137 touchdowns, both California state records.  During this stretch, his St. Bonaventure team (Ventura, CA) went 42-0.

The Oxnard, CA native chose Florida State over Notre Dame and lettered all four years in Tallahassee, finishing seventh on FSU’s all-time rushing list with 2,298 yards on 475 carries (4.8 avg) with 13 touchdowns and 109 receptions for 878 yards and two scores.

Fantasy Outlook:

Booker’s third round selection by the Dolphins should serve as a mild wakeup call for franchise back Ronnie Brown, who seems unable to shake the nagging injury bug since entering the NFL in 2005 as the second overall pick.  Brown has endured an assortment of leg injuries and most recently suffered a broken hand in the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit last season.

The Dolphins are hoping to replicate the success that their division rivals, the New York Jets, had with another similarly constructed Seminole named Leon Washington (5-8, 202), who gained 650 yards rushing and 270 yards receiving and four rushing touchdowns as part of a rotation of backs for the Jets.  That type of production is fine for contributing toward a functional NFL offense, but not the type of numbers that will draw a happy dance from fantasy owners looking for a consistent scorer over a 16-game journey.  Booker’s 2007 fantasy football viability is directly tied to whether Ronnie Brown’s is unable to stave off his familiar injury demons.  Also, a productive presence from Booker will also serve to dilute Brown’s fantasy value, dropping him to a late second, early third round pick after being a mid-first round selection in last year’s drafts.

Tony Hunt, Philadelphia Eagles (3.90)

After years of trying to force-fit always-injured Correll Buckhalter into the power back component of an offensive backfield led by top back Brian Westbrook, the Eagles have decided to bring a new contender for the role with their third round selection of Penn State bruiser Tony Hunt (6-2, 233).

Finishing his standout career at T.C. Williams High School (made famous by the movie, Remember the Titans) with a senior season of more than 2,000 total yards while also playing linebacker, defensive end and part-time punter, Hunt originally made a verbal commitment to USC before switching to Penn State upon hearing Reggie Bush’s commitment to the Trojans.

Hunt would capture the starting RB role for the Nittany Lions over the more heralded Austin Scott, a Pennsylvania high school phenom,  with an outstanding work ethic and by becoming a more accomplished pass protector against the blitz than his backfield rival.  The San Antonio, Texas native would proceed to finish second on  Penn State’s all-time career rushing yards list with 3,320 yards and first all-time in carries with 654, becoming only the fifth Nittany Lion to register back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 3,000 career yards as the lynchpin in Joe Paterno’s offensive attack.

Fantasy Outlook:   

Given the brittle nature of franchise back Brian Westbrook and Hunt’s proven ability to pass protect, the rookie could make a nifty, mid-to-late round fantasy selection with decent upside, particularly in touchdown-emphasized leagues.  The other side to that coin is that Hunt, falling on his own scoring sword, proves to be just good enough to give Westbrook the rest he needs to make it through a 16 game slate unscathed, elevating the veteran playmaker to even loftier fantasy status.
 

Garrett Wolfe, Chicago Bears (3.93)  

After trading veteran back Thomas Jones to the New York Jets this past March, effectively handing the lion’s share of the ground game duties to Cedric Benson, the Chicago Bears plucked the diminutive, but highly productive, all-purpose back Garrett Wolfe out of Northern Illinois with the 93rd overall pick. 

Wolfe, given his small stature (5-7, 186) in a game of giants, has battled against the odds at every level of his career so far.  As a 4-10, 85 pound high school freshman, he played quarterback, defensive back and receiver, snaring eight touchdown passes and being named Chicago Park District League’s Rookie of the Year.  He would finish his high school career at Holy Cross, leading the Chicago area in rushing with 2,270 yards and 32 touchdowns on 272 carries, while returning nine kickoffs for 378 yards and three scores (87, 89 and 91), a 42.0 yards per return average.

The Chicago, Illinois native would stay close to home, enrolling at Northern Illinois University in 2002, where he would begin on the scout team, listed ninth on the running back depth chart.  His collegiate debut would be delayed until 2004 for academic reasons, but, starting six of the Huskies last seven games, Wolfe earned All-MAC first team honors, leading the team with 256 carries for 1,656 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also contributing as a receiver (117 yards) and kick returner (231 yards), registering an all-purpose yards per game average of 182.2 for the season.

Wolfe would finish his college career as one of the country’s most productive backs, becoming the first player in Mid American Conference history to lead the league in rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring for three consecutive seasons, carrying 787 times for 5,136 yards (6.5 avg) and 52 touchdowns, totaling 56 receptions for 586 yards and five scores, while also returning 11 kickoffs for 231 yards, scoring a total of 344 points.

Fantasy Outlook:

Wolfe, living out a childhood dream as a first day draft pick of his beloved Chicago Bears, will start out as a situational player in the Bears backfield ensemble, which will begin with veterans Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson.  The Bears will give the first of their two 2007 third round pick’s (Michael Okwo was taken one spot later at 94) every chance to ascend to No.2 on the depth chart behind Benson, which would allow Adrian Peterson to be active in all four phases of special teams. And given the fact that Benson has found major difficulty in staying healthy in a part-time role spelling the departed Thomas Jones, Wolfe has a real chance to contribute to fantasy teams as the season hits the four week mark, possibly emerging as a lighter version of Jacksonville sparkplug Maurice Jones-Drew, making him a crafty late round value selection for fantasy owners.

Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders (4.100)

With the first selection of the 2007 Draft’s second day, the Oakland Raiders were widely praised for their value selection of running back Michael Bush from the University of Louisville.  The fourth round pick also served notice to disappointing franchise back Lamont Jordan that new head coach Lane Kiffin is serious about making the Raiders corporate culture one of accountability and earning opportunities through merit-based performance.

Bush was a schoolboy star at Louisville’s Male High School, where he excelled at numerous positions,  including defensive back, defensive end, linebacker, running back, safety and wide receiver.  But the most memorable moment of his high school career was at the quarterback position his senior year, where he led the Bulldogs to the state championship game in Kentucky’s highest class against future Cardinals teammate Jeff Brohm and his Trinity High Shamrocks.  In what is still considered one of the greatest high school football games ever played, Bush threw for 468 yards and six touchdowns and added another 116 yards and a score on the ground in a 59-56 losing effort.

The 6-1, 245 pound back compiled a productive career as a Louisville Cardinal, peaking statistically as a junior in 2005 with 1,143 rushing yards on 205 carries (5.6 avg.) and leading the NCAA Division 1A ranks in scoring with 23 touchdowns, fueling the preseason Heisman hype leading into the 2006 campaign.

Bush was already considered a top five pick for the 2007 NFL Draft when his senior season began and the opening game against Kentucky showed he was ready to deliver on the heady pre-season expectations hoisted upon him.  His first carry of the game was a 48-yard touchdown run and he would score two more touchdowns by halftime.  By the time he was tackled on a seemingly harmless takedown in the third quarter, he had gained 128 yards on the ground, the routine stop, however, would result in a broken right tibia, causing him to miss the remainder of the 2006 season and immediately throwing his once lofty Draft status into a freefall.

Fantasy Outlook:

The Raiders appear to be the biggest beneficiary of Bush’s broken right leg, which scared teams enough to allow him to drop from certain first round status to the first pick of the fourth round of 2007.  The selection represents a shrewdness not found in an Al Davis draft day war room in quite sometime and will reflect quite positively on new kid head coach Lane Kiffin, should Bush’s tibia properly mend and not have any recurrences in the near term.

Considering how inconsistent Lamont Jordan has been as the backfield go-to guy,  Bush has an opportunity to be a sneaky fantasy get in the late rounds (definitely in keeper leagues), especially with the widely discussed changes in blocking scheme that the Raiders have incorporated into their playbook to better suit the talents of their current offensive line personnel.  There’s a good chance in 10-12 team league’s Bush won’t be selected in the draft (unless Jordan suffers a long term injury in preseason) and would immediately assume a place at the top of the waiver wire on-deck circle.  

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