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Rookie Running Backs by Team Needs
David Dorey
March 25, 2008
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The reality with all NFL players is that their production is a function of a simple equation:

Talent + Situation + Opportunity = Fantasy Value (production)

While this is investigated in depth in my book Fantasy Football: The Next Level, suffice it to say that every incoming rookie is just loaded with talent - just ask his agent. Or watch his highlights against some no-name college. The reality is that talent is a very hard aspect to accurately measure because incoming rookies are no longer the team stud and no longer can live on God-given talent and booster payments. For some reason, being tagged the "no-risk" rookie is paramount to a death sentence in the NFL. It happens every year. That is just a reality that has been proven with every draft class.

So in the case of rookie running backs - the only rookies that consistently offer fantasy value each year - the biggest determinant of what to expect is less about whatever supposed talent they possess and more about the situation that they are heading into with their new team and the opportunity they will likely be getting in their first year. While not all running backs are the same, it is as close to plug-n-play as any other position. If the line makes all their blocks correctly and the back can hit the prescribed hole in reasonable time, then he's going to get around that popular four yard average per carry. So the best bet in fantasy terms is not so much about whatever talent a back brings in with him but instead how good the team is that drafted him and how often he will be getting the ball.

There are five categories for a rookie running back being drafted and each has a different set of expectations.

1. Team recognizes that a back has great talent and drafts him regardless of any need. Adrian Peterson was a prime example last year as was Reggie Bush in 2006. Just too good to pass up and yet in fantasy terms, we all knew they would not be as good as they could have been if they were true full-time backs from the start.

2. Team has a glaring need for a full-time back and no other decent options. This is the most ideal situation and is becoming more rare as the years go by. Last year it was Marshawn Lynch going to Buffalo where they had a void left by the departure of Willis McGahee. Sure, Anthony Thomas was still there but no, it really did not mean anything. Typically, these will be drafted in the first round if not the first ten picks of the draft but can exist back into the second round in a very rare situation. Almost always - first pick by the team.

3. Team has a desire to acquire a situational back. Either a bigger back that can offer short yardage and goal line carries to save the wear and tear on the starter (Tony Hunt in 2007 fell into this area though Hunt had little playing time) or a team wants a third down back that usually is smaller and faster than a true full-time back. In 2007, Lorenzo Booker in Miami and Wolfe Garrett in Chicago drifted to fill this category.

4. Team has a need to back-up the starter. It doesn't really matter if the starter is injury-prone or aging, every NFL franchise recognizes the need to have a serviceable back-up running back. In 2007, this is why Kenny Irons was drafted by the Bengals and Chris Henry went to Tennessee. These can be taken in the first round but usually towards the second half of that round. Very often taken in rounds two through four. In fantasy terms, these players carry minimal fantasy value in their first season unless the starter is injured. These sort of running backs often spawn more optimism than is warranted in the fantasy world. Consider the failed rookie takeovers by Cedric Benson, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams and Maurice Jones-Drew. All talented with expectations but never really got past Thomas Jones, Corey Dillon, DeShaun Foster or Fred Taylor in their rookie season.

5. Team has a need for depth/practice squad fodder. Later round backs almost all fall into this category rarely step up to offer much fantasy value in their first season if in fact ever. Domanick Davis was a 4th round surprise in 2003 and Marion Barber in 2005 went from 4th round to being a starter after a short three seasons. Michael Turner was a 5th rounder stuck behind Ladainian Tomlinson since 2004 but will finally get his shot a mere four seasons later thanks to the Falcons.

Backs taken after the first ten picks can turn in decent rookie seasons but rarely and only with the right combination of situation and opportunity. It does happen every year. Then again there are usually 16 to 18 rookie running backs drafted each year and five or six will go in the first two rounds.

Let's take a brief look by team needs for a running back to see which franchises are the best ones to watch in the 2008 NFL draft.

Teams that should have a rookie RB worth owning
Detroit Cutting Kevin Jones opens the door for a full-time rookie RB. Tatum Bell? Oh yeah, they will be taking a RB early. Own pick 1.15
Oakland Raiders won't stand pat with Justin Fargas and rumors are about McFadden. Seems very likely and nice situation here. Own pick 1.04
Teams to watch for this season but mostly next year
Arizona With Edgerrin James aging, the Cards are primed to grab a back for the future but not for 2008. Own pick 1.16
Dallas A wildcard since Marion Barber is the starter now and Julius Jones is gone but Jerry Jones has his eye on two ARK RBs. Own picks 1.22 and 1.28
Houston Aging and decrepit Ahman Green and bringing in Chris Brown? Need to draft at least a back-up and maybe a starter. Own pick 1.18
Seattle Giving Julius Jones $5.5 million this year buys a starter and Alexander likely to be released. Still need a back-up "plus" in the draft. Own pick 1.25
Tampa Bay Rumors abound about Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham is the starter - probably. What Bucs do in April answers a lot of questions.
Tennessee Chris Henry a no show last year and Chris Brown finally gone. LenDale White the starter but Henry or a rookie RB could matter here.
Teams likely to draft a RB at some point but not very likely to have much fantasy value
Carolina Cutting DeShaun Foster should make DeAngelo Williams the starter but some opportunity is here.
Chicago The Bears' backfield is a mess with Benson questionable and the blocking nonexistent. Could surprise with an early RB but still paying for Benson
Cleveland Jamal Lewis seemed to reinvigorate his career in 2007 but chances are the Browns will at least upgrade Jason Wright as back-up.
Indianapolis Joseph Addai has a lock on the starter but could use a better back-up than Kenton Keith.
New Orleans This could be an interesting team. McAllister is the subject of rumors and Bush doesn't seem like a full-load guy. The draft says where they stand.
Teams that are not likely to draft a RB of any consequence this year
Atlanta The Falcons were a contender for a rookie back but bringing in Turner to pair with Norwood nullifies the need
Baltimore Willis McGahee was a nice acquisition last year even if the rest of the offense sputtered. No need here beyond a back-up
Buffalo Marshawn Lynch was the rare full-time rookie RB in 2007 and played well. No needs here beyond back-up.
Cincinnati Rudi Johnson finally had a down year but Kenny Irons had no season. With Watson and Dorsey there, likely no changes from the draft
Denver Denver never drafts an early RB and has their standard smattering of backs. Probably nothing here for a rookie.
Green Bay Packers hit gold with a cheap trade for Ryan Grant last year and likely will not be looking for anything more than depth
Jacksonville With Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, no room for more help this year though Taylor is on the downside.
Kansas City Larry Johnson returns but Kolby Smith did little when called on last year. Will draft a back for depth and possibly back-up
Miami Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams slated to be back so other needs will be more pressing in first rebuild year
Minnesota With Adrian "ROY" Peterson and Chester Taylor, needs a rookie RB less than all other teams
New England Laurence Maroney is plenty enough for the team that never runs but a younger Kevin Faulk could be in order
New York Jets Thomas Jones never got it done and had little help. Too early to give up on him and Jets are working on their line. Likely no RB in the draft
Philadelphia Westbrook is not getting younger but not declining either. Tony Hunt already was a no-show in 2007 so likely no RB in the plans this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers are happy with Willie Parker and still have Davenport and Mewelde Moore for heavier lifting. Likely no rookie RB of note.
San Diego Michael Turner gone but Ladainian Tomlinson needs a decent back-up even if he never plays. Should take a RB earlier than later.
San Francisco 49ers missing their first round pick anyway and already have Gore. Plenty of other needs to get attention in the draft.
St. Louis Rams are fine with Stephen Jackson, Brian Leonard and Antonio Pittman. No RB needs here.
Washington Clinton Portis may see more of Ladell Betts this year but not likely any rookie RB.
New York Giants It was all good enough to win a Super Bowl last January so no changes here.

This is likely to change by draft time and a few trades could really change things up. The main thing to remember is that while there are plenty of NFL mock drafts around, none of them are on the wall in an NFL team's warroom. Every draft has surprises.

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