Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers (1.13)
Stewart capped his abbreviated Oregon career by leading the Pac-10 in rushing with 1,722 yards—fifth-best total in the nation—and closed with a 253-yard effort in the Sun Bowl. While the numbers were gaudy, it was the prospect of a 235-pound beast moving at a 4.48 clip in the 40 that made him so popular on draft day, the second back off the board. He’s a powerful runner who is also adept in pass protection—an underappreciated skill that frequently prevents rookies from staying on the field—and a fluid receiver to boot. He also has experience returning kicks, leading the nation with a 33.7 yards-per-return average as a freshman and ranking sixth (28.1) as a sophomore; say, didn’t Adrian Peterson return kicks last year? The knock on Stewart is his history of foot and ankle injuries, including the turf toe surgery that landed him in a protective boot this spring. Keep in mind, though, that he played with the injury from mid-November on (including that 253-yard game) and ran that 4.48 40 at the combine about two weeks before undergoing surgery.
Stewart is The Huddle’s top-ranked rookie running back for a reason; actually, for several. Not only is he arguably the most complete back entering the league this season, he’s also the one heading to the best situation. In Carolina he gives John Fox the power back he’s been aching for since Stephen Davis ran out of gas; moreover, the Panther line is heavy on run blockers—especially after trading back into the first round to land tackle Jeff Otah. DeAngelo Williams may open the season as the starter, but sooner rather than later this job share will be at worst a two-to-one proposition in favor of the beefier back. Concern about the toe injury that had Stewart in a walking boot during minicamp might drive his fantasy stock down a bit, but he’s already out of the boot and should be good to go for training camp. He’s ideally built to take the money carries, and don’t be surprised if he’s shouldering the bulk of the workload before the leaves are off the trees.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders (1.04)
Twice a Heisman bridesmaid, McFadden left Arkansas on the heels of a monster season—a school record and SEC-leading 1,830 yards—that put the finishing touches on a memorable career. Only Herschel Walker compiled more rushing yards in SEC history, though no one in that prestigious conference can match the 325 single-game yards he posted on South Carolina. He also flashed kick return and pass catching ability and threw seven touchdown passes as well. Run DMC has good size and the kind of speed (4.33 at the combine) that makes him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Though some scouts question his vision and believe he goes down too easily on first contact, there is little in his on-field make-up other than some concerns about ball security to suggest he won’t be a stud. McFadden was involved in enough off-field skirmishes to raise character concerns during the draft, but—shockingly—that didn’t discourage the Raiders from taking him fourth overall.
What would the sixth-ranked run offense in the NFL last year need with another back when they just signed their current starter to a $25 million deal? Al Davis has visions of McFadden and Justin Fargas offering Oakland the same kind of tandem backfield Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor have in Minnesota—with McFadden playing the game-breaking, record-setting Peterson role. While that may be a bit optimistic, there’s no question the Raiders will put McFadden into heavy rotation regardless of how much money they gave Fargas. It remains to be seen just what the workload split might be, but the juicy prospect of McFadden busting long runs a la Peterson has him going off the board earlier than any other rookie back. You may have to go out on a bit of a limb to snag him on drauction day, but for whatever risks might be associated with McFadden he unquestionably has the highest upside of any rookie back this season.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears (2.44)
Forte was the classic workhorse back at Tulane. Despite suffering torn ligaments in his left knee and missing the final three games of his junior season, Forte returned to carry 361 times for 2,127 yards (seventh-most in NCAA history) as a senior. He recorded two 300 and three more 200-yard games, and his yardage and 23 rushing scores both ranked second nationally. Certainly, there will be concern about the quality of competition Forte amassed those numbers against, and while most scouts were impressed with his power between the tackles they viewed him as a complementary player who would be most effectively paired with a scatback/change of pace/third down type of back. However, Forte has demonstrated the ability to shoulder a full workload (he averaged 30 carries per game as a senior) and is a capable receiver and pass blocker so it’s not as if he’d be a liability on the field on third downs.
The Bears opted to build from the front back, taking an offensive lineman in Round One and tabbing Forte in Round Two. It was expected that Forte would at minimum compete with Cedric Benson for carries as a rookie, but when Ced DUI’d his way out of town Forte’s fantasy stock shot upwards. He looked great during minicamps, and while there’s a chance he’ll lose some third-down looks to Adrian Peterson or Garrett Wolfe there’s nothing to suggest Forte won’t see the bulk of the carries in Chicago. With a shaky quarterback situation and a questionable offensive line, however, his production might be a bit behind what some are expecting given his clear path to the starting gig.
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions (3.64)
Smith was a busy Knight last year. His 450 carries (32 a game) were the most in NCAA history, his 2,567 rushing yards second only to Barry Sanders’ 1988 season, and he led the nation in touchdowns with 30. The obvious knock will be Central Florida’s level of competition in Conference USA, but… that’s a lot of yards. Smith is a natural runner with vision and instincts, and it doesn’t hurt that he has decent size (6-1, 217) and popped a 4.43 40 at the Combine. Despite a relatively thin frame and an upright running style Smith can run between the tackles. He also is an adept pass catcher and willing blocker, both of which will help him stay on the field and not be situationally replaced.
How often can you say that going to the Lions in the draft is a blessing? Detroit kicked Mike Martz and his pass-happy offense to the curb and will institute a power running game. They also used their first-round selection on an offensive lineman (tackle Gosder Cherilus) and planted him on the right side to lead the charge. That’s a pretty nice situation for a back to walk into. Smith, the first pick of the draft’s second day may sit behind Tatum Bell on the draft chart right now, but we all know Bell’s productivity maxes out at about 10 touches per game and you have to believe Rod Marinelli will figure that out sooner rather than later as well. While Smith may face a larger adjustment than some backs because of the step up in competition, it’s not difficult seeing him as more productive than several of the marquee backs taken ahead of him.
Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers (1.23)
Mendenhall was a bit of a one-year wonder, spending his first two seasons at Illinois backing up current Saint Pierre Thomas. However, that one year was a pretty good year as he led the Big 10 (and ranked sixth nationally) with 1,681 rushing yards, scoring 19 touchdowns and setting school records for all-purpose yardage, rushing yardage, and rushing scores. His Rose Bowl performance against a USC defense that featured multiple first-day draft picks—214 yards, including plays of 79 and 55 yards, and a touchdown—likely sealed his decision to turn pro, and some scouts rated him as the top back in the draft. Mendenhall is a physical specimen capable of banging inside, but he also has the vision to find holes and 4.45 speed to burst through them. How did he stay on the board until 23? Some questioned his desire and maturity, as well as a body of work that only includes one season as the go-to guy. That said, there is no question about his physical ability.
It was a little surprising to see Mendenhall slide so far down the road—and intriguing that he landed in Pittsburgh, where Fast Willie Parker is already ensconced as the feature back. The expectation is that Mendenhall can complement Parker by handling the between-the-tackles (and perhaps goal line?) workload in hopes of keeping Willie fresher than he’s been at the tail end of 300-plus carries the past two seasons. Mendenhall’s pass-catching ability suggests he could see third-down work as well, though the Steelers signed Mewelde Moore in the offseason for those duties specifically. In fact, all of a sudden the Steelers are talking as if everybody on their roster—Parker, Mendenhall, Moore, and Gary Russell—could factor into the backfield mix. Obviously, “committee” is a dirty word when it comes to fantasy football, but if Mendenhall is as good as he flashed last year at Illinois he’ll rise to the top. Whether that happens quickly enough for him to make serious fantasy noise in 2008 remains to be seen, but at minimum he’s must-have insurance if you’re throwing a draft pick at Parker.
Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (1.24)
Johnson was ultra-productive at East Carolina, leading the nation in all-purpose yardage with 1,423 rushing yards, 538 receiving yards, and 1,009 return yards. His 408 all-purpose yards in the Hawaii Bowl set an NCAA bowl game record, and Johnson also established eight career and seven single-season marks for the Pirates. Of course those digits came primarily against Conference USA competition, which was one of the knocks scouts levied against Johnson; others include his upright running style, which may present durability issues and also limit his effectiveness between the tackles, and questions about his football intelligence. Of course, those same scouting reports also note his small hands—the same hands he used to catch 125 passes during his college career, an East Carolina record. All of this, however, is background noise to Johnson’s primary selling point: 4.29 speed.
The Titans were expected to go receiver in round one, but the opportunity to add Reggie Bush-type lightening to LenDale White’s inside thunder was too good to pass up. Actually, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is already finding ways to work Johnson into the passing game, getting him the ball in space to take advantage of his speed. Johnson projects to be a change-of-pace back, a complementary player as opposed to a true feature back, and with White in place it’s difficult to see him getting double-digit carries on a regular basis. However, White isn’t a receiver so Johnson should at minimum get third-down work. Plus, if his work in the return game counts for anything in your league’s scoring system, he’ll produce enough to warrant serious fantasy consideration on an every-week basis.
Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys (1.22)
Batman needs Robin. Yin needs yang. Peanut butter needs jelly. And so it was at Arkansas, where Jones provided the change of pace (fast and faster?) to McFadden. Jones may not have received as many opportunities, but he knew what to do with them as he led the nation in yards per carry as a sophomore (a gaudy 7.6 average) and junior (an even gaudier 8.7). His thin build and job-share duties in college (he averaged just over 10 carries per game) have scouts concerned he won’t be able to stand up to a full workload in the NFL, but he’s done more with limited touches than many do with twice the carries. Jones received little work as a receiver in college (39 career catches) but flashed plenty of open-field running skills while setting the school record for kickoff return yards and tying Willie Gault’s SEC record with four kickoff return touchdowns.
If Stewart is in the perfect situation in Carolina, Jones isn’t far behind in Dallas. Not only does he have fellow Razorback alum Jerry Jones in his corner, Felix won’t have to do the heavy lifting; Marion Barber is still the Cowboys’ workhorse. However, spotting Jones in the return game and for a handful of carries a game—with calls designed to get him the ball in space and put his quicks to good use—should put his playmaking skills on display. Julius Jones, the man whose role Felix is assuming, averaged a dozen touches a game; expect the newest Jones in town to receive a similar share but produce significantly better results.
Other Rookie Backs of Note
Ryan Torain, Denver Broncos (5.139)
Torain was productive at Arizona State when he was healthy, producing 653 yards and seven touchdowns in six games before suffering a Lisfranc fracture that ended his senior season. He also battled assorted knee and ankle injuries during his Sun Devil tenure—so he’s a perfect fit for the merry-go-round that is the Denver backfield. Torain has good size (6-0, 222) and is a punishing inside runner, but he lacks the patience and quick cut ability to be a full-time feature back in the Broncos’ zone blocking system. That doesn’t mean he won’t steal goal line carries from Selvin Young (or Andre Hall) or take just enough touches to thoroughly screw up the fantasy season of everyone stuck with a Bronco back.
Mike Hart, Indianapolis Colts (6.202)
Despite a productive career at a pretty good football school (Hart left Michigan as the Wolverine’s all-time leading rusher with 5,040 yards), Hart’s measurables (5-9, 206 and a 4.67 40) and concerns about his high mileage sent his draft stock plummeting. Leave it to the Colts to stop the free fall, as Hart’s vision, burst, and hands make him a perfect fit for the zone system Indy favors. Hart won’t unseat Joseph Addai any time soon, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hart and not Dominic Rhodes were the back seeing eight to 10 touches per game in relief of Addai before the season ends.
Steve Slaton, Houston Texans (3.89)
The prototypical scatback, Slaton produced 4,728 yard from scrimmage and scored 55 touchdowns in West Virginia’s high octane spread offense. Despite 664 career carries (better than 18 a game), his slight stature (5-9, 197) suggests he’s not built to be an every-down back. That said, if you can’t catch him you can’t hurt him and Slaton can hit a hole and be gone in the blink of an eye. Sounds like a good fit for Houston’s zone blocking system, or at minimum a third-down outlet valve Matt Schaub can grow to love. And if all that stands between Slaton and regular carries are Ahman Green (24 games missed the past four seasons), Chris Brown (26 games missed the past seasons), and Chris Taylor (who missed all of last season with a torn ACL)... well, you have to like his chances.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (3.73)
After sharing the rushing load with Vince Young and then Selvin Young, Charles took advantage of his opportunity to shine. His 1,619 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns led the Big 12 and included a monster 290-yard outing against Nebraska and a 125-yard, four-score fourth quarter against Oklahoma State. There is no questioning his speed (he ran a 10.32 100 at the Big 12 Indoor Championships), but he’s not viewed as a between-the-tackles runner and there are concerns about his ability to hang on to the football. He’s actually a better fit for the Chiefs’ offensive line than the power game of Larry Johnson, but unless LJ gets hurt (which, of course, isn’t out of the realm of possibility) he’s at best a third-down and change-of-pace contributor as a rookie. And seeing as KC sank $43 million into Johnson prior to last season, Charles looks to be primarily an insurance policy—both for the Chiefs and for LJ’s fantasy owners.
Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals (5.149)
The Cardinals were expected to draft an understudy to Edgerrin James, but they didn’t get around to doing so until the fifth round. Hightower flew largely under the radar, failing to notch a 1,000-yard campaign until his senior season at Richmond when he set school marks with 337 carries, 1,991 rushing yards, and 20 touchdowns. He has good vision and instincts but is primarily a between-the-tackles runner with good size (6-0, 226) who won’t run away from anyone in the open field. Hmmm, sounds a lot like the back currently getting carries in Arizona. Hightower is Edge insurance if your league is that deep, and if he impresses in practice or in whatever duty he receives the team could eschew drafting a back next year and make Hightower the heir to Edge.
Jacob Hester, San Diego Chargers (3.69)
Hester is the classic “jack of all trades” back in that he can play either fullback or feature back—doing both adequately but neither exceptionally. He produced 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns for the national champions from LSU last season, nearly doubling his output from the previous three seasons combined. The Chargers have been using him in a variety of positions during minicamp and should tragedy befall LaDainian Tomlinson he could be in the mix to pick up some of the workload—maybe in an inside-outside tandem with Darren Sproles, though fifth-round selection Marcus Thomas might also lay claim to those duties. It’s tough to see Hester having fantasy value unless you’re in an extraordinarily large league, own LT, and someone has already beaten you to the punch on Sproles… and maybe even Thomas.
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens (2.55)
Rice helped put Rutgers football back on the map, posting three straight 1,000-yard campaigns en route to a school record 4,926 rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns. His 2,012 rushing yards as a junior ranked third in the nation, and his 24 rushing scores ranked second. Rice was an intriguing sleeper heading into the draft, as his size (5-8, 199) and speed (4.47) drew comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew. And in a best-case scenario that’s the role he could fill in Baltimore, though there’s no indication Cam Cameron intends to use him quite that extensively; the Ravens are also not quite where the Jaguars were offensively when MoJo burst onto the scene. Nonetheless, if you own Willis McGahee scooping up Rice in the later rounds would be a prudent move.
Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys (4.122)
Choice spent his freshman season backing up Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma, then transferred to Georgia Tech so as to be closer to home due to a family situation. As such, the gregarious NCAA didn’t force him to sit out a year and he caddied for P.J. Daniels for a season before taking over and leading the ACC in rushing twice with 1,534 yards and a junior and 1,379 as a senior. He plays hard and plays bigger than his 5-10, 215-pound frame suggests, which has led to assorted bumps and bruises. His future in Dallas would have been brighter had Marion Barber not re-upped, but if anything happens to MB3 Choice would be the.. uh… choice to step in and play Mr. Inside to Felix Jones’ Mr. Outside. Choice could be viewed as a long-term handcuff to Barber in dynasty leagues, but that feels like maybe you’re going a little overboard on the insurance.
Thomas Brown, Atlanta Falcons (6.172)
Despite being undersized at 5-8 and 204, Brown was productive when healthy at Georgia and was expected to go off the board earlier than Round Six. However, it’s that injury history (torn ACL as a junior, broken collarbone as a senior) that sent his stock plummeting. With good instincts and balance and decent hands he’s a good fit for the zone blocking system; unfortunately, the Falcons appear headed more towards a power running game and while there’s no question the tough, hard-working Brown would give it the ol’ college try it’s difficult to see him succeeding in such a role. Brown might be best served getting cut in training camp and catching on with a true zone-blocking team; as it stands he’s fourth on the depth chart of a team expected to be behind in most games and among the poorer offensive units in the league—a combo that doesn’t exactly scream “fantasy helper.”