Rookies: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Defensive Linemen | Linebackers | Defensive Backs
The 2008 fantasy football season revolved around the rookie running backs that owners found in the late rounds and free agency. These players elevated their owner’s respective teams and brought championships to some of their teams. The sixth, seventh, and eighth ranked running backs in rushing last season (Steve Slaton – 1,282; Matt Forte – 1,238; Chris Johnson – 1,228) all were rookies. Add in Jonathan Stewart’s 836 yards and 10 touchdowns, and it’d be hard to argue that the rookies didn’t take the league by storm in their first year.
The 2009 season has the potential to offer similar prospects for fantasy owners at the running back position. Three running backs were chosen in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, while a few others that were taken in the later rounds could also offer owners prime sleeper candidates for 2009.
As like all rookies, these are players that you should draft and stash away on your bench. It typically takes a few games, if not the first half of the season, for a rookie to get adjusted to the pro level. Be patient, and watch as these players develop and earn their respective roles in the starting lineups. Here is my list of rookie running backs that owners should keep an eye out for in drafts this summer:
Knowshon Moreno – Denver Broncos
The 12th pick of the draft and the first running back taken, Knowshon Moreno is expected to be one of the featured runners in Denver’s always-full stable of backs. The Georgia alum is expected to compete with Correll Buckhalter, and while Buckhalter should see a decent amount of carries, Moreno offers far more upside than he does. With quickness, lateral agility, and elusiveness that have drawn comparisons to Barry Sanders, there isn't much not to like about Moreno. He's a highlight tape waiting to happen with his ability to leap over defenders along with having the game-breaking ability to take the ball to the house every time he touches it. He's also a very good receiver out of the backfield, having caught 53 passes for 645 yards and two touchdowns while with the Bulldogs. Moreno also already has the third-down role secured in Denver’s offense and is one of the early favorites to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moreno rush for over 1,000 yards and catch at least 30-40 passes.
Chris “Beanie” Wells – Arizona Cardinals
The 31st pick in the 2009 draft, Wells heads down to the desert to play alongside Tim Hightower for the Cardinals. My top running back in the 2009 draft, Wells has an outstanding combination of size, power, and speed. However, his injury history suggests that he may not be able stay healthy for a full 16-game schedule. Beanie is the type of running back who will get several small gains of three or four yards and wear down a defense before breaking a big run. He's a very powerful, down-hill runner who also has a very strong stiff arm. Of the three first round running backs, I feel best about Wells’ situation, considering he isn’t competing with a veteran for the starting job. I’d expect to see Hightower begin the year as the starter before Wells takes over later in the year, similar to what Hightower did last season in his rookie year with Edgerrin James. But, Wells is a far more talented player than Hightower and should have the chance to revitalize Arizona’s running game in 2009. Projection: 190 carries, 850 yards, eight touchdowns.
Donald Brown – Indianapolis Colts
The leading rusher in all of college football last season, Donald Brown's 2,083 yard, 18-touchdown performance last year earned him a spot in the first round of the 2009 draft. Brown is a workhorse running back who is capable of carrying the ball several times in any given game and he gets better as the game goes on. In 2009, Brown is expected to share the carries with the incumbent starter Joseph Addai. However, due to Addai’s injury history, the Colts brought Brown in as insurance. Brown likely won’t get as many carries as Moreno or Wells, considering he’s playing alongside a good running back in Addai, but if he gets injured, Brown could take off. Brown is a balanced running back who can carry the ball in between the tackles and outside. Chances are that Brown will be asked to spell Addai and to get him breathers to keep him healthy. It’s harder to project what Donald’s stats will look like at the end of the year, but my estimate would be something like this, assuming Addai stays healthy: 156 carries, 650 yards, six touchdowns.
LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia Eagles
A pro-ready running back with outstanding vision and patience, LeSean McCoy was one of the more natural runners in this year's draft. He's a very shifty runner who has great elusiveness in the open field and his quickness and agility were among the best in the draft. McCoy has excellent hands out of the backfield and is capable of being a very good receiver in the passing game. In his two years at Pittsburgh, he caught 65 passes for 549 yards and one touchdown. While he is behind Brian Westbrook on the depth chart, every fantasy football owner knows Westbrook’s injury history. It’d also be safe to say the McCoy’s style of play compares favorably to Westbrook’s. Why do you think the Eagles drafted him? Likely the future replacement for Westbrook, McCoy figures to see plenty of playing time as Philadelphia attempts to keep Westbrook fresh and healthy for the entire season. If Westbrook gets injured, then McCoy becomes gold. He’d be the featured back in an offense that I think could be among the best in the NFL this season. In the last couple rounds of your draft this summer, when you’re looking for a sleeper that could make a difference, this is a player you should consider. Projection (assuming Westbrook stays healthy): 125 carries, 625 yards, four touchdowns.
Shonn Greene – New York Jets
A powerful runner with great size and strength, Shonn Greene came out of nowhere in 2008 to win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back as well as being named the Big Ten Conference's Offensive Player of the Year. A north/south, downhill runner whose momentum is always going forward, Green is a load in the running game with great leg drive and he is extremely difficult to take down; he was rarely brought down by the first tackler last season. A power back who excels at running between the tackles, Green hits the hole hard and he really follows his blockers well. One thing that I like about Shonn is that he gets better as the game progresses and he often wears down defenses in the fourth quarter, something that some of the best running backs in the NFL are able to do. The Jets traded up for Greene at the beginning of the third round and made him the first pick of Day 2 of the draft. Greene is a somewhat-similar runner to Thomas Jones, the starter for New York. However, Jones has not participated in workouts this offseason as he has been looking for a new contract. If Jones ends up missing time or if he gets traded, Greene will be right in position to fill in. Projection: 75 carries, 325 yards, five touchdowns.
Andre Brown – New York Giants
As Ahmad Bradshaw moves into Derrick Ward’s position as the No. 2 back in New York, Andre Brown figures to replace Bradshaw as the team’s No. 3 back. A north-south, down-hill runner with great power and strength, Brown has the combination of size and athleticism that scouts like to see in a running back prospect. He's built-well with good bulk and he doesn't go down easily. As a runner, I like Brown's vision and patience along with his nice cutback ability. He's also a versatile back in that he can block in the passing game, can return kicks, and has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. I put Brown on here because he’s the type of back that could have an impact if Brandon Jacobs or Bradshaw gets injured. Projection: 60 carries, 250 yards, two touchdowns.
Other rookie running backs to keep a close eye on: Rashad Jennings – Jacksonville Jaguars, Gartrell Johnson – San Diego Chargers, Mike Goodson – Carolina Panthers, James Davis – Cleveland Browns, Glen Coffee – San Francisco 49ers, Cedric Peerman – Baltimore Ravens, Javon Ringer – Tennessee Titans, Frank Summers – Pittsburgh Steelers, Arian Foster – Houston Texans.