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Second Year Running Back Fantasy Prospects
Shawn Zobel
August 12, 2009
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Other 2nd Year Players: Running Backs  |  Wide Receivers  |  Tight Ends

The running back class of the 2008 NFL Draft is one that will go down as being one of the best rookie classes of any position in the past few years. With 28 running backs and fullbacks taken over the course of the two-day draft, we were sure to find a few breakout players in the bunch. However, it would be safe to say that most people did not envision three of them rushing for over 1,200 yards during their rookie season. If you were in a keeper league, then chances are you may have had a chance to land one of these spectacular players.

As their careers begin to take shape and we realize their potential to help both our favorite teams in the NFL as well as our own fantasy teams, I’ve decided to take a look at what we can now expect from each of these rookies that we saw break out last season.

Darren McFadden (No. 4 overall) – Oakland Raiders

Any player drafted to the Raiders has a chance of their career being ruined by the instable condition of the Oakland Raiders franchise. There’s a reason that they’ve had a Top-10 pick in the draft for each of the last six years. Last season McFadden rushed for 499 yards and four touchdowns on 113 carries; that while battling injuries for the majority of the season. With a healthy body and the starting job secured, McFadden could have a breakout season a year later than most expected. Assuming Justin Fargas doesn’t steal many of his carries this season, it’d be safe to say that Darren has a chance to rush for 1,000 yards this season. As a whole, no situation in Oakland is ever a good one, however, with one of the top running backs to enter the draft in the past five years, you’ve got to think that at some point his talent will trump the situation and talent that Oakland has placed around him. His future doesn’t look as great as some others, but he also has more talent than any of the backs from 2008.

Jonathan Stewart (No. 13 overall) – Carolina Panthers

Last season Jonathan Stewart was a part of the two-headed monster that led the Panthers to being one of the best teams in the NFC at the end of the regular season. His powerful running style and bulky frame allowed for him to average 4.5 yards per carry and rack up 10 touchdowns as a rookie. With 836 yards on 184 carries on the season last year, Jonathan did all of this while playing second fiddle to DeAngelo Williams. With an expanded role expected for this season, Stewart is a good bet to break the 1,000 yard mark assuming he stays healthy and is given the added carries. The thing that I like about Stewart is that he has the size and the frame needed to be a workhorse running back, something that many of the other running backs from 2008 class can’t say. If Williams were to get injured, Stewart’s stock would sky rocket. Jonathan has a chance to have a nice career, considering he likely won’t be carrying the ball 300+ times a year given that Williams will demand some carries. Keeping him fresh will allow for him to play longer, something that is hard to find in the present day NFL.

Felix Jones (No. 22 overall) – Dallas Cowboys

Now the most electric part of the three-headed running back in Dallas, Felix Jones excited the football world last year when he averaged 8.9 yards per carry in the first six games of the season before being put down for the season due to toe and hamstring injuries. With 266 yards and three touchdowns on just 30 carries, Jones should briefly last season that he has the playmaking ability to personally take the Cowboys’ offense to the next level. Felix was never the featured back at Arkansas, and he surely won’t be that with the Cowboys either with Marion Barber and Tashard Choice providing extra support. However, with a niche already carved out in the Dallas’ offense, Jones figures to see plenty of touches in 2009 and in years to come. He’s too exciting of a player for Dallas to keep him on the bench.

Rashard Mendenhall (No. 23 overall) – Pittsburgh Steeler

Rashard Mendenhall had about unlucky of a rookie season as you could have. In week four, with starter Willie Parker down with an injury, the former Illinois star was given the starting job at running back. He looked good through his first nine carries as he recorded 30 yards, but his rookie season came crashing to an end when he fractured his shoulder in the third quarter. Mendenhall was put on injured reserve after the game and his season was over. The former first round pick is expected to take on a larger role this season assuming he stays healthy. With Willie Parker still expected to start, Mendenhall should cut into Parker’s production and get his fair share of carries. The Steelers didn’t use a first round pick on him to sit him on the bench. With one year lost to injury last season, Rashard may take a bit longer to break out than other backs since he hasn’t seen the field as often as the other backs. With Parker’s age creeping up to the dreaded age of 30, Mendenhall should take over the starting role in a year or two as Parker’s production begins to decrease.

Chris Johnson (No. 24 overall) – Tennessee Titans

When the Titans selected Chris Johnson with the 24th pick in the 2008 draft, many casual fans were shocked by the selection. Yet, many in the league were far from surprised as they knew from their scouting that Johnson could be a very dangerous player in the NFL. Johnson proved that theory last season as he rushed for 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns on 251 carries while also recording 43 receptions for 260 yards and one touchdown. A dynamic threat on the ground and through the air, Johnson is just beginning to reach his potential. While he has to share carries with Lendale White, and White reportedly entered camp in great shape this summer, Johnson is still the lead back and has a far greater ceiling than White does. Assuming he stays healthy, I’d expect to see the same type of production from Johnson that we saw last year over the course of the next few years. He sure isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

Matt Forte (No. 44 overall) – Chicago Bears

The consistent and reliable threat at the running back position for the Chicago Bears, Matt Forte really was the epitome of consistency last season for fantasy owners. In 14 out of the 16 weeks last season Forte recorded 10+ fantasy points for his team. He rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns on 316 carries. He also added 477 yards and four receiving touchdowns on 63 receptions. That from a player that some owners took in the middle of the draft hoping they may have struck gold. They did indeed find that hidden gem in Forte last season. Entering this season, Forte is the highest ranked among the second-year running backs. The Bears bring in Jay Cutler, which should cut into some production, as we know that Cutler loves to throw the ball. However, with the amount of attention that defenses will now have to pay to Cutler, Forte should now see more holes, bigger holes, and more opportunities for big plays. Seeing as how Cutler should be there for awhile, Forte appears to be set for quite awhile. Keeper league owners are also loving the situation in Chicago. The only slight worry that I have is that Forte had a very large workload last season (379 touches), so I just hope that Chicago’s coaches don’t run Forte into the ground and overwork him. He slowed down at the end of the year, so hopefully with better conditioning he can make it the distance this year.

Ray Rice (No. 55 overall) – Baltimore Ravens

Last season Ray Rice carried the ball 107 times for 454 yards while also catching 33 passes for 273 yards. That, in a three-back committee with LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee. This year McClain is expected to move to fullback and work primarily as a lead blocker, while still getting carries sparingly during the season. McGahee is on the last leg of his career and age his clearly caught up with him. Ray Rice is expected to take on a larger role this season and could come close to rushing for over 1,000 yards if he is given the amount of carries that many in the media anticipating him getting. For re-draft owners looking for a starting back on a run-oriented offense who they can find in the middle of the draft, look no further. Rice had a good season as a rookie last year, but he’s ready to breakout this year.

Kevin Smith (No. 64 overall) – Detroit Lions

As the leading rusher on the worst team in NFL history, Kevin Smith racked up 976 yards and eight touchdowns on 238 carries last season. With rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford coming in and bringing an arm that can get the ball down the field to Calvin Johnson, the holes should begin to open up a bit this season for Smith. He also likely won’t face eight-man fronts as teams will have to be aware of the pass, likely more than the run now. Smith has a good chance to reach the 1,000 yard mark this season, as he has a year of experience and a better supporting cast around him. He’s a safe option as a No. 2 or No. 3 back for this season. In the future, the combination of Stafford, Smith, Calvin Johnson, as well as Brandon Pettigrew, could end up helping Detroit end the losing that Detroit has grown accustomed to seeing.

Jamaal Charles (No. 73 overall) – Kansas City Chiefs

The speedster out of Texas who rushed for 357 yards on 67 carries last season appears to be in a competition with Larry Johnson for not just carries but also for the starting gig with the Chiefs. While Kansas City’s offense is undergoing some changes and their success will now be determined by the success of Matt Cassel, the Chiefs are still going to need to feed the running back the ball in order to have success. With age catching up to Johnson, Charles appears to be in a perfect position to be his eventual replacement. While that may not come for another year or two, Charles just needs to be patient and wait for his turn to take the reins of the starting job in KC.

Steve Slaton (No. 89 overall) – Houston Texans

Quite possibly the most unlikely of the 11 running backs taken in the top 100 picks in 2008 to rush for over 1,200 yards, Steve Slaton landed with the perfect team and in the perfect situation. Entering the 2008 season, the Texans did not have a reliable player at the running back position, and thus, gave Slaton a shot at the job. He ran with it, having rushed for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns on 268 carries while also catching 50 passes for 377 yards and one touchdown. Slaton’s cutback ability and quickness are the perfect fit in Houston’s zone-blocking scheme on offense. He fit their offensive system as well as an back could, and as a result he turned that into what looks to be a very promising career. As Denver has done in the past, Houston has shown that waiting and taking a back later in the draft can still end up being just as, if not more productive than taking a back in the first round. Slaton is on his way to having a very successful career and is an ideal player for keeper league owners to hold on to.

Tashard Choice (No. 122) – Dallas Cowboys

In 2008 when Marion Barber III went down with an injury, and Felix Jones was gone as well, the Cowboys turned to rookie Tashard Choice and gave him the keys to the Dallas Cowboys’ running game. Choice exploded onto the scene as he rushed for 472 yards and two touchdowns on just 92 carries (5.2 yard average) despite not receiving a single carry in six games. Choice enters the 2009 season as the third member of the Cowboys’ new three-headed monster at running back. With Marion Barber’s aggressive run style, Choice is a player for owners in deeper leagues to keep an eye on. If Barber gets injured, Choice can take over and win a game for his team which he proved last season. Expect to see him be given a larger role this season to help keep the other backs fresh.

Tim Hightower (No. 149) – Arizona Cardinals

The sleeper from Richmond came out of nowhere to help the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl last season. As he picked up 399 yards and 10 touchdowns on 143 carries last season as the team’s short-yardage/goal-line back, Hightower showed that he’s capable of being a workhorse back in the NFL. However, this offseason the Cardinals drafted Ohio State running back Chris Wells. While Wells is already suffering from an injury, something that plagued him for the majority of his career with the Buckeyes, Hightower still has a good chance of entering the season as the starting back. While carries may be split between the two, Hightower has a good chance to pick up more than Wells if Beanie’s injuries continue to slow him down and keep him off the field. Hightower is an interesting player because he doesn’t have great of a yards-per-carry average (2.8), but he gets the job done and has been successful at what he’s needed to do. Hightower’s upside isn’t nearly as high as Wells’, which is why Tim really doesn’t offer owners that much as a keeper, but more as a player to target in re-draft leagues.

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