The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.
Why should you care about rookies in re-draft leagues? Most of them will spend their first year of Sundays on the sideline. The handful of players that see the field will earn limited opportunities. And the few that earn significant time will likely lack the consistency to be more than low-end starters in most fantasy leagues.
The answer is excellence deviates from the norm.
You better get used to seeing this statement throughout the summer, because it has become my theme for the 2010 fantasy season. Excellence deviates from the norm. The difference makers in our world are the exceptions to the rule, and this applies to the football as much as it does to our daily lives.
Rookie running backs epitomize everything I just mentioned. Most of them will be worthless to you this year in a re-draft league. Ten years of data is more than enough proof:
If you read my rookie impact series last season, you might remember what Chase Stuart said: "Only once in recent history have the first two backs selected in the NFL Draft produced as top-12 fantasy runners." If you're considering a rookie runner early in your draft, this chart and Stuart's research is enough to make you feel like a sucker. However the real suckers are often the first two NFL teams selecting runners.
Imagine you're in school. The teacher creates a rule that the students with the worst grades will be the first to answer any questions posed to the class. Those that get the answers right will move further back in the pecking order. Those that get the answers wrong will continue to move up. If you measure accuracy of student answers based on the order, it's most likely that the students at the front of the queue will have the worst answers. The Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders are proof that it's hard to get out of the annual dunce loop in April until you make a fundamental change in your approach - such as the organizational leadership.
There is a pretty extensive list of players that support why you shouldn't blindly trust the idea that the best two backs will be selected in that order on draft day. Remember, teams generally earn those spots for poor production. Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Maurice Jones Drew, Joseph Addai, Cadillac Williams, Domanick Davis, Clinton Portis, Anthony Thomas, and Eddie George were all productive rookies not picked as the first two backs off the board. Although Stuart's statement sounds ominous, there are several instances where one of the first two backs selected in the draft has hit the ground running as an RB, including, Adrian Peterson, Edgerrin James, Curtis Enis, Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis. If anything, we should be more wary about hitching our fantasy teams to a rookie runner selected by a losing organization that has not undergone a management change.
The data shows that for 50 percent of the seasons in the last decade, at least four rookie runners have been at a bare minimum, good flex-options. At best, there has been a rookie that has produced in the top five for half of the seasons for the last decade. The problem is its human nature to presume that the players with the best chance of attaining this status will be the first two selected in April. If anything, the data shows that the more you know about rookie RBs the better decisions you can make for your fantasy team in the draft, free agency or negotiating in-season deals.
My analysis of the rookies is based on which teams drafted each player and film study. For more detailed information, including play-by-play analysis and grading, check out my publication the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I also recommend Draftguys.com for additional insights on rookies.
Highlights Of My 2009 Impact Analysis
Knowshon Moreno: I said he was the most NFL-ready back in this class and that he should be good for a minimum of 800-900 yards because he will earn 225-250 attempts. I said he would be more of a chain mover than a breakaway back and he would collect another 250-300 yards receiving. Moreno turned out to be the 17th-ranked fantasy RB with 247 attempts, 947 yards, 9 total scores and another 213 yards as a receiver.
Donald Brown: I was more optimistic that Brown would earn more carries in an RBBC with Joseph Addai and projected him as a flex/bye-week option at worst. Addai had a great season and held off the rookie from Connecticut and Brown was the No. 57 fantasy RB in 2009 with a couple of nice fantasy weeks - if you guessed which ones they were I suggest you play the lottery more often.
Chris Wells: I said Wells would get enough carries as a rookie to be considered an RB3-RB4 in most fantasy drafts. Wells was the No. 31 fantasy RB last year with a nice second-half stretch that was helpful to many fantasy owners.
LeSean McCoy: McCoy was one of the rookies I felt was getting too much hype for what he had to learn. I said he was a precocious talent not ready for prime time because he needs to get more explosive and improve his decision-making as an interior runner so he limits his risk-taking the way Jamaal Charles did from year one to year two. McCoy disappointed some fantasy owners, but not those who listened to my assessment. McCoy was the 37th ranked fantasy RB in 2009, largely due to Brian Westbrook suffering from a severe concussion that contributed to the end of his career as an Eagle.
Shonn Greene: I said the two reasons Greene was ranked behind McCoy were his blocking and receiving. Greene excited owners late, but the Jets relied on Thomas Jones for most of the year and the rookie was the 55th-ranked fantasy RB. Fans expect Greene to make strides towards becoming the 1200-yard, 10-TD fantasy back I predicted he could develop into, but his receiving skills need to improve. With Ladainian Tomlinson expected to split time with Greene in 2010, this won't be the year.
Glenn Coffee: To quote last year, "I think he'll be one of those Pierre Thomas-type of runners: Good enough for spot duty, but questionable whether he can carry the load for any length of time on his own and be the weapon defenses fear. His immediate opportunity to back up Frank Gore puts him ahead of the backs in the section below when it comes to re-draft leagues, but I wouldn't select him until the very end of a draft. In dynasty leagues, I'd drop him below all of the backs I have listed in the next section because I don't believe his upside is there. If you haven't gotten the hint, I'll tell you one more time: Good, but not great. Personally, I'll pass on him until the mini camp drooling subsides and we see similar results in pads." Coffee showed last year that he had difficulty making plays and the 49ers brought in rookie Anthony Dixon, who you'll read more about below.
Cedric Peerman: I said Peerman would at best be a No. 3 RB on an NFL depth chart this year but could fight his way into an RBBC by 2010. After being a part of four teams in less than a year with no opportunity to see the field, we'll see if Peerman gets a chance to prove he's as talented as I still think he is. Most people would say this was a major swing and a miss from a dynasty perspective, but its still early.
Bernard Scott: I tabbed Scott for his dynasty potential, saying that if Cedric Benson could build on his 2008 stretch run, Scott will out-perform Brian Leonard on the depth chart but he'll only be a third down back at best. Scott had some nice moments in 2-3 games last year and is currently the No. 2 RB on the Bengals roster, which reflects my excitement for his potential as a dynasty prospect.
Rashad Jennings: He was my early pick as the handcuff to Maurice Jones-Drew, and because Jones-Drew didn't disappoint, we didn't see much of Jennings. However, Jacksonville's No. 2 RB had some nice moments in two games last year that indicates he has a future in this league.
James Davis: I predicted Davis would be behind Jerome Harrison as the No. 3 RB with a solid training camp. Davis had a strong camp and looked like a dark horse to split time with mentor Jamal Lewis before he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Now Davis will have to fight to earn a spot on the roster with the addition of rookie Montario Hardesty and free agent Peyton Hillis. Davis is a better physical prototype for the position than what I think the Holmgren-Mangini regime want out of an RB, but he'll need to have a great camp that includes showing off strong third down skills to oust Harrison from the team.
Arian Foster: I said Foster reminded me of Eddie George and he has the skills to perform the potential Chris Brown has, but has never achieved. I cited his lack of maturity and that he'll need to demonstrate more dedication to the game to get an opportunity. Foster did just that, and with a strong finish to the 2009 season he is making noise early in the Texans 2010 camp. Ben Tate and Steve Slaton better put on their hard hats, because it's going to be a battle.
2010 Rookie Impact Analysis
Ryan Mathews, Chargers
Skills: Mathews was the second back selected in this year's draft, but the 13-3 Chargers traded up several spots to get him after they allowed Ladainian Tomlinson to become a free agent. Although San Diego coveted Mathews and have made no bones about tabbing him its 2010 feature back, the vibe I got from the draft community this spring was a lack of appreciation for the Fresno State runner. You won't get that from me. If I were to rate the top-five backs from the last five rookie classes Mathews would be among them. Because he played in a less glamorous college division, his vision, balance and speed were downplayed. In this respect, Mathews and Tomlinson share another interesting parallel in addition to being first-round picks by the Chargers: both had their talents questioned by personnel types who thought they looked better than they were due to inferior competition.
Rutgers, Wisconsin, Boise State and Wyoming might not be stacked with future NFL All-Pros on defense, but they all have players with size, strength and speed. Mathews wasn't facing Valdosta State defensive linemen that could be mistaken for free safeties. What impressed me about Mathews is his ability to anticipate where and when a hole is going to open at the line of scrimmage. Several times this year, I had to frequently rewind tape numerous times just to catch what Mathews saw to make a decision that resulted in a big gain on what seemed like well-defended plays. His timing can be attributed to his skill at running with his head up and his eyes downfield. When he gets to the second level, he has the knack of a chess player because he is frequently a step ahead of his opponent, planting his foot into the ground and making a second cut in the crease to turn a 5-yard gain into a breakaway run. This is the kind of thing you see from Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore on Sunday highlights.
Mathews also has the balance to remain upright and continue moving forward after taking shots to his side from larger defenders. This isn't something he'll be able to do consistently in the NFL, but neither do the runners with this rare trait (Peterson, Jonathan Stewart, Steven Jackson and Ricky Williams are some of them). As far as speed is concerned, Frank Gore isn't considered extremely fast, but he has his share of big plays every year. Mathews is faster than Gore and some of his biggest runs in college featured him out-distancing DBs like Kyle Wilson (who he beat repeatedly in one game), a corner known for his speed.
Obstacles: The Chargers ground game struggled last year and one could make the argument that the problem was just as much the offensive line as it was an older and less durable Tomlinson. Darren Sproles, who no one believes has lost his burst, averaged 3.6 yards per carry on 93 attempts in 2009 compared to his 5.4 YPC in 2008, and a 4.43 ypc in 2007. At the same time, Tomlinson had 7 games with at least 18 carries last year and he couldn't top the 100-yard mark at any point last year.
Outlook: The Chargers ground woes probably weren't an either-or situation. I can see a healthy Tomlinson having more success in 2010 with a better Jets offensive line because he'll have more room at the line of scrimmage for more 5-6 yard gains without getting touched like last year. At the same time, I think Mathews has 4-6, 100-yard games for the Chargers because the rookie will be able to convert runs for gains of 20-30 yards that resulted in 5-6 yard gains for Tomlinson. This is because what ended in a slip or tackle of Tomlinson (with his bad ankle and questionable second gear) won't for Mathews.
It will only take about 10 of these plays (a little more than one every other game) for Mathews to out-produce Tomlinson's 2009 season by 200-300 yards even if the Chargers offensive line doesn't improve. This would put Mathews in the 1000-yard range and if he earns the goal line opportunities, he could match Tomlinson's 12 scores. I think an 1100-yard, 12-TD season on the ground with another 100 yards as a receiver is reasonable in a Norv Turner offense. This total would exceed Jonathan Stewart's 11th-ranked fantasy output last year.
Jahvid Best, Lions
Skills: Best was my No. 2 RB in the 2010 RSP and he remains my No. 2 impact rookie RB after the Lions traded up to get him at the end of round one. Pound-for-pound, Best might be the best back of this rookie class. What I love about his game is his maturity as a between the tackles runner. Despite great quickness and enough breakaway speed that caused DeSean Jackson to purportedly refused to race his former teammate, Best shows patience without being indecisive. What I find most impressive is that Best often chose the lower-risk interior plays to make sure his offense could remain on a down and distance schedule rather than opt for the higher-risk plays that he might athletically be able to attain, but the downside would be too great for the offense to recover in a series. When Best is in the open field, his speed is every bit as good as C.J. Spiller's and like his fellow rookie, he will be a valuable receiver for his new quarterback.
Obstacles: Best has been tagged as an injury-prone player. He has dealt with hip and elbow injuries during his career at Cal, but he played through both with a high degree of productivity, demonstrating the toughness necessary from an NFL starter. The major injury that scared some teams was a concussion suffered against Oregon State on a dive over the goal line that resulted in Best losing consciousness for an extended period of time and his body going stiff upon impact with the ground. This play cost Best the stretch run of his college season and with the heightened media attention on head injuries in football, some speculate that Best's chances of having a shorter career are much higher than other prospects. I emphasize that this is speculative analysis and there are several examples of players that had long careers, sustained multiple concussions, and didn't incur the effects of a Merrill Hoge, Steve Young or Kyle Turley. I don't say this to downplay the danger of head injuries, just that there is still a lot to learn about the issue and the negative PR and early evidence could cause us to draw conclusions that aren't fair to individual situations. On the field, Best will also have to contend with a Lions offensive line filled with players picked during the Matt Millen era which may even be a severe test for a back of Bests' interior vision. Kevin Smith may also be ready for training camp and his demise might be greatly exaggerated. If Smith can return to full health, he and Best could serve as a quality 1-2 punch for the Lions, which might diminish Best's upside.
Outlook: With Kevin Smith still recovering from a knee injury, Best is by far the most NFL-ready runner on the Lions roster and Detroit will need the rookie's versatility to compete this year. Expect the rookie to catch at least 30-40 passes in addition to earning 220-240 carries. If Best can manage at least a 4 ypc, which I think is possible if Matt Stafford's other new weapons can help keep defenses off balance. However, if the Lions remain the same one-dimensional unit, could be difficult this year for Best to have any room. I'm an optimist though. I think Best will approach 1300 yards from scrimmage with 700-800 on the ground and 400-500 yards through the air. If the offense clicks, I believe Best has more first-year upside than any rookie back in this class. Mathews has a higher floor due to the success of his offense, which is the reason I have him ahead of Best. When it comes down to it, I think Mathews is the more conservative pick on the surface, but at his ADP (second round range) you're sacrificing more to get him than you will to pick Best, who has a 5th round ADP and greater upside.
Montario Hardesty, Browns
Skills: Physically, Hardesty is everything you want from a feature back. He has the 6'0", 225-lbs. frame, the acceleration to hit a hole and the speed to get a lot of yardage once he gets into open space. Corey Dillon and O.J. Anderson would have little on Hardesty even in their youth. The former Tennessee Volunteer also has decent hands and he flashes enough third down ability to be an immediate difference maker in the NFL.
Obstacles: Hardesty missed an early portion of his college career due to multiple injuries and he still has to learn to be more aware of the context of the game before he tries to bounce plays outside or find cutback lanes of a high risk-high reward scenario. On a team with as much offensive fragility as the Browns, Hardesty will be counted on to keep the offense on schedule, which means he'll need to be more physical between the tackles even when he thinks he can use his agility and speed to find a secondary option for a bigger gain. If he fails to run with this maturity, the Browns have the proven Jerome Harrison and last year's preseason darling, James Davis. The second-year back from Clemson lacks Hardesty's explosiveness, but he's a smart runner who looked more dynamic than many thought he would in the NFL. Then there's Peyton Hillis, whose versatility is likely to make Davis an afterthought, at best. Even if Hardesty plays to the Browns' satisfaction, Cleveland's passing offense remains raw, inexperienced and short on continuity.
Outlook: Hardesty is the starter entering training camp and Harrison is getting work with the second team. Although Cleveland was the hot fantasy team on the ground for the final 5-6 games of the season, it had the luck of the draw, facing some of the worst run defenses in the league. Cleveland has some pieces along the offensive line with potential to be this good against much better opposition As poor of a pass protector as Jerome Harrison has been in his career, he's a very skilled runner. In addition to Hillis' skills being too good to ignore, we will see enough of a rotation in the Browns backfield that Hardesty's carries will be limited somewhat.
However, the true reason for a firmer ceiling on the rookie's opportunities will likely have to do with the ineffectiveness of the passing game. It's difficult for me to imagine that Cleveland will have enough consistency with Jake Delhomme, two second-year receivers and the erratic and underachieving Ben Watson to provide Hardesty long enough drives to earn more than 15 carries per game. If Hardesty can manage a 4.3 ypc, he'll break the 1000-yard mark with 240 carries (15/gm). Since the Browns will need its backs to catch the football, Hills, Hardesty and Harrison could amass 400-500 yards among them. Despite Harrison's pass protection woes, he did have 35 catches for 240 yards in 2009, and I think he's still likely to receive half of the targets in the passing game from the RB spot with Hillis used as an H-back as frequently as an RB.
To put it another way, Hardesty has an upside of 1200-1400 total yards if he's the lead back getting a vast majority of the reps, but his realistic production will likely a total of 800-1100 yards and 6 scores. This is probably good enough for Hardesty to be a fantasy RB2 and a reasonable value if his current ADP remains low enough to take after round six, but the presence of Harrison and Hillis makes his downside too great to expect more.
Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
Skills: If McCluster had Jahvid Best's physical dimensions with the same agility, quickness and hands, he would be the best player in this draft class. What makes McCluster so special in addition to his great explosiveness is his football intelligence. At Ole Miss, he repeatedly demonstrated to his coaches that he could take a play he saw for the first time in a meeting and run it to perfection with his initial rep in practice. In games, McCluster rarely made mental mistakes and he runs with the aggressiveness of a 215-lbs. player with a fundamental understanding of how to protect his body. Like Percy Harvin, McCluster understands how to run between the tackles and he'll prove that he can do it in the NFL. This versatile performer will be a productive slot receiver/change of pace runner/return specialist as a rookie.
Obstacles: Technically, McCluster is more likely to be a receiver than a runner in the Chiefs' offense. It's a smart move, because as fearless and athletically gifted that McCluster is, he's not likely to ever weigh more than 185 lbs even when he matures physically. He could prove to be the next Warrick Dunn, but if the Jamaal Charles continues to be a prominent part of the Chiefs' future, they would be better served to use McCluster most often as a West of the Mississippi Wes Welker in Charlie Weiss' scheme.
Outlook: I think McCluster is the dark horse candidate for offensive rookie of the year honors because I think the Chiefs are perfectly matched for his skills and they plan to use him in a way where he'll generate consistent production with the added value of big plays. Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers are good enough on the outside to make it problematic for the opposing defenses to handle McCluster in the slot, especially with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones in the backfield. I wouldn't be surprised if McCluster earns 250 yards on the ground as a situational runner (about three plays per game) and 700 yards as a receiver if he truly plays the Welker role as expected. With the Chiefs offensive weaponry, I wouldn't be shocked if McCluster has double-digit touchdowns, either. Since the offense appears to be headed in the right direction, I think McCluster has more upside than the player I ranked just below him.
C.J. Spiller, Bills
Skills: Spiller has great speed, strong acceleration, good hands as receiver and strong open-field vision. He, Jahvid Best and Dexter McCluster are the most dangerous rookies in open space. Spiller also flashes potential as an interior runner. If he can improve his decision-making and ball protection, he has all the athleticism to be a versatile lead back in the NFL.
Obstacles: Spiller's weaknesses are very similar to LeSean McCoy when the Eagles rookie entered the league. Spiller tries to take too many risks at the line of scrimmage because he has so much confidence in his athleticism to beat the defense. This will not happen in the NFL as consistently as it did at the college level. Laurence Maroney, Reggie Bush, Jamaal Charles and McCoy have all come to this realization. Even Chris Johnson, the player Spiller is incorrectly compared to, beats runners with his mature decision-making as an interior runner.
The blind spot I think some people have with Spiller is they overestimate the impact of his speed. What I'm about to write is something I posted in a Shark Pool thread in early May arguing the merits of Chris Johnson's game. My argument is that a Chris Johnson with 4.5-speed in the Titans running game would have been a very productive NFL starter:
"My counterpoint is that those angles [Johnson] outruns with his better than 4.5-speed are angles that happen maybe 1-2 times per game, and they typically occur after a back turns the corner and beats a DB down the sideline or through a hole. These [become] 50-70 yard runs. I might be wrong, but I don't think Chris Johnson accounted for a 50-70 yard run in every game. He did have 3 runs of over 85 yards in 2009, which is amazing, but you're talking about 255 yards here.
For fairness sake, lets presume he had 4.5-speed and that [decrease in athleticism] cut each of his long runs in half. I would argue this is a pretty dramatic cut of yardage [and too harsh of an assessment]. However, just to favor [the argument that it would be this severe of a cut in production] I want to see what his total might have been.
Johnson's longest runs in each 2009 game cut in half
- Game 1: 32 (16)
- Game 2: 91 (45)
- Game 3: 30 (15)
- Game 4: 18 (9)
- Game 5: 8 (4)
- Game 6: 48 (24)
- Game 8: 89 (44)
- Game 9: 41 (20)
- Game 10: 32 (16)
- Game 11: 36 (18)
- Game 12: 85 (42)
- Game 13: 11 (5)
- Game 14: 39 (19)
- Game 15: 14 (7)
- Game 16: 30 (15)
- Game 17: 12 (6)
Total of long runs: 616 yards
Total if cut in half: 308 yards
Yardage in 2009: 2006 yards
If subtracted all long runs: 1390 yards
If cut all long runs in half: 1688 yards
Not extremely scientific, but if you allow for the fact that someone caught Johnson halfway through each of his long gains, he is still nearly a 1700-yard runner. If he had average NFL starter speed, which I contend is probably in the 4.45-4.55 range and you want to deduct his long runs completely out (which is unfair, but fine) then Johnson gains nearly 1400 yards last year.
Yes, the speed is important for Johnson to have the huge runs, but it's the recognition, patience, decision-making and balance that get him to the right spot. Then it's the speed that helps him make gains behind a strong OL that separate a 1400-1700 yard year from 4.5-40 runner with similar qualities as Johnson minus the speed into a 2000-yard producer that Johnson was last year.
Terrell Davis was a 4.5 runner (at best) and he gained 2000 yards because of a strong OL, great decision-making, patience and balance. Speed helps, but if it outweighed recognition, patience, decision-making and balance then I believe Reggie Bush would be a 1500-yard back. Think about DeAngelo Williams. I don't think anyone in his right mind would argue he isn't fast. He has some very nice breakaway runs. What changed between the years everyone wanted to call him a bust (which was merely two seasons) and him becoming a big-time player? One of the big things was that he learned how to read the flow of plays in the NFL and run with the skills I keep talking about. THEN his speed and athleticism came to the forefront. If he had merely average speed and athleticism we might not see the yardage he got, but I believe he'd still be a productive starter.
I think people overreact when I downplay speed. It's not that speed isn't important, it's just not as important as people make it compared to other characteristics. You have to have a certain amount of it, but you must have these other skills I keep mentioning. Otherwise, you will not be able to use that speed to its fullest. On the other hand, you can have the base amount of speed needed to compete and be even more successful than a really fast guy when you have the other skills in abundance.
Speed is easy to see. The other characteristics I mention require closer study."
When I watch Spiller, I see a player who understands how to navigate the interior spaces of the running game more effectively than a player like Darren McFadden did as a collegian. But like the Raiders' back, Spiller needs to do a better job of lowering his pads at the point of contact to finish plays for those meaningful extra yards. The balance and power some people tout with Spiller often comes from watching plays where Spiller is at full speed in the open field before he encounters contact. It's not accurate to compare this example of balance with a runner that can run through a hit or grasp when he hasn't reached top speed or has a 30-yard, unimpeded start. I think Spiller is a raw Felix Jones rather than on par with a younger Chris Johnson. It means he could develop into a full-time starter, but with a proven Fred Jackson and the (remote) possibility of Marshawn Lynch still getting meaningful carries with the team, I'm not expecting that kind of opportunity this year.
Outlook: Chase Stuart astutely points out that if projected Buffalo starter Trent Edwards continues to check-down with great frequency, Spiller could be in for a big year as a receiver out of the backfield. This also validates what the Bills are saying about Spiller potentially catching 50 balls as a rookie. I agree with Spiller having 500-600 yards of receiving upside as a rookie. However, I think 500 yards is probably his ceiling as a runner, because the Bills offensive line is young, Spiller needs to improve as an interior runner and both Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch have more patience, decisiveness and finishing power to keep the Bills on schedule. Lynch and Jackson are also adequate receivers out of the backfield, so the versatility factor for Spiller isn't as great as the decoy factor. If Spiller earns 1000 total yards on offense I think his season will be considered a success for those with realistic expectations. I'm banking on 800 total yards as a realistic upside.
Toby Gerhart, Vikings
Skills: Gerhart has excellent balance, good burst, pile-moving strength and he's arguably the best pass protector of the backs in this draft class. He's a one-cut, downhill grinder that does a good job of reading the defense before the snap. The Vikings' new RB would be an upgrade at starter for at least six teams in the NFL and another 10-15 teams wouldn't have experienced a drop-off if he had to replace the current starter.
Obstacles: I have to give Brad Childress credit on this one. If I could have handed his career a shovel for championing Tarvaris Jackson, I would have. But his hand in taking players like Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin deserves praise, and I'm equally impressed that Childress is smart enough to see Gerhart for his talents when there is a contingent of NFL people that think otherwise. I'm guessing these folks think skin pigmentation must make the Stanford rookie an optical illusion. Maybe they believe his whiteness must mean he's slower and less agile than he looks on film. Gerhart's only true obstacle is that he will be backing up the most physically talented runner in the NFL, which means his opportunity to see significant carries is greatly limited. Spare me the pseudo-science that was once used as an attempt to explain why black athletes didn't have the mental capabilities to play more intellectually challenging positions and some are trying to use as to why there hasn't been a productive, white starting RB with speed in the NFL since John Riggins and Craig James.
Outlook: The Vikings are wise enough to use Gerhart as its No. 2 RB and I won't be surprised if he earns more than the 93 carries given to Chester Taylor in 2009. Although Gerhart is a good receiver, I doubt he'll have more than 20-25 catches compared to Taylor's 43 receptions. Expect Gerhart to earn 120-160 carries and if he can average about 4.2 ypc, he's good for 500-700 yards. If Peterson misses any time, Gerhart has 1100-yard, 10-12 TD upside.
Anthony Dixon, 49ers
Skills: Last year, I said the 49ers found a "good" depth chart back in Glen Coffee. This year, they found a good running back. Good enough to complement Frank Gore, and eventually become an NFL starter. Dixon is a smart runner with patience, decisiveness, and enough short area quickness to make himself difficult for defenders to hit flush. However, at 6'1", 233 lbs., Dixon can and will lower the shoulder to punish defenders as the play concludes. Although not a game breaker, he is a good receiver and he can make the first man miss in open space. If Frank Gore gets hurt, I think the 49ers won't see as much of a drop-off in their running game with Dixon as they did with Coffee in 2009.
Obstacles: Dixon dropped because of his slow 40-time and concerns about his discipline and maturity. Already a big back, he once told the media that his favorite hobby was "eating." Dixon did do a better job of controlling his habits entering his senior season and he has remained in good shape ever since. Another issue was his penchant for arriving late to meetings and practice. The fear among those with concerns about his character is that if Dixon gets a small whiff of success he'll get intoxicated from it and self-destruct. While possible, I think he landed in the perfect situation because if he slips up just a little bit in San Francisco, Mike Singletary will address it quickly. If Dixon can't make it work as a 49er, he won't be worth having anywhere else.
Outlook: Frank Gore has the least carries (229) of any fantasy runner in the top five last year and only Jonathan Stewart, Jamaal Charles and Joseph Addai were fantasy RB1s with fewer attempts. With the addition of two first-round caliber offensive linemen in the 2010 NFL Draft, the 49ers hope to run the ball more. Sooner or later, it means Anthony Dixon will be a significant part of the 49ers plans because if they try to feed Gore the ball 300-plus times for the next two years, history indicates that Gore's stint as a starter will be on borrowed time. If they try to keep Gore in the range of 220-270 attempts, Dixon could get 120-150 attempts this year to the tune of 500-700 yards. If Gore gets hurt, Dixon has 1100-yard, 8-10 TD upside.
Ben Tate, Texans
Skills: If you ask Ben Tate, he'll probably tell you he's the most skilled runner in this draft. If he bases this self-assessment on the NFL Combine he might be right. His blend of size and explosiveness was on impressive display in Indianapolis. It was enough to impress the Houston Texans to draft him in the second round. What Tate does best is break tackles when he's running downhill. He's a faster Stephen Davis-Rudi Johnson (also both Auburn alums) with more pure power, but far less refinement to his game in terms of patience and decision-making. If he figures out how to be a better runner conceptually, he could be a fantasy stud for a few years.
Obstacles: Tate doesn't get the love that casual football watchers think he deserves because his best season came in a spread offense, and even then he often misread defensive penetration, didn't use his pads well enough to squirt through small creases or maintain his balance when forced east-west. He's already battling a hamstring injury in camp and with second-year runner Arian Foster following up an impressive finish to the 2009 season with a strong start to 2010, and 2008 rookie sensation Steve Slaton hoping to rebound from a poor sophomore effort, Tate won't have an easy time earning carries. Plus, if you ask me, the Texans have a poor track record with drafting or acquiring RBs, which I believe will additionally validate my concerns about Tate.
Outlook: If Tate wins the job outright, he could be an 1100-yard back in this explosive passing offense that will make an opposing defense pay for consistently stacking the box to stop the run. However, Arian Foster has shown too much so far not to earn more opportunities even if I'm wrong about him being a better player than Tate. The Texans will remain too enamored with what Slaton showed a few times per game in 2008 not to hope he'll return to form as an electric change of pace. Put this together, and Tate looks like a back destined to average 10-12 carries at best, but on too inconsistent of a basis to count on him as anything more than a desperation bye week option this year. I think 800-yard upside is generous, probably too generous.
Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers
Skills: Big, strong, agile and fast enough to make big plays, Dwyer has the qualities of a Stephen Davis in his prime. Based purely on potential, he is the perfect fit for the Steelers tradition, especially if Pittsburgh returns to its grind-it-out roots. If Dwyer can make the adjustment to the pro game, he has as much upside as Dixon, Gerhart and Hardesty to be a feature back.
Obstacles: Dwyer was technically a fullback in a triple option attack at Georgia Tech and because he didn't line up seven yards deep in the backfield, he couldn't demonstrate whether he has the patience, recognition and decision-making skills necessary to be an effective NFL halfback. In addition, his speed is a greater question mark than it may appear to the casual observer because the Yellow Jackets' offensive scheme that put Dwyer in optimal match up situations where great speed wasn't necessary. For some sample play-by-play analysis, go to my post on the New York Times' Fifth Down Blog. Dwyer should get some opportunities to spell Rashard Mendenhall, but with Ben Roethlisberger missing six games, I have serious doubts that Dwyer will see much work in the first half of the season because his pass protection is horrible.
Unless he miraculously improves with great coaching this summer, he could be responsible for a triple homicide of Leftwich, Dixon and Batch on consecutive pass plays. He has a bad habit of dropping his head and losing sight of his opponent too early into his block attempt and this technique lapse also prevents him from generating a punch. If you're a conspiracy theorist, you could claim that the Georgia police infiltrated Dwyer into the organization as an undercover agent so Roethlisberger would be punished for his Milledgeville incident every time he drops back. Mewelde Moore should continue to be a far more valuable RB2 on the Steelers' roster this year. Considering the number of speed traps they have in Georgia, I'm sure these local municipalities have the money to make it happen.
Outlook: I expect Dwyer to earn no more than 3-5 carries per game unless Rashard Mendenhall gets hurt and if this happens, I think he'll get at best a 50/50 split with Moore as a situational runner. Without Roethlisberger for six weeks, the Steelers can ill-afford to be more predictable on offense than they will without him. Give the rookie a year to hone his third down skills, and as long as he demonstrates vision from the I formation, he'll be a valuable handcuff to Mendenhall in 2011.
James Starks, Packers
Skills: Starks has the skills to be the biggest surprise of the rookie class. The former quarterback was the eighth-ranked rusher in college football during the 2008 season and probably would have been a first-day draft prospect if the University of Buffalo medical staff didn't spot a labrum tear that sidelined him for the season. The injury might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because Starks, a tall, lanky, 203-lbs. runner as a junior, added another 15 pounds of muscle while rehabbing in 2009. He enters the Packers camp at a feature back weight of 218 lbs. on his 6'2" frame, and he has the burst and change of direction that evokes comparisons to Eric Dickerson. Don't get too excited, I'm comparing the two like I would compare a Datsun 240Z with a Porsche 911; both have similar dimensions, but the difference in performance is significant if you're a sports care aficionado.
Obstacles: Starks needs to show more maturity as an interior runner to make quick decisions and stick with them. If he tries to rely on physical skills that used to make him the best athlete on the field in high school (and some college games), he'll be too inconsistent to see the field on a meaningful basis. Although I have never been crazy about Brandon Jackson as a long-term prospect, the Nebraska alum is good enough to test Starks' consistency. If Starks passes this first test early in camp, he could effectively spell Ryan Grant and gradually earn more carries due to his big-play potential.
Outlook: Starks is a better dynasty pick to take a chance on relatively early and be patient. Until we see if he can generate some positive buzz in training camp, he's a wildcard for re-drafts. If he has a James Davis-like camp, his stock could rise dramatically and I would have no qualms about taking him late in a re-draft due to his situation in Green Bay.
Strictly Waiver Wire
Joe McKnight, Jets: McKnight is quick and versatile, but lacks the explosiveness of backs like Best, Spiller and McCluster. He can catch the football and make the first man miss in the hole or in the open field. He has moments where he looks like he could be a much better football player than he was for most of his career at USC.
He reported to mini camp out of shape and didn't make a good first impression, which validates some concerns that he never really maximized his potential as a high school stud entering a big-time college with a lot of hype. He finally started showing better decision-making as a senior, but the NFL will be a whole new adjustment. McKnight will also receive limited opportunities if Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson stay healthy. If not, I still wouldn't be shocked if they add another player to the depth chart during training camp to push McKnight.
Unless the Jets depth chart gets bit hard by the injury bug, I doubt McKnight does more than earn garbage-time carries in big wins or big losses. He'll need to show more than what he did (at his best) at USC to get even 5-6 touches in a game on a consistent basis as a rookie.
LaGarrette Blount, Titans: If you're looking for an UFA most likely to get a shot at playing time, I think Blount is that guy. He's a powerful back with good feet, better than average feel for a developing pass protector and his burst shows up nicely when he has the ball in his hands. He's a very instinctive runner, which is generally considered a positive thing because it means Blount spots creases and finds openings easily. However, instinctive runners can sometimes rely too much on using their athleticism to create holes that aren't going to be there. Blount is sometimes guilty of this, and he will have to become more disciplined for a team to trust him with every situation.
A lot of my peers like Javon Ringer as the Titans No. 2 RB. I agree that Ringer is a savvy runner, but I think he's a career backup who is capable only of doing yeoman's work for short stretches. Blount will have to continue to develop a professional approach to the game to maximize his gifts, but if he can make the Titans' roster this fall, he'll be a player to monitor - especially if Chris Johnson holds out or gets dinged due to a late start in camp due to contract squabbles.
Shawnbrey McNeal, Chargers: McNeal has excellent receiving skills combined with good quickness and agility. He's an elusive runner with the skill to get small between the tackles and gain yards effectively when asked to run up the middle. I have a lot of confidence in McNeal to earn the No. 3 job in San Diego. If he continues to work, he has the talent to let the Chargers part ways with Darren Sproles next year and use McNeal as a complement to Ryan Mathews.
Charles Scott, Eagles: The former LSU tailback runs with excellent power. He dropped in this draft due to a lack of top-end speed and injuries that prevented him from performing in pre-draft events. Scott doesn't seem like a great fit for the Eagles of the recent past, but I believe the addition of a back similar to Scott in Mike Bell might be a signal that Philadelphia might be more interested in developing a power running game to help Kevin Kolb. If Scott makes the team, he has enough skill to be a productive contributor when called upon.
Deji Karim, Jaguars: The back from Southern Illinois has a low center of gravity with good quickness. Physically, he fits along the spectrum of backs that are similar to Maurice Jones-Drew. Karim has the burst to be a successful NFL back. What we'll need to see in Jaguars camp is if he has the vision to produce against more sophisticated and athletic defenses. If so, he could challenge Rashad Jennings for playing time, although I think Jennings has the clear edge as Jones-Drew's backup.
Joique Bell, Bills: The Wayne State runner reminds me a bit of Marion Barber - quick, shifty powerful in the hips and thighs and determined at the point of contact. Bell is a player to watch in Buffalo because Marshawn Lynch's situation is unpredictable. If the Bills are true to their word, Lynch will probably be trying to prove that last year's downslide was a fluke while he works alongside rookie C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. I still think Lynch is the most talented of the three backs when it comes to every down skills - he has lacked the maturity in his personal life to maintain the kind of focus needed to excel. If Lynch sticks around, Bell might draw attention from other teams that need a young runner with potential. If Lynch is traded, Bell could find a place on a roster and earn playing time if Fred Jackson gets hurt. A lot of ifs, but this is how players with enough skill to perform "come out of nowhere."
Keiland Williams, Redskins: It comes as no surprise that Mike Shanahan is stockpiling runners for training camp. Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Ryan Torain are all getting a shot. Brian Westbrook is still even in the conversation as a potential free agent addition. In terms of physical talent, Williams probably ranks third on the list of backs currently in Washington. However, he was mostly a role player at LSU and never played up to his potential. Shanahan does have an eye for players with limited opportunities, so keeping tabs on Williams is probably a good idea because I doubt Parker makes the roster and Torain's health has been a chronic issue. If Portis or Johnson doesn't stay healthy, Williams could climb quickly.
Toney Baker, Broncos: Baker reminds me of Leroy Hoard. He's a big, powerful back with good short area quickness and vision. He suffered a horrific knee injury that caused him to miss two years, but he returned to North Carolina State's lineup in 2009 to lead the team in rushing. What makes Baker worth watching is his quick first step and cutback ability for a big runner with good balance. Correll Buckhalter looked good last year but after sending Peyton Hillis to Cleveland, Denver needs a No. 3 RB with potential to develop into a No. 2. I think Baker has the skills to be one of the better backup runners in the NFL - the kind of No. 2 RBs with the ability to produce as a starter when called upon (Hoard, Chester Taylor, Tashard Choice, etc.). Watch and wait.
Lonyae Miller, Cowboys: I'm not the Lonyae Miller fan that my buddy Cecil Lammey is, but physically he does have all of the tools you like to see from a potential feature back. I think he needs to improve his vision and his pass blocking was a liability at Fresno State and the Senior Bowl. The Cowboys might be impressed with him as a player to watch after the trio of backs they have in place, but it means his chances of impact are remote.
Stafon Johnson, Titans: There is a contingent of diehard dynasty enthusiasts who believe Johnson as Terrell Davis potential. I agree with them that Johnson is a nice downhill runner with power and decent burst. He's a smart player who made several underrated plays as a runner, special teams contributor and pass protector with the USC Trojans. However, he might need a full year to recuperate from a life-threatening weight-lifting injury suffered last fall. If Johnson can improve his burst, he might surprise - especially running behind a line of the Titans caliber. But I think he's a practice squad player this year.
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