*Yikes! Maurice Clarett a 1,000 yards rusher as a rookie?! I respectfully disagree.....
Attack of the Rookie RBs
Attack of the Rookie Backs
First-year RBs will have major fantasy and real impact
Posted: Thursday May 19, 2005 1:20PM; Updated: Friday May 20, 2005 8:36PM
Thanks to the five-yard-chuck rule, 2004 was the year of the quarterback. This season, the running backs strike back. A rag-tag bunch of Wookiee ... er, rookie rebels will lead the revolution.
One way to make sure the force is with you a few months from now at your fantasy football draft is to keep a close eye on these rookie rushers. Running back is the only position in which first-year players typically make a statistical impact. Only 14 rookies have ever surpassed 1,000 yards receiving (including Tampa Bay WR Michael Clayton last year), and first-year QBs, with the exception of Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, are nothing but cannon fodder for pass rushers.
This year's group of first-year backs has a chance to be the best ever. No rookie class has ever produced more than three 1,000-yard RBs, but that could change in '05. Not that 1,000 rushing yards means that much anymore. Nowadays, all a running back needs is a pair of shoulder pads and directions to the stadium and he can reach 1,000.
With three backs picked in the top 10 for the first time since 1989 and several talented RBs chosen in later rounds, this year's class could produce four or five 1,000-yard rushers. In today's NFL, receiving yards are also crucial for a RB -- and of course scoring is key for fantasy -- but for convenience let's focus on the rushing total and examine which backs can reach the 1,000-yard plateau.
Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins, First Round (No. 2 overall):
Although he won't be running in the same offense that allowed Ricky Williams to gain so many yards in, Brown will have every opportunity carry the ball and should be the biggest layup on this list to reach 1,000. New Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is known as a passing guy, but he can't possibly have A.J. Feeley or Gus Frerotte hurl the ball downfield 40 times a game and ignore a player many consider the most talented in this year's draft. The dangers here are the a suspect offensive line, a surprise return by Williams or the possibility Miami will struggle again and be too far behind to run the ball. But the Fins actually played well at the end of last season, Ricky's still out of the picture, Miami's defense was solid in 2004 (No. 8 overall) and it has a promising new coach in Nick Saban.
Projected Yardage: 1,400
Cedric Benson, Chicago Bears, First Round (No. 4 overall):
Coach Lovie Smith said Thomas Jones is still the starter and Benson will complement him. Don't count on that being the case by the fifth game. Jones had his moments last year, but he's never been able to stay healthy for a whole season, and Chicago's offense was terrible even when he had decent games in '04. The Bears are obviously excited about Benson -- they selected the former Texas star over Carnell Williams and said they would have taken him over Brown if the latter was still available. There are different views on Benson's prolific production with the Longhorns. Some experts think he's already taken too much wear-and-tear, while others believe he's proven his durability. At 5-10, 222 pounds, Benson's bulk should work in his favor here and make him the short- and long-term solution at RB in Chicago.
Projected Yardage: 1,200
Carnell Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, First Round (No. 5 overall):
The yards might not be as easy to come by for Williams as his former Auburn running mate Brown. Jon Gruden's complex gameplan isn't designed to rack up huge numbers for the tailback, and Williams still has to get used to the Bucs' offensive scheme. He'll also have veteran Michael Pittman to compete with for carries. Pittman ran for 926 yards and 10 TDs in 13 games last season, although he does have a penchant for costly fumbles. Tampa Bay also has problems on the offensive line, which will affect both the running and passing games. But Gruden is a fan of Williams and will do anything he can to help him succeed. Williams has the speed and moves to thrive if he is one of the primary weapons in Gruden's attack.
Projected Yardage: 1,100
J.J. Arrington, Cardinals, Second Round (No. 44 overall):
Considering he ran for 2,018 yards at Cal last year, 1,000 in Arizona should be no problem. Arrington's competition for the starting spot is weak -- Troy Hambrick didn't show much last season and Marcell Shipp, who doesn't appear durable enough to be a primary back. Arrington's pass-catching ability and speed make him a perfect fit for a Dennis Green offense. And he's playing in the NFC West, where defense has been strictly forbidden by the league. Projected Yardage: 1,100
Frank Gore, 49ers, Third Round (No. 65 overall):
The 49ers believe Gore's history of knee injuries will not be a problem. They took the same gamble a few years ago with Garrison Hearst and it paid off. If Gore can stay on the field with two surgically repaired knees, he has an opportunity here because Kevan Barlow was not impressive in his first year as the primary back, rushing for 822 yards on 3.4 yards per carry. Despite his history, Gore was productive last season at Miami, rushing for 945 yards and eight TDs. At 5-9, he's another one of these shifty Emmitt Smith-types. The Niners aren't going to be very good and at some point may want to look toward the future with Gore instead of Barlow -- assuming Gore doesn't rip up both knees in the first preseason game.
Projected Yardage: 700
Ryan Moats, Eagles, Third Round (No. 77 overall):
Moats has been compared to both Barry Sanders and current Eagles RB Brian Westbrook. The 5-foot-8, 210-pound back out of Louisiana Tech enters an interesting situation in Philly. Westbrook is holding out because of a contract dispute and Correll Buckhalter is still recovering from his second knee surgery. Westbrook just switched agents and will likely be back in camp soon, but there's always the chance Moats would be thrust into a starting role. Coach Andy Reid calls running plays sparingly, so it would be difficult for Moats to reach 1,000 even if he was the main guy (Westbrook ran for just 803 yards last season). One of the reasons Moats was still around in the third round is teams didn't know if he could catch the ball, but he reportedly did fine as a receiver in the Eagles' first minicamp.
Projected Yardage: 500
Eric Shelton, Panthers, Second Round (No. 54 overall):
Shelton is another back who may have tripped into the perfect situation. The Panthers don't know if Stephen Davis will be able to come back fully from knee surgery and DeShaun Foster has had trouble staying healthy. Last year, Carolina had to dip down to seventh string for a starting running back. Foster is a 6-1 1/2, 246-pound bruiser who appears to be a good fit for the Panthers' ball-control offense.
Projected Yardage: 600
Maurice Clarett, Broncos, Third Round (No. 111 overall):
It may take Clarett the better part of the afternoon to run 40 yards, but you don't have to be fast to run for 1,500 yards in Denver. Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson weren't burners, and they did fine. Even though Clarett faces plenty of competition in the Broncos backfield, you never know who will end up bursting out in Mike Shanahan's offense. Clarett hasn't played competitive football in three years, which is fodder for critics, but could be the sign of a hidden gem for fantasy owners.
Projected Yardage: Either 100 or 1,000
Other rookie RBs to watch:
Vernand Morency, Texans, Third Round (No. 73 overall)--
Sits behind another back who came out of nowhere to have a 1,000-yard rookie season, Domanick Davis, and backup Jonathan Wells. Morency, an Oklahoma State product, will need a veteran to get injured to become productive.
Ciatrick Fason, Vikings, Fourth Round (No. 112 overall)
-- Fason joins one of the most crowded backfields in the league, but much like the Broncos, you never know who is going to bust out for the Vikings. He led the SEC in rushing at Florida last year and was projected as a second-rounder before falling just before the draft.
Damien Nash, Titans, Fifth Round (No. 142)
-- There's no way Titans starter Chris Brown can make it through the season with his upright running style, so Nash, a Missouri product, has a chance to sneak in there and be a surprise starter. That is if the Titans don't trade for a veteran like Travis Henry.
Marion Barber, Cowboys, Fourth Round (No. 109 overall)-- Would have been a very interesting prospect as Julius Jones' backup -- before the Cowboys signed Anthony Thomas. Now Barber will need a little help to get in the lineup, but the former Minnesota star has the tools to be a good NFL running back.
Brandon Jacobs, Giants, Fourth Round (No. 110 overall)
-- Although the 6-4, 267-pound Jacobs will likely be a goal-line back at best, he could do more if Tiki Barber is injured. Jacobs could have been a bigger star in college if he didn't run into Brown and Williams at Auburn, forcing him to transfer to Southern Illinois.
Alvin Pearman, Jaguars (Fourth Round, No. 112 overall)
-- The 5-9, 208-pound Pearman is designed to be a third-down back. The only way he could bust out into a primary rusher is if Fred Taylor got hurt -- a hypothesis that isn't far-fetched to any fantasy owner.