Rookie Meter: Undrafted RBs lead first-year backs

Posted Dec. 07, 2010 @ 5:52 p.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

Don't be fooled by the fact that only two running backs have won Offensive Rookie of the Year in the last seven seasons — this is an award usually dominated by the backs, but a tailback will not be taking home the award this year.

Not only are a quarterback (Sam Bradford) and wide receiver (Mike Williams) the top candidates for the honor, but the running backs who are in the running are a pair of undrafted backs.

Heading into Week 14, there could be six rookie running backs drafted in the sixth round or later getting a significant number of their team's carries. The three backs taken in the first round have been hampered by injuries and mostly disappointed.

It's been a strange season for rookie backs. Let's break them down into three categories:

The top picks

C.J. Spiller, the overall No. 9 pick by the Bills, showed that he wasn't ready for the hype in Week One. He has battled a hamstring injury and a logjam at running back, but he does have a kick-return touchdown. He is still the Bills' back of the future despite not showing the electric play he displayed in the preseason.

Ryan Mathews, our top man in the preseason Rookie Meter, has rarely been 100 percent healthy and lost carries to Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles. He has a solid 4.4 yards per carry but just two touchdowns.

Lions RB Jahvid Best looked like the back with the best chance at rookie honors before a turf-toe injury slowed him down. He had four rushing touchdowns in his first two games but hasn't returned to the endzone since. He did have a 45-yard run and 32-yard reception on Sunday. Best is one of the rookie leaders in yards from scrimmage.

The undrafted backs

We first looked at Chris Ivory's impact after a huge day in Week Six. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush expected back, and the addition of Julius Jones, few thought Ivory would still be the Saints' man, but he has five touchdowns in his last three games.

LeGarrette Blount arrived on the Rookie Meter because of a highlight-reel hurdle against the Cardinals in Week Eight. He has become the team's top back after being a Titans castoff and leads all rookies (minimum of 20 carries) with an average of 66.6 yards per game.

With injuries to Clinton Portis and Ryan Torain, the Redskins have had to turn to Keiland Williams. Williams had 139 total yards in a loss to the Eagles in Week 10, followed by 95 in Week 11, but hasn't gotten much of anything going since.

Colts RB Javarris James, claimed off the Redskins' practice squad Oct. 7 after injuries to Donald Brown and Mike Hart, has been a touchdown machine as the team's goal-line back, rushing for five scores in the past five games with the Colts.

The late-round backs

49ers RB Anthony Dixon, a sixth-round pick, will be sharing the workload with Brian Westbrook after Frank Gore landed on I.R. Dixon has two touchdowns this season.

Sixth-rounder James Starks played for the first time in his NFL career on Sunday and rushed for 73 yards on 18 carries for the Packers, who are without Ryan Grant.

Only Ivory, Blount and Best have the numbers to compete for a spot on the Rookie Meter, but it should be fun to watch these little-known backs get some action in the last few weeks of the season.

1. Rams QB Sam Bradford (first round, first overall)
Last week's ranking: 1

Based on passer rating, Bradford had his worst game since Week Five (66.3) after tossing an interception and zero touchdowns in the Rams' 19-6 win over the Cards. He didn't need to do much as Steven Jackson had a big game on the ground. Bradford did complete 62.1 percent of his passes and he did lead the Rams to a .500 record as they stay tied atop the NFC West.

2. Buccaneers WR Mike Williams (4, 101)
Last week's ranking: 3

With Dez Bryant out for the year, Williams will finish as the league's top rookie receiver and is really the only challenger to Bradford. He had another solid game on Sunday with five catches for 59 yards and a score. He was also targeted by QB Josh Freeman 14 times. Williams now leads all rookies in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns.

3. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh (1, 2)
Last week's ranking: 2

Once again, Suh will get the headlines for a questionable play. At the end of the Bears-Lions game, Bears QB Jay Cutler scrambled and was pushed down from behind by Suh. In real time, the play looked as though Suh had hit Cutler in the helmet. Suh was flagged, and the Bears later scored the go-ahead touchdown. He had four tackles and a pass defensed on the day.

4. Buccaneers RB LeGarrette Blount (undrafted)
Last week's ranking: 5

Blount had the second-best game of his young NFL career, rushing for 103 yards on 20 carries, good for a 5.1 average as the Bucs fell in a close game to the Falcons. He leads all rookie backs (minimum of 20 carries) in yards per game and is tied for most rushing touchdowns.

5. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (1, 24)
Last week's ranking: 4

Bryant will slowly start to slip down the meter after a crushing ankle injury that will cost him the rest of his rookie season. Bryant fractured his ankle when being tackled on a kick return. He had just one catch for 14 yards but had some good kick returns in the Cowboys' win over the Colts. He will still finish as one of the top rookie receivers and returners.

6. Chiefs SS Eric Berry (1, 5)
Last week's ranking: 7

The Chiefs' defense shut down the Broncos' passing attack, and Kansas City is alone at the top of the AFC West. Berry helped lead a secondary that pressured Kyle Orton into completing just 9-of-28 passes. Berry had seven tackles and two passes defensed in the win.

7. Browns SS T.J. Ward (2, 38)
Last week's ranking: 6

Ward and the Browns had another stellar defensive display. The rookie leader in tackles had three on Sunday, including a tackle for loss. He has 80 tackles on the season.

8. Patriots CB Devin McCourty (1, 27)
Last week's ranking 10

The Rutgers grad got some pretty good praise from a respected source after the Patriots' 45-3 win over the Jets. "McCourty, as a rookie, he's probably playing the best in the league at his position, hands down. I'll put him up against any corner that you throw at me," said his teammate, veteran NT Vince Wilfork. McCourty picked off his sixth pass of the season Monday night, giving him the lead among rookies.

9. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey (1, 18)
Last week's ranking: 8

Pouncey had quite the task on Sunday night, trying to contain Ravens DT Haloti Ngata. At times, Ngata overpowered Pouncey when he rushed up the middle. The Steelers left Baltimore with a big win and are in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh's rushing attack struggled, but Pouncey remains one of the more valuable rookies in the league considering the Steelers' injury issues on the O-line.

10. Saints RB Chris Ivory (undrafted)
Last week's ranking: NR

With Reggie Bush not 100 percent and Pierre Thomas still recovering from his injury, Ivory continues to be a revelation in the Saints' backfield. He rushed for 117 yards on 15 carries and had two rushing touchdowns, including a 55-yarder. He leads all rookies with 636 rushing yards and an impressive 5.2 yards per carry.

On the cusp (listed alphabetically)

Jaguars DT Tyson Alualu (1, 10)
Chiefs CB Javier Arenas (2, 50)
Lions RB Jahvid Best (1, 30)
Raiders WR Jacoby Ford (4, 108)
Browns CB Joe Haden (1, 7)
Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez (4, 113)
Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy (1, 3)
Dolphins OLB Koa Misi (2, 40)
Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul (1, 15)
Seahawks FS Earl Thomas (1, 14)