Rookie running backs can make an immediate fantasy impact. Sadly, two have succumbed to injury and are gone for the 2011 season.
The Lions' Mikel Leshoure, out with a torn Achilles tendon, was going to be part of a tandem with Jahvid Best. The other is the Cardinals' Ryan Williams, lost with a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. This is the opportunity Beanie Wells has wanted despite two lackluster and disappointing pro seasons. We wish them both well with their recovery. It's still an under-the-belt hit to fantasy owners as there are two fewer running backs to draw from. Let's focus on running backs who can actually make an impact.
One note and an important one: I took the time to read and review Pro Football Weekly's 2011 Draft Preview — no, really, I did! Understanding a player's role, his skills and the team around him always gives you an edge over your fellow owners because you understand the bigger picture. The Draft Preview gives you everything you need on a rookie's strengths and weaknesses entering the league.
While I've written a few sentences on the pros and cons of each rookie listed, you should check out PFW's book as that's where I garnered the information. I've been buying the Draft Preview every year since my career in the industry began. Surprisingly, you can still find it in some bookstores. They're also great reference books, but if you don't go that route, PFW also has a great draft prospects section on its site, as well.
Mark Ingram, Saints
Ingram is having an outstanding camp and is my pick to be the top rookie running back. He's going to be part of a one-two punch with Pierre Thomas, and I also like him as a goal-line back. His ability to move a pile and his yards after contact will make all the difference in fantasy points and total touchdowns.
Ingram's not huge but has good size, 5 feet-9 1/8 inches and 215 pounds. He's a patient runner and has good vision with a natural feel for running lanes. He's quick-footed with short-area burst and can avoid direct hits. What I admire most about him is his power and the toughness he displays gaining yards after contact. He protects the football and can put a team on his back, if needed. However, he does not have elite skills, does not have top-end speed, and defenders can catch him from behind. He also has questionable hands and is not a good route runner; he will have to improve those skills to expand his role in the Saints' pass-first offense.
I believe Thomas will be a top-15 fantasy back by season's end. If he becomes a consistent goal-line back, a top-10 finish is possible. Right now his ADP (average draft position) shows him as the 29th running back off fantasy draft boards, going 65th overall in ADP, the sixth round in a 12-team league. I think he's currently undervalued. Maybe he'll begin to move up as he's having a solid camp, but right now grab him and be happy.
Daniel Thomas, Dolphins
Thomas is having an inconsistent preseason. In his defense, he says he's a back who needs a few carries under his belt to get going. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt as many bruisers say that. He does need to improve as a goal-line back to give him some way of producing more points in a committee approach.
Thomas is durable at 6 feet 0¼ inch and 230 pounds. He has the moves to be a punishing runner and a decent receiver. He won't see many balls come his way through the air as that's the role Reggie Bush will play, but Thomas has good balance and body control. He can pick his holes with good vision and is agile for a back his size. He lacks breakaway speed, at times carries the ball too loosely, dances too much and does not power through when making contact. He will also need to work on pass protection. He's a big back who has finesse but does not power over runners using his size as an advantage.
The team will build around the rushing attack as QB Chad Henne has not shown the ability to carry a team. Thomas' ADP shows he's currently the 31st running back being taken, 75th overall, the seventh round in a 12-team league. Based on his scouting report and his current camp, that's not a bad spot to take him. I'd rather take him as a No. 3 fantasy back with upside, and he has upside at that point in the draft.
Roy Helu, Redskins
Helu in a preseason game showed the explosiveness that head coach Mike Shanahan has raved about. While I'm not comparing two different backs, I remember how he raved about Clinton Portis and his first year in the league. Let's hope Helu can play like Portis did that year. Regardless, Tim Hightower has just about locked up the starting job. He's done that with excellent running and great blitz-pickup ability — a weakness for Helu. Ryan Torain is out with a broken hand, so Helu has a chance to make an impact.
At 5 feet 11½ inches, 219 pounds, Helu has size with speed and an ability to get to the edge. That, combined with agility and elusiveness, makes him a home-run threat. You add good hands and you see why Shanahan raves about him. Like other burners, he can be inconsistent and shut down. He needs to learn to run lower and is not great at breaking tackles, nor is he a great blocker. There are mental and physical toughness questions regarding his desire to compete. He is suited for an offense that stretches the field.
Helu is someone I would take in the early late rounds. He's currently the 59th runner taken, 94th overall, the eighth round in a 12-team league. That's too rich for my blood as there are legitimate questions surrounding him and how the team plans on using him. I would rather take him a few rounds later. Now, if he drops, that's different, so don't just write him or any player off in a fantasy draft because eventually every player, no matter how much you dislike him, can become a value pick.
Kendall Hunter, 49ers
Hunter will learn from Frank Gore, one of my favorite running backs. Gore's a tough, physical runner, confident and mentally tough enough to overcome multiple ACL tears. Hunter is battling Anthony Dixon for the honor of backing Gore up. The team is not happy with Dixon not being physical as a runner, whereas Hunter has been improving on his blitz pickups and showcasing his abilities. There's a good chance he'll see a workload that showcases his explosiveness and speed as compared to Gore's power.
Hunter has solid inside rushing skills as he's built low to the ground, has good balance and tackle-breaking ability. He has good vision and an ability to pick a hole and hit it quickly with the burst to get to the outside. He brings durability issues, and at 5 feet 7¼ inches, 199 pounds, you know why. He needs to work on running routes, blocking and learning how to secure the ball better.
I like Hunter's potential as a niche player, similar to Darren Sproles when he was with San Diego. Hunter won't see extensive time, but the team will pick its moments. With Gore's injury history and Dixon being unproven, Hunter could be thrust into more touches than we expect. In the few leagues in which he's being taken, his ADP registers him as the 82nd rusher taken, 210th overall. That's late in a draft, but in a league with rosters of 18 or more, I'd take him as a flier pick and see what he has to offer.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons
Rodgers will be a tease like Jerious Norwood. Norwood was explosive, but his playing time and when he would bust a highlight-reel play was always unpredictable. The team also re-signed Jason Snelling, so although they're saying there's a role for Rodgers, the team will probably pick and choose where they use him. Remember, Snelling is a veteran, in the same offense and has played as the third-down back.
Rodgers is a strong runner with solid lower-body strength, is competitive and runs hard. He can stop, start and cut sharply. He has short-area quickness, agility, great peripheral vision, elusiveness and is efficient. He's able to catch and protects the football. Despite that, he's small at 5 feet 5 1/8 inches and 196 pounds, bringing up durability questions. Surprisingly he was used heavily in college, with more than 900 touches in three seasons. Considering he has wear and tear, along with his size, one wonders if he can handle a full NFL season.
Michael Turner is starting, with Snelling backing him up and also able to play the third-down role. That tells me Rodgers will see some third-down duties but not enough touches to warrant counting on him. Rodgers is not draftable and is a player who will need an injury to get any kind of extensive playing time.
Alex Green, Packers
Green projects to be a third-down back, and when you add a healthy Ryan Grant and James Starks as the primary ballcarriers, you'll see Green being used in limited packages. He comes from a spread offense and needs to learn to play in the NFL, but the team is happy with his camp and his ability to pick up the responsibilities of a third-down back. He will see playing time based on his solid camp.
Green has size at 6 feet 0¼ inch, weighing 225 pounds. He has good feet, speed to accelerate and is agile for a big man. He also has soft hands and can turn upfield quickly. He has issues fumbling, runs upright and lacks power. His numbers were padded in a pass-happy offense where he also faced nickel and dime packages, so the jury is out on how he'll handle the NFL.
Owners are generally not drafting Green, and when they do, his ADP shows him as the 80th back taken, 210th overall. What makes him intriguing is the lack of production Grant has shown the last couple of years. He's a player to keep an eye on in-season but not on draft day. He could become a waiver-wire pickup if Grant or Starks falters, and it's not a given one won't.
Jamie Harper, Titans
I merely list Harper because Chris Johnson could be a holdout, and recent reports indicate it could be a long one. Javon Ringer is also suffering from a hamstring injury, allowing the fourth-round pick to take advantage of the situation. He's had a solid camp highlighted by a great Week Two preseason game.
At 5 feet 11 3/8 inches, weighing in at 233 pounds, Harper is a big boy. He has solid straight-line speed, is quick-footed and able to sidestep and spin off defenders. He's agile and a decent receiver who can play off screens while adjusting to throws with his soft hands. At times he dances too much, does not play up to his size and has never been a featured back.
I like Harper's potential and believe you have to waste a draft pick on him if C.J. is still holding out. Sure, Ringer would be the starter, but Harper would spell him. Right now Harper is not being drafted — a horrible mistake as C.J.'s holdout may not end for a while. I would take him at the end of a draft as a flier pick if Ringer's still hurt or the team hasn't brought a veteran in. After all, if he doesn't pan out, we need waiver-wire fodder after Week One, and that's what flier picks are for!