Shonn Greene and Ryan Mathews are going to be obvious picks for this kind of thing. Greene is getting the bulk of the work in a run-heavy Jets offense, and Mathews steps out of Fresno State and into the workhorse role of one of the league’s most high powered attacks. While those two should do well in 2010, I’ll mention some maybe not so obvious runners who should shine this season.
It sounds (at least early) like Marion Barber is going to be the #1 back in Dallas. Felix Jones is the best homerun threat in that backfield but never received more than 15 carries a game last year. Assuming he can stay healthy, I expect him to approach the number with regularity this season. If I’m Dallas, I’m going to try and run defenses deep often with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Roy Williams and slip Jones underneath to make those highlight plays he’s capable of. Fear of change by the coaching staff should be the only thing keeping Jones from owning the #1 job outright by midseason.
With the shaky Leinart taking over the Cardinals’ offense, Ken Whisenhunt figures to scale it back a bit and lean more heavily on the run. The primary beneficiary of that transition should be Beanie Wells. The second year runner finished his rookie campaign strong after being eased along (painfully slow at times) in ’09. He’s shown the ability to pick up the tough yards and punch it in from up close. Tim Hightower will still catch the bulk of the passes thrown to this position, but Wells should dominate carries. Again, the run should be featured much more this year, but teams are going to load the box early and often if Leinart can’t keep them honest. I think Wells establishes himself as a viable #1 back this season, but he’ll have trouble breaking out if Leinart struggles.
Oakland is where football careers go to die, but maybe just maybe Jason Campbell can give them the first bit of stability the Raiders have had at QB since Rich Gannon. With some stability (and a little less codeine) under center, maybe the Raider running game will produce a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time in 3 years. IMO, that runner will be Michael Bush. Even though he’s entering his 4th season as a pro, Bush has only carried the ball 218 times since leaving Louisville. He’s healthy and, to me, is the far more appealing backfield option for the Raiders. Justin Fargas is now with the Broncos, but overhyped sensation Darren McFadden is still there and sure to see touches that should go to Bush. Regardless, if the Raiders place the confidence in Bush to handle the rock as a #1 guy, I think he gets to 1,000 with at least a game to spare. He’s a far more tougher, decisive, committed, and powerful runner than McFadden. I think a breakout season is in store if the Raiders decide to make a smart decision and ride Bush.
The Saints won the Super Bowl last year, and it wasn’t all thanks to the arm of Drew Brees. Pierre Thomas is one of the more unappreciated runners in football. Want proof? Of all rushers with at least 100 carries, Thomas ranked 6th with 5.4 yards per carry. He’s also a very reliable receiver out of the backfield, but due to the abundance of offensive weapons on his team, he’s gone stretches where he’s ignored in that aspect of the game. Thomas also grabs me as a player who would excel in a consistent 20+ carry role. He seemed to struggle coming in and out last year while splitting carries with Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. The latter is still around but doesn’t figure to be a serious threat to his carries, and Thomas’ chances of picking up more short yardage totes increased when Lynell Hamilton tore his ACL in the preseason. The Saints still figure to throw the ball as much as anyone, but if left in a true #1 back role, I think Thomas will have a huge season.
Arian Foster waited until the final two games of the ’09 season to make his mark with the Texans, running for a combined 216 yards against the Dolphins and Patriots. Houston will continue to be (as they should) a pass-first offense with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson on the roster, but Foster took to the Texans’ zone running scheme perfectly and entered this year as the starter. Steve “oops I dropped it again” Slaton was in the doghouse often last year and enters this season as a 3rd down, change of pace option. The Texans weren’t completely satisfied with the Foster/Slaton attack and spent a draft pick on Ben Tate from Auburn, but Tate’s season ended before it started after suffering a severe ankle injury in his first bit of preseason action. The majority of the carries are Foster’s to lose, and although they throw a lot, he should get a lot of red zone touches and opportunities to put points on the board for Houston.
BEST BREAKOUT CANDIDATE
BEST BREAKOUT CANDIDATE
Once Kevin Smith returns from ACL surgery, the Lions figure to have a pretty, dare I say, dangerous backfield. Until he does suit up, the guy who figures to get the majority of the carries is rookie Jahvid Best. I loved Best coming out of the draft this year (my notes – excellent body control; hard to get a solid shot on; nice elusiveness in the open field; no wasted movements; better lateral than straight ahead speed; can catch; tough; good ball security; return skills; not very powerful; not a pass protector; concussion history) and think he’s in a great situation in Detroit. He’s got the young stud QB in Stafford and receiver in Johnson. Defenses are going to want to play tight and contain the shifty Best, but given Johnson’s presence and Best’s skills, that’s not going to be easy. I project Best to have a bigger year than the more heralded rookie runner, CJ Spiller.
Look for Donald Brown to get the ball more this year in Indy and impress while doing so. He’s a well-rounded, 3-down back who fits in really well with what they do. Brown’s talents are very similar to his backfield mate, Joseph Addai, but the Colts didn’t draft him to pick up the scraps every year. He’s reportedly gotten a better grasp of the offense, and worst case scenario IMO, has him earning a decent split of carries with Addai this season. With Addai in a contract year, the Colts are probably going to want to see what they’ve got in Brown. He may be a year away from owning the job outright, but I believe Brown will do enough this season to make the Colts comfortable going with him as their guy next season.
LeSean McCoy stepped in when Brian Westbrook went down last season, and while he only scored four times and showed lapses as a pass blocker, he didn’t embarrass himself. Westbrook is gone, and the only threats to McCoy’s carries are Leonard Weaver, Mike Bell, and JJ Arrington. The Eagles don’t run the ball a ton, but a McCoy figures to be a part of the passing game as well. Kevin Kolb is getting a lot of pressure to take this team to the playoffs, but McCoy’s burden isn’t much lighter since there’s little behind him. He doesn’t figure to be a pounder in the red zone running the ball and should do much of his damage between the 20s. Better year? Yeah. Breakout season? I don’t think so.
He’s probably in too good of an offense to have a real bust of a year, but color me unimpressed with Ryan Grant. Yes, he does a fine job of holding onto the football, but he’s missing a 3rd gear, isn’t a factor in the passing game, and is a worse goal line option than his own QB. Last year, games against the Browns, 49ers, and Bears accounted for 414 of his yards or a third of his entire year’s production. I think the passing game stays the staple of Green Bay’s offense and Grant is less of a factor this season.
BIGGEST BUST CANDIDATE
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have been a great 1-1a punch for the Dolphins, but I think age, carries, and injuries are going to take their toll on the twosome this year. I expect both of these runners to exhibit a decline in skills this season, lending the Wildcat a less threatening weapon. Combine that with the acquisition of Brandon Marshall and the development of Chad Henne, and I think it’s stock down for both of these guys.
BIGGEST BUST CANDIDATE
Steven Jackson is still one of the better backs in the game, but he’s also coming off offseason back surgery and has surpassed 1,500 carries for his career, good for 6th among active rushers if you don’t count Ahman Green who is in the UFL. Jackson is a punishing runner, so most of those carries end with a collision. He has over 100 more carries than the next closest rusher from his draft class (Willis McGahee). Jackson also has significantly more career totes than beaten/broken backs like Larry Johnson (127 more) and Brian Westbrook (240 more). The Rams are going to be bad yet again this year, and even though they selected Sam Bradford with the first overall pick, everyone knows that the Rams offense runs directly through Jackson. He posted his lowest TD total since ’04 and missed four games for the second year in a row. I don’t think it gets better for him this year. Unfortunately, I’m projecting Jackson to regress back towards the 1,000 yard milestone and miss multiple games yet again.