by Jeff West
January 21, 2005
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    Ask fantasy football owners what is the most important position and they will probably respond, "Running Back".  And with good reason.  Most NFL teams have one (or less) feature RB, so they are scarce.  A good RB will get anywhere from 15 to 40 touches a game, so they have plenty of opportunities to put up points.  Many RBs also catch passes which are an additional reward in many fantasy scoring schemes.  This is why nearly every fantasy draft sees anywhere from 75% to 100% of the players selected in the first round from the RB position.

    But, as Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a changin'.  There are more and more quality RBs in the league and the 2005 NFL Draft is deep at the position.  Also, the 2004 NFL season saw more QBs and WRs putting up big numbers, making them more and more attractive.  Finally, grabbing a stud RB seems to be a crapshoot any more as the likes of Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes, Travis Henry, and Jamal Lewis each made their owners pull out hair during the 2004 season.  Meanwhile, that guy in your league who drafted players like Curtis Martin or Tiki Barber (not out of some sage foresight, but, rather, lack of preparation) ended up ahead of the game.  Not to mention those players who were quickest to the waiver wire to grab Reuben Droughns and Nick Goings while the rest of us sat scratching our heads over fantasy draft picks like Tatum Bell and DeShaun Foster.

    There are a number of RBs who are free agents in 2005 and some big names could change teams, opening the door for other talented backs to take their places.  I've looked at each team's RB situation this off-season and made some projections.  I've also included a list of some of the top RB prospects that will be available in the 2005 NFL Rookie Draft.

Team:  Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals still are one of those teams with a question mark at the RB position.  Coming into 2004, nearly everyone thought that Marcel Shipp would be the next great sleeper and that Emmitt Smith was washed up.  As it turns out, Emmitt turned in a very respectable season with solid #2 FF RB stats.  Emmitt Smith is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in 2005 so he may retire or find work elsewhere.  It is doubtful that the Cards will count on Shipp for 2005, so look for them to be active in the free agent market or in the draft.

Team:  Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were expected to hand the reins over to TJ Duckett in 2004, with Warrick Dunn used more as a third down back.  As it turns out, Dunn wasn't done.  Both are under contract for 2005 so don't expect any changes as the Falcons seem to be happy with both players.

Team:  Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens dodged a bullet when Jamal Lewis only missed two games with suspension in 2004.  Everyone expected Musa Smith to fill in for Lewis and handcuffed him to Lewis only to see Chester Taylor get the nod instead.  Taylor is a UFA and should get plenty of interest from other teams as a possible feature back.  The Ravens will ride Lewis again in 2005 with Smith and exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) BJ Sams in tow.

Team:  Buffalo Bills
No one was certain how much Travis Henry and Willis McGahee would be called on in 2004.  Henry started slowly and was injured, opening the door for an auspicious debut by McGahee.  The Bills have now told Henry he is free to seek a trade prior to the 2005 season.  If (when) Henry leaves, he and McGahee are both feature backs in the league who could warrant a first round fantasy pick in 2005.

Team:  Carolina Panthers
The Panthers expected to split carries between Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster in 2004, but both ended up on the IR.  After failed experiments with Brad Hoover and Joey Harris, the Panthers unleashed Nick Goings on unsuspecting defenses.  All three could return in 2005 making for a sticky situation at RB, one that DeShaun Foster should take control of if healthy.

Team:  Chicago Bears
Coming into 2004, the RB position belonged to Thomas Jones, with Anthony Thomas waiting on the bench.  Thomas is now a UFA and will garner some looks from teams looking for a feature back.  Jones did not do anything to lock up the #1 job for 2005, so the Bears could look to the draft to solidify their rushing ranks.

Team:  Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals ably replaced the departed Corey Dillon with Rudi Johnson in 2004.  Now Johnson is a UFA and will be one of the most in-demand players in the off-season because of his ability and his character.  The Bengals drafted Chris Perry in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, but were unable to assess his talents to any real degree this season.  Word is that the Bengals will try to re-sign Johnson, but he might be too expensive to keep along with a first-round pick (i.e. Perry).  Look for Perry to be the starter in 2005 with Rudi on another team.

Team:  Cleveland Browns
Grade:  C+
The Browns played 2004 with a tandem of William Green and Lee Suggs.  Both are under contract for 2005, but it seems unlikely that William Green will have a role on the team in the future.  Suggs is in line to take over the feature back position and Green will be traded or released and quickly snatched up by another team (maybe the Cards) where he can be a starter.

Team:  Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys were banking on Eddie George to keep the RB position warm until rookie Julius Jones was ready to step in.  Jones was hurt most of the season and George was ineffective.  When Jones was finally healthy, he produced in a manner that Coach Parcells expected.  Only four backs in the league had a higher yards per game average.  Jones only played in eight games, but if you project his numbers across a 16-game schedule, he was a top three back.

Team:  Denver Broncos
The Broncos had, undoubtedly, the most confusing situation entering the 2004 season.  Second round draft pick Tatum Bell would be competing with Garrison Hearst, Quentin Griffin, and Mike Anderson for the eventual starting role.  So, of course, converted fullback Reuben Droughns won the job and produced brilliantly.  Now Droughns has been given permission to seek a trade and will land on his feet as a starter for some team.  Hearst will likely not be re-signed as a UFA, leaving the job, by everyone's best guess, to Tatum Bell, with Griffin and Anderson waiting in the wings.

Team:  Detroit Lions
Detroit gambled by passing up Kellen Winslow in the draft and dropping one slot to grab a stud WR.  In the process, they got another pick that ended up being their starting RB, Kevin Jones.  Jones started slowly, but gained momentum as the season progressed and showed he can be a solid #1 RB in the league.  Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner will return to battle for the #2 back position.

Team:  Green Bay Packers
Ahman Green carried the load for the Pack in 2004, albeit less impressively than he did in 2003.  Both of the backups, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher, are restricted free agents (RFA) and Davenport should demand some attention on the open market with his size and speed.  My best guess says that Davenport leaves and becomes a #1 for another team when they put together a package that the Pack can't match.  The Pack will then use Fisher (who will not be in high demand) as the #2 and draft a back for the future.

Team:  Houston Texans
The Texans rode the Dom Davis express for as long as he was healthy in 2004 and will look to do the same in 2005.  When DD was down, Jonathan Wells filled in admirably.  As a UFA, Wells should get some interest as a backup somewhere in the league.  He may choose to accept the Texans tender (which will likely be offered) and count on DD missing more time.

Team:  Indianapolis Colts
The Colts addressed the contracts of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison in 2004, but now have to deal with RB Edgerrin James, a UFA.  James has shown that he is fully recovered from his knee injury and can be a workhorse back.  The Colts want to re-sign him, but it will cost them, especially with a back of James's caliber being so much in demand in the league (James has already stated a desire to return to his hometown Miami to play for the Dolphins).  Further complicating matters for the Colts is the fact that their top two backups, Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro, both productive ball carriers when given the chance, are also UFAs.  They won't get as much attention as Edge on the open market, but you can bet there are teams who have them on their radar.

Team:  Jacksonville Jaguars
Fred Taylor had a decent season rushing the ball, but was able to score only three TDs on the season.  He'll be back in 2005 and will still be the starter, but will be pushed by LaBrandon Toefield and Greg Jones, both young backs who will enjoy more fantasy success in 2005 than they did in 2004.

Team:  Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were able to ride Priest Holmes early in the season, but an injury limited him to only eight games (where he still scored an amazing 15 TDs).  Holmes has dropped the dreaded "R" word (retirement) a few times this season, but will likely be back to play again in 2005.  Derrick Blaylock, who enjoyed great success until he, too, was injured is a UFA and will likely not return, leaving the #2 position to Larry Johnson who was also a money performer in his few starts.

Team:  Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were set to open the 2004 season with Ricky Williams who abruptly retired leaving the Fins to muddle through the season with a platoon of Sammy Morris, Travis Minor, and Leonard Henry (and a brief interlude with Lamar Gordon, who was quickly injured).  The safe money is on the prospect of none of those listed being the #1 guy in 2005.  The Dolphins will look to sign either Edgerrin James or Travis Henry, or possibly use their #2 overall pick on a stud RB prospect.

Team:  Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have one of the deepest RB corps in the league with Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore, and Moe Williams.  All are slated to return in 2005, although it is likely that the Vikes will look to trade one of them for some defensive help (in the form of a veteran player or a draft pick).  Oft-injured Michael Bennett could be of interest to Coach Denny Green in Arizona, leaving the starting role, presumably, to Onterrio Smith, who will produce nicely in such a role.

Team:  New England Patriots
The Pats solved their long-standing RB issues by cutting ties with Antowain Smith and signing Corey Dillon in 2004.  Dillon responded with an outstanding season.  Don't expect any significant changes for 2005, although it will be hard for Dillon to match his numbers from the 2004 season.

Team:  New Orleans Saints
The Saints expected a lot from Deuce McAllister in 2004 and he underimpressed.  Aaron Stecker did an adequate job as a #2 filling in for Deuce.  Both are under contract for 2005.  Expect a bounce-back season from McAllister if the Saints make any efforts to improve their offense.

Team:  New York Giants
The Giants rode a rejuvenated Tiki Barber all season and Barber produced more than 2000 all-purpose yards and nearly a TD a game.  I doubt that Tiki has another 300+ carry and 50+ reception year left in him.  Both of the primary backups, Ron Dayne and Mike Cloud are UFAs and will likely have different homes in 2005 - if they are even in the league.  Look for the Giants to go for a RB with their first pick (#43 overall) in the 2005 draft.  There should still be some really good prospects available at that time.

Team:  New York Jets
2004 was going to be the season where LaMont Jordan finally got his chance to supplant Curtis Martin as the #1 back for the Jets.  Martin prevented that by having a career year and winning the NFL rushing title.  Martin will be back in 2005 as the #1 and Jordan, a UFA, will likely be courted by other NFL teams for their starting role.  There's no reason not to expect that both could be top ten backs in 2005.

Team:  Oakland Raiders
Yuck.  That basically describes the RB situation for the Raiders in 2004.  They tried to go with Tyron Wheatley, Amos Zereoue, Zack Crockett, Justin Fargas, J.R.  Redmond, and Troy Hambrick, and had very little success with any of them.  Zereoue is a UFA and will likely not be back.  The Raiders could choose to give Fargas or Redmond the starting role in 2005 and keep Wheatley as a #2 while they fill other positional needs through free-agency and the draft, or they could use one of their high draft picks to go after a top RB prospect.  This one will bear some watching.

Team:  Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles will go to war with Brian Westbrook in 2005.  Backups Correll Buckhalter and Dorsey Levens are UFAs.  Look for the Eagles to let Buckhalter leave while they re-sign Levens to another one-year tender.  The Eagles may also look for a big RB in the draft to complement Westbrook (and fill in when he is hurt).  Westbrook will continue to be a solid fantasy performer when healthy.

Team:  Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers will likely return with the same RB lineup in 2005 as in 2004.  Only Verron Haynes' contract is up, but as a RFA will likely be re-signed unless some team is willing to overpay for his potential.  2004 rookie Willie Parker gives the team a speed factor and will grow into more of a change of pace role in 2005.

Team:  San Diego Chargers
The Chargers used LaDainian Tomlinson a bit more sparingly in 2004 due to some nagging injuries and some games where they were easily in command.  Jesse Chatman proved to be an effective #2 for the Chargers, although he is without a contract for 2005 and is an RFA.  Michael Turner, a rookie in 2004, could step into the backup role for 2005.

Team:  San Francisco 49ers
The Niners entered 2004 with no questions at RB.  Kevan Barlow had performed admirably in a shared starting role and was primed to put up big numbers.  Barlow, however, never found any rhythm at the position and had a very disappointing season.  This leaves a number of questions for the Niners in 2005.  With a defensive coach (Mike Nolan) running the show now, look for the Niners to focus on defense in the draft and give Barlow another shot in 2005.

Team:  Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks had a clear picture at RB in 2004, with Shaun Alexander carrying the load.  Alexander's contract, however, expired following the 2004 season and he is now a UFA.  The Seahawks will likely re-sign Alexander for monstrous numbers in order to keep him in the fold.  None of the backups (Maurice Morris, Mack Strong, or Kerry Carter) are candidates for the starting role, so Seattle has no choice but to sign Alexander.

Team:  St.  Louis Rams
The Rams platooned Marshall Faulk (who remained mostly healthy in 2004) and Steven Jackson this past season, however as the season progressed, it became more and more evident that Jackson was the better back.  If Faulk retires (as some speculate he might), then Jackson could put up big numbers in 2005.  If Faulk returns, look for him to bite into Jackson's numbers just enough to irritate Jackson owners.

Team:  Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Charlie Garner started the 2004 season as the starter while Michael Pittman served a league suspension.  The Bucs really need some consistency from the position, which an aging and oft-injured Charlie Garner will be unable to provide.  Look for the Bucs to go to the draft for a RB with their 5th overall pick (if they don't trade down) and come out with a stud prospect.  Garner will likely return in a mentoring, backup role, while Pittman will be released.

Team:  Tennessee Titans
Chris Brown assumed the #1 job when Eddie George went to Dallas and did an outstanding job (while he was healthy, which he too often wasn't).  Brown ended up playing in only 11 games this season and his injuries must have the Titans worried.  Smith isn't the answer, although he is still under contract.  It will be interesting to see how the Titans (who have cap concerns) manage the RB position.  Keep an eye on reserve RB Troy Fleming, who got limited work as a rookie in 2004.  He may be asked to carry more of the load (even the #2 RB role) in 2005.

Team:  Washington Redskins
The Skins signed Portis to a big contract to run the ball, which he will continue to do in 2005, depsite a lackluster 2004 season where he managed only five rushing TDs.  The Skins should also have #2 RB Ladell Betts again in 2005, leaving their RB corps mostly unchanged.

Some Top Rookie Prospects:

J.J.  Arrington (California) - Good all-around back who can run and catch well.  Needs to work on blocking.

Marion Barber III (Minnesota) - Solid RB who shared carries at Minnesota.  Often compared to Curtis Martin.

Cedric Benson (Texas) - A big workhorse type back who will be the first or second back selected.  Has some character issues, including the idolization of former Longhorn Ricky Williams.

Ronnie Brown (Auburn) - Best triangle numbers of the group and may be the best RB prospect despite being outshined by teammate Cadillac Williams.

Maurice Clarett (Ohio State) - Because of legal and character issues, won't be a top selection, but showed outstanding talent as a freshman.

Ciatrick Fason (Florida) - Declared after a big junior season.  Great speed and good size.  Lacks experience and polish.

Frank Gore (Miami) - Fought back from serious injuries to have a decent senior season.

KayJay Harris (West Virginia) - Big back who has good speed.  Will be 26 years old at the draft because of a baseball career.

Cedric Houston (Tennessee) - Has all the potential, but hasn't really lived up to it.  Also has injury concerns.

Brandon Jacobs (Southern Illinois) - Huge back with good speed transferred from Auburn for chance to play.  Great Shrine game performance.

T.A.  McLendon (North Carolina State) - Tough runner with good size is hard to tackle and catches the ball very well.  Lacks homerun speed and has injury concerns.

Ryan Moats (Louisiana Tech) - Smallish, shifty back compares very favorably to Brian Westbrook.  Almost never caught for a loss.

Vernand Morency (Oklahoma State) - Good size and can break the big run.  Is an older player (25 in Feb.) because of minor league baseball.  Only one year as a starter at RB.

Walter Reyes (Syracuse) - Possibly the fastest prospect (4.3 speed) but is unpolished despite plenty of experience.

Darren Sproles (Kansas State) - Blazing speed and elusiveness and runs hard, but is only 5'7" and 180#.

Eric Shelton (Louisville) - Big RB with decent speed who will punish defenders.  Outstanding senior season after transferring from Florida St.  in 2002.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (Auburn) - Instinctive runner with great balance.  Smallish, but tough.  Has injury concerns.

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