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NFL Rookie Class of 2007

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

NFL: Rookie Class of 2007
Running Backs Follow Impressive 2006 Bunch

By Derek VanRiper

It didn't take long for the NFL's Class of 2006 to make an impact. Even before the season's first snap, the arrival of Reggie Bush brought hope and excitement to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Bush and the Saints offered the city a sense of normalcy, as rebuilding efforts continued, lives were slowly pieced together, and the team made its return to the Superdome. While Bush's achievements on the field paled in comparison to those off it, flashes of his potential and his exciting playmaking ability became increasingly apparent with each passing week, as he scored a touchdown in six of the Saints' last seven games (including the playoffs), while surpassing 100 total yards in four of those contests.

While many fantasy owners locked in on Bush as an early-round selection, those who rolled the dice on the less-touted Maurice Jones-Drew in the later rounds, or with an early-season waiver move, were rewarded with 1,377 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs by season's end. Colts running back Joseph Addai was an earlier selection at the draft table, working through a timeshare situation with veteran Dominic Rhodes to rack up 1,406 yards and eight TDs in the regular season, before earning MVP considerations in the Colts' Super Bowl triumph over the Bears. After his impressive rookie campaign, Addai is the undisputed feature back in Indianapolis, while Rhodes is part of a rebuilding effort in Oakland.

Looking back at some of the great rookie seasons in NFL history, the numbers support theory that the transition from the college to pro game is easier for running backs than it is for any other position. In many cases, it takes Hall-of-Fame talent (think Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders) to blow up in Year 1, but in others it can be a case where the cards all happen to fall into place. Jones-Drew's rookie campaign was the quintessential perfect storm for fantasy owners; he wasn't even on the radar when backup running back Greg Jones suffered a torn ACL in August. Jacksonville coaches talked about Derrick Wimbush and LaBrandon Toefield (who?) as options to spell Fred Taylor, who once again lived up to the "Fragile Fred" moniker and further enabled Jones-Drew to take his place in the spotlight.

The upside of drafting a rookie running back with a late-round dart as opposed to simply grabbing a veteran second-stringer has proven to be significant over the past few seasons: those who drafted Trung Candidate or Lamar Gordon ahead of Clinton Portis in 2002, or owners who made a play for Duce Staley in 2006 instead of taking a flier on Jones-Drew hurt their prospects for a fantasy championship on draft day.

An Early Look at This Year's Crop

The Vikings had plenty of needs on both sides of the ball, but still couldn't pass up the opportunity to draft Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson with the seventh pick. Peterson is more along the lines of that potential Hall-of-Fame mold, with all of the tools necessary to be an elite back for many years to come. Recent concerns about Peterson's health amid reports that he re-injured his collarbone in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State will cloud his status this summer. But even with Chester Taylor coming off of a 1,200-yard campaign, Peterson is far too talented not to be on the field from the start. Given how much Taylor faded down the stretch (38.7 yards per game in the last three contests), having Peterson available to help shoulder the load in the backfield should keep Taylor fresh the entire season, while also providing enough carries to limit the strain on second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and a young receiving corps in the passing game. Until the questions surrounding Peterson's health are resolved, be sure to have ample depth at running back before spending an early-round selection on him.

In Buffalo, don't be surprised if Marshawn Lynch wins the starting job outright during training camp. Anthony Thomas is simply not a full-time feature back at this point in his career, so it can't get much worse for Lynch than a timeshare to begin the season, assuming he stays out of trouble off the field (he was accused of sexual assualt, though no charges have been filed). The Bills continue to make strides on the offensive line, while quarterback J.P. Losman showed promise as last season pogressed. Lynch's ability to catch passes out of the backfield and his running style have drawn comparisons to Joseph Addai, while some scouts have referred to him as "a poor man's Marshall Faulk." Either of those outcomes would be just fine for the Bills, as they push to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

From the second round, Cincinnati's Kenny Irons isn't likely to have a major role unless something happens to Rudi Johnson. The Bengals hope to get the production they've been lacking in the oft-injured Chris Perry.

Tennessee's Chris Henry and Green Bay's Brandon Jackson both have more favorable playing time situations heading toward training camp, with both clubs unsettled on a feature back. Henry runs an impressive 4.4 40-yard dash and might turn out as a nice sleeper pick by the Titans, especially if LenDale White isn't prepared to earn the starting job this summer. Packers coach Mike McCarthy insists the team sees Vernand Morency as a 1,000-yard back, but that was before Jackson was in the picture. As a Nebraska junior, Jackson totaled 989 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground (5.3 YPC) while showing ample ability as a pass catcher with 33 receptions for 313 yards and a pair of scores. The battle for the starting running back job in Green Bay could yield some nice value on draft day, unless the Packers are truly committed to Morency for 2007.

Best of the Rest

Lorenzo Booker could prove a nice backup behind Ronnie Brown in Miami, depending on what happens to Ricky Williams in his quest for reinstatement to the league. If Williams is out the picture, Booker has the speed and elusiveness to be a third-down back for the Dolphins.

Former Penn State standout Tony Hunt joins a crowded backfield in Philadelphia, with the re-signed Correll Buckhalter and underachieving Ryan Moats already in the backfield behind Brian Westbrook. Hunt is a tough inside runner with the potential to take carries near the goal line, but it's too early to think of him as more than a flier. Garrett Wolfe led the NCAA in rushing yardage in 2006, and with Thomas Jones out of the mix in Chicago he'll likely have a chance to compete for touches with Adrian Peterson.

Michael Bush is in similar boat as Hunt in that he's joining a crowded backfield in Oakland with LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes already in line for touches. His long-term upside is the highest of this later-round group, as he's a first-round talent whose draft stock tumbled after he suffered a broken leg in Louisville's season opener against Kentucky. Antonio Pittman faces an uphill battle for touches with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush already in the Saints backfield. Best-case scenario, Pittman impresses in limited duty and make McAllister a salary-cap casualty after this season. More likely, he'll be a decent third back with little fantasy value barring an injury. Despite rumors that Larry Johnson was on the trade block, the fifth-round selection of Kolby Smith was not intended to unearth a potential replacement for Johnson. Smith gives the Chiefs some versatility in their backfield, as he can play tailback or fullback, while he'll also contribute on special teams. Don't expect to find much here production wise, especially if Michael Bennett can stay healty.

Article first appeared 5/1/07