NFL Handicapping: Potential Breakthrough Running Backs
by Trevor Whenham - 9/8/2009
Every year there are a few running backs who post big statistical years without having done it before. In some cases it's a hot rookie who lands in a good spot and makes the most of it. Other times it's a veteran who benefits form a change of scenery, a new scheme, or a move up the depth chart. Last year guys like Michael Turner, Steve Slaton, and Matt Forte put up the big numbers when they weren't necessarily expected to. Here's a look at seven guys who could pull off that kind of impressive season this year:
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions - Smith wouldn't qualify as as much of a surprise as other people on this list because of what he did last year - 976 yards and eight TDs. I include him, though, because he's in a position to take a huge statistical leap forward if he is up to it. He only had 238 carries last year - 139 fewer than Michael Turner had in Atlanta. He managed a solid 4.1 yards per carry in that work, and he should have an improved offensive line this year. With a rookie quarterback at the helm he'll be called on to do even more work and that could mean big numbers.
Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints - With Deuce McAllister out of the picture and Reggie Bush not proving to be an every down back Thomas is going to get lots of chances to shine. He had just 625 yards last year, but he did it in just 129 carries - an average of 4.8 yards per carry. He'll get more action this year, and he'll have room to operate because opposing defenses have to be so aware of the passing game. It could be a big year for Thomas.
Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos - You can usually count on a running back in Denver having a big year, and Moreno has the talent to do that if given a chance. We can't know for sure that the Broncos will run in the same way they have before because of the change in coaching staff, but they still have offensive line that could lead to success. They also will need good performance out of their running game if Kyle Orton isn't more successful than he was in the preseason.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills - Jackson has a golden opportunity to prove himself this year. Starter Marshawn Lynch has been suspended for the first three games of the season, so Jackson gets a chance to prove he is ready to start without real pressure behind him. If he is good enough then he can probably stay in the starting role once Lynch returns to action. The running game is going to be very important early on for Buffalo - the change in offensive coordinators makes it doubtful that they'll have a solid passing game ready out of the gate.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders - McFadden came into the league with all sorts of hype and expectations, but a toe injury led to essentially a lost season last year. Despite that disappointment there is no reason to doubt that McFadden can be a marquee back in this league now that he is healthy and ready to go again. By cutting Jeff Garcia the Raiders showed that they are committed to riding JaMarcus Russell. He'll need all the help he can get, so McFadden should have no shortage of opportunities.
Donald Brown, Indianapolis Cots - Jospeh Addai is a nice back, but durability and performance issues have clearly led the Colts to doubt that he is a top-level guy - why else would they have used a first round pick to acquire Brown this year? Brown is incredibly tough, and he's a very hard guy to bring down. He doesn't get as much credit as he probably deserves because he came from UConn, but his numbers in college certainly tell the story - he's the real deal. If Addai falters at all then Brown should be ready to step in and shine.
Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers - Ryan Grant landed in the NFL with a bang, but he didn't keep it up last season. He was truly disappointing - one of many things that was a letdown for the Packers last year. Grant averaged just 3.9 yards per carry - far from a good number. Jackson didn't see a ton of action behind Grant, but when he did hit the field he really shone - 5.5 yards per carry. Unless Grant can turn his game around - something that is reasonably rare for running backs in the NFL - then Jackson and his fresh legs could be the next option for what should be a very good Green Bay team.
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