Some have suggested that the 2008 rookie running back class may be the best in NFL history. Whether this is true or not only time will tell but rookie running backs certainly made a phenomenal impact on the NFL in 2008. Following is a recap of 10 rookie running backs that were highly touted at the beginning of the season, how they fared, and their prospects for the future (barring injury).
Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (East Carolina)
Chris Johnson had a phenomenal season for the Tennessee Titans rushing for 1,228 yards and 9 touchdowns, along with 43 receptions for 260 yards and a touchdown. At the NFL combine he was timed at 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the fastest electronically recorded 40 yard dash ever. He was also selected to the AFC Pro Bowl.
Johnson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, if not the fastest, but he also has power and the ability to run over tacklers. One of the most impressive aspects of Johnson’s game, and many of the other rookie running backs in the league, is his vision. He sees the hole and gets to it quickly. This is rare in a rookie running back.
Chris Johnson will be a special player in this league for years to come. Just watch him run. He has a unique combination of speed, power, and shiftiness that makes him not only an elite rookie running back, but an elite running back period. He has had some phenomenal runs this season, none more special that the beautiful run he had against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs for a touchdown.
Chris Johnson is my rookie running back of the year.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears (Tulane)
Impressive! Matt Forte is another young running back that I think will be an elite running in this league for a long time. This year he rushed for 1,238 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 63 passes for 477 yards for 4 touchdowns.
With Forte there are many things to be impressed with because of his versatility. He is probably the best blocker of the rookie class and is usually able to pick up and pick off blitzes. And while is not as shifty as Johnson, he too has speed, power, and sees the running lanes well. Forte is a most impressive short yardage back, which also is somewhat rare in a rookie. Even in games where his statistics don’t look great, he contributes by catching passes, blocking, and in the short yardage game.
For me two games this year stand out – both in which Forte’s stat line belies his impact on the game. In Week 4 in a 24-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Forte could get no traction running the ball against the tough defense. But he contributed with very important catches to keep the chains moving and was quite good at blocking against the Eagles blitzes.
The second was an overtime Bears win against the Green Bay Packers 20-17 on Monday Night Football. Despite a toe injury and not much of a running attack in the first three quarters, the Bears rode the legs of Forte in the fourth quarter to pull out the win. While he was not ripping off big chunks of yards, he steadily wore down the Green Bay Packers defense to allow the Bears to come back and eek out a win. This game showed me that Forte had guts, leadership, and the ability to put a team on his back.
Forte is another back who should be an elite player in the NFL for years to come.
Steve Slaton, Houston Texans (West Virginia)
Steve Slaton is yet another fast, elusive rookie running back who actually ended up leading all rookies in rushing yardage with 1,282 yards on 268 carries with 9 touchdowns. He also had 50 catches for 377 yards and a touchdown.
I have not seen Steve Slaton play as much in the pros as I have some of the other rookie running backs. But I did see him frequently in college and once live against the University of Maryland. Slaton, because of injuries to the other Texans’ running backs, ended up starting and carrying a fairly heavy load. In college he ended up being a bit injury prone and late this season he was reported to be banged up, sore, and a bit weary. But he certainly continued to play well down the stretch. Slaton is extremely dangerous in the open field and I would expect the Texans to use him even more as a receiver if they have a fuller contingent of quality running backs in the future.
The game that was impressive to me this year, even though the phenomenal Andre Johnson stole the show, was Slaton’s 182 total yards in a 30-17 win over Jacksonville in Week 13. Even though he was banged up he put on a phenomenal offensive performance that showed off his skills and elusiveness in the open field.
Other than durability, Slaton is not as good at blocking and short yardage situations as Johnson and Forte. But my biggest question about Slaton’s future is his durability. He held up better than I thought he would as an every down back in the NFL. But I think Slaton, long term, would be well served if the Texans’ can get a back to carry some of the load.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders (Arkansas)
It’s a little unfair to try to evaluate Darren McFadden’s rookie season. He was the fourth overall draft choice but his season was marred by a toe injury and turmoil in the coaching ranks. He wound up with 499 years rushing and 4 touchdowns on 113 attempts. Despite being hampered by his toe injury and not getting the ball that often, his 4.4 yards per carry average is solid. He tacked on 29 catches for 285 yards. The few games I saw of the Raiders this year McFadden did not look very impressive, but neither did any other player. He did have an outstanding 164 yards rushing on 21 carries in a 23-8 Week 2 win against a weak Kansas City defense.
McFadden clearly has great potential with his size, speed, and college pedigree. I think McFadden will be fine, but whether he will be elite or not we’ll have to wait and see.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers (Oregon)
Jonathan Stewart is absolutely the real deal. He split time with the outstanding DeAngelo Williams, who carried most of the load at running back for the Panthers this year. But when Stewart had his chances he made the most of them. He rushed for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns on 184 attempts but only had 8 receptions for 47 yards.
He had his best game of the season in a 38-23 win against Tampa Bay when he rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries. He fared less well in games where he didn’t get as many chances to run the ball, but he and Williams made a dynamic duo, especially toward the end of the season when they gashed teams consistently on the ground. Together they rushed for 299 yards against the vaunted Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.
Stewart, like his fellow rookie running backs, has the size, speed, and ability to hit the hole fast and rip off big plays. I see nothing but a bright future ahead for Stewart.
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions (Central Florida)
For playing on such a sorry, no account team, Kevin Smith wound up with a solid rookie season. He rushed for 976 yard and 8 touchdowns on 238 attempts for a respectable 4.1 yard per carry average. This stacks up quite well with the other successful rookie running backs this year. He also had 39 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns.
Thankfully I only saw Detroit play once this year and Smith had a miserable day against the tough Titans defense so I can’t give a full evaluation of Smith. But he clearly has great skills to put up numbers comparable to other rookie running backs on a team that lost all 16 of its games.
From all accounts I’ve read Smith should be the cornerstone at the running back position as the Lions try to work their way out of their mess. His performance on a bad team speaks volumes about his potential.
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens (Rutgers)
Ray Rice is a solid running back. He does not have the speed or skills of a Chris Johnson, the elusiveness of a Steve Slaton, or the combination of both of a Matt Forte. But he is a smart runner who can see the holes and he is a decent pass blocker for a rookie but he needs to improve in this area. He ended the season with 454 yards on 107 carries and 33 catches for 273 yards. He was mostly used as a third down back for much of the season. His best game came on a 154 yard performance on 21 carries in a win against Cleveland, 37-27, in Week 9. In Week 14 against the Washington Redskins Rice suffered a shin injury and didn’t carry or catch the ball in another game, including the postseason.
While I do not see Rice as a dominate, elite back in the NFL, I do see him as a solid starting running back that can improve and do everything well. He appears to have a good foundation for developing an all around, versatile game at running back. He admitted to having hit a rookie wall last year around the time of his injury, and sophomore seasons are sometimes even tougher for running backs. But I have a good feeling that Rice, whether a consistent starter or not, will be a contributor to the Ravens offense for the foreseeable future.
Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys (Arkansas)
Felix Jones is the OTHER running back from Arkansas and before suffering a season ending knee injury in Week 6 was having a phenomenal year on kickoff returns. He also made the most of his chances in the backfield. When he touched the ball he was scooting for yards. He ended up with 266 yards on 30 carries for an outstanding 8.9 yard per carry average. And on kickoff returns he had 434 yards on 16 returns, including a beautiful 98 yard touchdown return in a wild Dallas win against the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-37. He also had a superlative 60 yard touchdown run in Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers, and a 33 yard touchdown run in Week 5 against the Bengals. In fact, he won the NFL Rookie of the Week Award 3 out of the first 5 weeks of the season.
Before his knee injury Felix Jones proved to be a big play running back. It is impossible to tell how he would fare as a full time starter but he definitely has big time breakaway speed and the ability to break off big plays on the ground and in the kicking game. I hope he can fully recover from his knee injury and return to show us what he can do.
Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers (Illinois)
I smell a bust. Mendenhall’s pro career had a very inauspicious start. He had a terrible preseason and couldn’t hold on to the ball. The Steelers tried to use him as a short yardage back in the preseason but he was terrible at that too. I saw three of the Steelers preseason games and I was thoroughly unimpressed.
After Mendenhall was drafted by the Steelers in the 1st round of the 2008 draft many thought he would see a lot of carries this season to take some of the load off of Willie Parker, but instead he rode the bench barely seeing the field. When Parker was injured and Mendenhall got his chance to start in Week 4, he didn’t look good and then ended up with a broken shoulder and out for the season.
Even though it is based on very little activity, my prediction is Mendenhall is not going to make it as a solid starter in this league.
Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals (Richmond)
I really like what I see in Tim Hightower. He started seven games and in his first start against the St. Louis Rams he rushed for 109 yards, admittedly against a bad defense. He wound up taking the staring job from Edgerrin James for seven games but then James was reinserted into the starting lineup, most likely for pass protection purposes.
Hightower sees the holes well and hits them fast and is much better at getting to the edge of the defense than James, who seems to have lost of step. But he is surprisingly good for a rookie in short yardage situations. While he has some work to do on pass blocking, as most rookies do, he is the back of the future for the Arizona Cardinals. I think he will be a solid, if not spectacular running back. But I think he has a great deal of potential and could even work his way to elite status, although that might be hard to do on a passing team like the Cardinals.
Hightower ended the season with 399 yards and 10 touchdowns on 143 carries. While his 2.8 yard per average carry might appear to be anemic, keep in mind that many of Hightower’s runs were in short yardage situations given the Cardinals are a pass first team. He also had 34 catches for 237 yards.
Statistics and Fact Checking: NFL.COM