Our second installment (our was the QBs) in our position-by-position analysis of the NFC West brings us to the running backs. Despite a couple of front line star running backs in the division, no team ranked better than 19th in the league in rushing during the 2008 season and every team, except our very own Arizona Cardinals, should return the same week one starter in 2009. There are some new rookies in the division though so lets see what each team thinks about their depth at tail back and we'll rank the division at the end.
Grading the Cardinals' running backs is difficult because their value is based on potential rather than actual NFL production. The trio of Chris "Beanie" Wells, Tim Hightower and Jason Wright have combined just eleven starts and less than 1,000 combined rushing yards at the NFL level. Jason Wright, an under the radar free agent acquisition, is the longest tenured (five seasons), but he's never logged more than three starts or 62 carries in a season. Tim Hightower, a fifth round pick from a year ago, has the most experience with his seven starts and 143 carries last year, but his 2.8 yards per carry is certainly nothing to brag about. The final member of this trio, Beanie Wells, will be asked play a significant role very early in his career and he's got the talent be a difference maker, but how quickly can he pick up an offense that is night and day from the power running game at Ohio State?
While that may paint a bleak picture of the Cardinals depth at running back, there is some hope that this group can be more productive than the 2008 trio of Edgerrin James, Hightower and JJ Arrington. Wells has the talent to be more productive than the 30 year old Edge and Hightower has reportedly dropped about 15 pounds from his playing weight last year. While I'd love to grade this group based on potential, I'll swallow my homer-ism and try and give them an unbiased evaluation. Grade: D
San Francisco 49ers - Niners Nation
I bounced back and forth on what grade to give the 49ers rushing attack. On the one hand the 49ers run game ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing. On the other hand, they've still got Frank Gore. As the NFL has moved towards more two and three-back systems, the 49ers have struggled to find a running back to complement Frank Gore. By himself, Frank Gore is an A+ running back. He became the first 49ers running back ever to put together three straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons. I think that says even more given the inept nature of the 49ers overall offense. They've lacked consistency at quarterback and their offensive line has struggled mightily at times. The best season for the offensive line happened to come in 2006 when Frank Gore set the 49ers single season rushing record. And that was a 7-9 team with a second year Alex Smith at the helm.
The reason I'm knocking the 49ers down from an A is because of the rest of the rushing situation. Similar to the Cardinals running backs, the 49ers RBs behind Frank Gore are based in large part of potential. In an ideal situation, Gore is the main back, Glen Coffee puts on 10-20 pounds and is the short yardage "power" back and UDFA Kory Sheets is the speed back, a'la the Earth, Wind and Fire of the New York Giants.
The 49ers do have two other backs in camp, Michael Robinson and Thomas Clayton. Michael Robinson was converted to running back from QB out of college and has found a niche in special teams more than anything else. He is also available for Wildcat formations, which may go the way of the DoDo in the Jimmy Raye offense.
And then there's Thomas Clayton. Clayton has been one of the top running backs in preseason play in each of his first two season, which naturally means the bandwagon filled up quickly for this guy. However, he has yet to touch the field in regular season action and he was never offered a contract off the practice squad by another team. If Kory Sheets shines in training camp, Clayton may be hitting the streets.
All things considered, I think the 49ers rushing attack will be markedly improved this season. Frank Gore will still be Frank Gore, but the question will come down to whether some combination of Coffee/Sheets/Clayton steps up. There is a lot of potential there, but none of them has proven a thing in the NFL regular season. They're just as much the key to the 2009 offense as anything else. Grade: B
St. Louis Rams - Turf Show Times
He can run, he can catch a pass, he needs to work on his pass blocking a little bit. The Rams have a real play maker in Steven Jackson, a guy so talented the new coaching regime is building the offense around him. Of course, they'd probably build the offense around a solid running game anyway, but Jackson gives them an edge. The biggest criticism pinned on Jackson in recent years is his seeming inability to play a full 16 games. That's not entirely fair. After a career year in '06, when he led the league in yards from scrimmage, Jackson missed four games in each of the next two season. However, the offensive line, or lack thereof, shoulders some of the blame for his bruised thighs and other ailments. He did nevertheless manage to crank out 1000 yard seasons in each of his last four. This year the Rams have significantly upgraded the line with the additions of C Jason Brown, drafting OT Jason Smith, and bringing in blocking specialists un FB Mike Karney and TE Billy Bajema, some are even calling it a team strength, with the stated goal of making Jackson and the run central their offensive philosophy.
Behind Jackson, the depth chart has some more question marks. They've got a speed guy in Antonio Pittman, but he didn't make much of his chance with Jackson out last year. Was it just the line? Kenneth Darby, an in-season pickup, has been a nice surprise and looks like a legit third down guy. Veteran Samkon Gado will get a shot in camp, and all eyes are anxious to see exactly what kind of back seventh round pick Texas product Chris Ogbonnaya can be outside of a Big 12 spread offense. There's just not enough known commodities behind Jackson to feel good about a replacement...at least not yet. The team will definitely looks to see who becomes a roster casualty when teams pare down their rosters.
I'd give the Rams an A if they had less of a question mark behind Jackson. Without that, they get a B.
Seattle Seahawks - Field Gulls
Seattle's Julius Jones and TJ Duckett are just average rushers, maybe better, but that both are average, and that Jones can contribute as blocker and receiver, makes them together a bit above average -- just not "B" above average. Jones is the complete back. He has a little shake, a little second gear burst, some power, some cutting ability and above average vision. His speed is hard to determine. At Notre Dame he was a burner, but he no longer looks like much of a home run threat. He is a very good, albeit stock receiver. He runs a pure rushing route tree: Outs, in, circles, flares, etc. He shouldn't motion into the slot and he won't dazzle with his receiving ability. He will secure the catch and redirect for run after the catch. So he's a steady, productive outlet receiver that can produce on screens.
Duckett is the interior thumper, but not in a traditional sense. He's not pure north-south and can be a bit picky behind the line. He's sort of a one-cut Earl Cambell, but worse. He blows through arm tackles, falls forward and excels at converting short yardage -- all the stock stuff -- but he also has impressive breakaway speed and some big-man moves. He was a workout warrior at Michigan State, and reportedly ran a 4.45 forty. That translates to good field speed. In his last two seasons, in just 127 attempts (mostly in short yardage), Duckett has a run of 29 yards, two of 32 yards and a 53 yard run in week 16 of 2007.
For reserves, Seattle has Justin Forsett, a tiny-power back (think MJD) type that dominated in the 2007 preseason, but isn't very fast and isn't enough of anything else to tantalize, and Devin Moore, a rookie that isn't much more than a intriguing forty time right now. So no superstars or even superstars to be, but in the right offense, Jones and Duckett could power a very good rushing attack not unlike the Duckett/Dunn duo of the Jim Mora Atlanta Falcons. Grade: C
After much deliberation, we took the easy way out on the rankings:
Tied for first: Rams and Niners
Tied for third: Seahawks and Cardinals
So what do you guys think? How would you rank the division? Who would you rate as the best back in the division, Gore or Jackson?