Although overshadowed by two playoff quarterbacks the 2008 NFL Draft class fielded a crop of top running backs. Chris Johnson is in the running for league MVP. Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice, Kevin Smith, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Justin Forsett, Steve Slaton, Felix Jones and Jonathan Stewart are all either starters or significant back-ups. Darren McFadden the highest drafted running back (4th overall) has fell into a black hole in Oakland and like many players, he is failing to live up to his potential.
Revisiting the 2008 Draft here is where I rank the running backs taking into account their talent and their performance to-date.
1. CHRIS JOHNSON TITANS
Originally drafted 24th overall Johnson has rocketed to superstar status. Barring injury he will likely be the NFL rushing leader this year and he contributes largely to the receiving game. Arguably the fastest player in the game today he is lethal in space and continues to rip off big play after big play. With over 1500 rushing yards this year and seven rushes of more than 40 yards it can be said that Chris Johnson is one of the most explosive players in the game.
He’s explosive, we get it. But can Chris Johnson keep it up. I see him being a force in this league for quite some time, but with a player like Johnson if he loses a step (due to injury or another factor) he becomes a second-tier back. Where as, a well-rounded back would find it easier to adapt.
2. RAY RICE RAVENS
Taken with the 55th pick Rice became a starting back this year. He comes into a Monday night matchup with the Packers with over 1400 yards of total offense. A Brian Westbrook-esque season gives the Ravens a better passing attack in addition to a better running game. Rice is a great security blanket for Joe Flacco. He also blocks well in the passing game when needed. He trails only Rashard Mendenhall in rushing yards, but is clearly a better asset in the passing game. Rice has 61 receptions for almost 600 yards and is the Ravens second-leading receiver behind Derrick Mason.
My concern with Rice is the amount of carries he got in college. His body has taken a toll and who knows if that will come into play later in his career. Rice has done it all for the Ravens this year and will likely be their feature back for years to come. Now all they need is a legitimate receiver to complete a trio of young skill position players.
3. RASHARD MENDENHALL STEELERS
Taken one pick ahead of Chris Johnson at No. 23 Mendenhall has not disappointed. Like Rice, Mendenhall is starting for the first time in the NFL and he is exceeding expectations to this point. Barred by injury in his rookie season Mendenhall has bounced back nicely to record 887 rush yards to-date. Mendenhall fits the Steelers style and will likely be their feature back for years to come taking the helm from “Fast” Willie Parker, who is assumed to be done as a Steeler.
4. JONATHAN STEWART PANTHERS
Drafted 13th overall Stewart has teamed up with DeAngelo Williams to make one of the best running duos in the game. The struggling Panthers have a bright spot in the backfield and it is definitely not their quarterback (unless they decide to go Wildcat). Stewart is right in that middle level of the backs with Kevin Smith and Matt Forte. I have Stewart ahead of them because of his YPC avg. Smith and Forte are each averaging 3.5 YPC, while Stewart is averaging 4.6. As a “back-up” Stewart has put up very nice numbers: 664 yards and seven touchdowns, while Smith and Forte (playing for equally bad teams) have only managed to put up similar numbers in a starting role and only four touchdowns.
5. FELIX JONES COWBOYS
Drafted ahead on Mendenhall and Johnson at No. 22 Jones has not disappointed, but rather Mendenhall and Johnson have over-achieved. Jones is a change-of-pace back for the Cowboys and he has a bright future. His 6.4 YPC compete with Chris Johnson and he is a big-play threat anytime he gets the ball. Although Forte had a huge rookie year he has struggled this year and looks to be coming down to earth, while Jones looks to be improving.
6. MATT FORTE BEARS
The 44th overall pick had a stellar rookie campaign, but has been under-achieving this year. His 3.4 YPC is not what the Bears are looking for. Jay Cutler was supposed to give the Bears a legitimate passing threat, but the lack of a No. 1 wideout has stifled that plan. When the Bears get their offense figured out I think Forte will be a primetime back once again, but when will that be? It’s hard to tell, but Devin Hester is not a number one receiver.
7. KEVIN SMITH LIONS
With the 64th pick the Lions have picked up a nice back in Kevin Smith. He has filled the starting role in Detroit, which is precisely why he is here on the list. Detroit has issues, and just because he is the started for Detroit does not mean he is a good halfback. His YPC avg is mediocre at best (3.5) and it is yet to be seen whether he is putting numbers up because he is Detroit’s only option or if he is a legitimate back. I personally think that he is a legit back, but its doubtful that the Lions will be playing meaningful football anytime soon.
8. JAMAAL CHARLES CHIEFS
The 73rd overall pick has proved to be a pretty nice pick-up for the Chiefs, who have dismissed Larry Johnson. Charles is a nice option for a subpar team. He will not likely get a starting job anywhere else, but as of now he is putting up better numbers than Steve Slaton and Darren McFadden and who saw that coming?
9. STEVE SLATON TEXANS
Drafted 89th overall in 2008, Slaton was one of the biggest surprises of this rookie crop. Slaton, however, is the epitome of a “sophomore slump”. Averaging just 3.3 YPC he has struggled in the Texans offense. He lost his starting job to Ryan Moats earlier this year. Slaton is on this list solely because of his performance last year.
10. DARREN MCFADDEN RAIDERS
Drafted 4th overall McFadden has been a disappointment to date, but he is the least of the Raiders worries. Jamarcus Russell has been outplayed by Bruce Gradkowski of all people. The Raiders are a mess, plain and simple. I can’t place all the blame on McFadden, but the fact is that he hasn’t produced. I think he is a very talented halfback, but the lack of production overshadows his talent at this point (only 230 yards and one TD and a mere 3.2 YPC). If he wasn’t an amazing college player Tim Hightower would be in this spot, but he is likely to lose his job to Chris “Beanie” Wells. Tashard Choice also makes a case for this No. 10 spot, which would give the Cowboys two of the top 10 backs in the 08 draft class.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tim Hightower, Tashard Choice, Justin Forsett,