Chris Wesseling

Offseason Low Down

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The 2011 Running Back Market

Tuesday, May 17, 2011




6. Tim Hightower, Cardinals

Scouting Report: Hightower outplayed Beanie Wells last season but saw his receptions drop from 63 to 21 with the unholy triumvirate of Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton under center. The second straight major increase in yards per carry average was offset by fumbling issues that landed him in the doghouse by season's end. Hightower makes for a fine complementary back in a committee attack.

Availability: Hightower has put in just three seasons, so his hands are tied no matter the outcome of the CBA. The Cardinals immediately cited Hightower's fumble-itis as a primary motive for picking up Ryan Williams in the second round last month. Having fallen out of favor as the lead back, Hightower is headed for a scaled-back role -- possibly third on the depth chart.

Prediction: Cardinals on his one-year restricted tender.

7. Jason Snelling, Falcons

Scouting Report: Shattering the preconception of big backs, Snelling struggles in short-yardage situations but makes up for it by exhibiting smooth pass-catching skills. After posting career rushing numbers as a capable fill-in for Michael Turner in 2009, Snelling hauled in 44 receptions as Jerious Norwood's replacement on third downs last season. Solid in all facets but unspectacular, Snelling is the ideal old-school backup.

Availability: The five-year veteran was assigned a second-round tender in early March. Even with change-of-pace rookie Jacquizz Rodgers on board, Snelling is a good bet to return regardless of the labor situation. He's one of the few backups in the league capable of shouldering the same workload as the starter.

Prediction: Falcons on his one-year restricted tender.

8. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

Scouting Report: Green-Ellis has one major skill that endears him to his head coach: he stays away from negative plays like a bizarro Laurence Maroney. Green-Ellis is the textbook definition of a replacement-level talent, but he does well in short-yardage, effectively kills the clock, and has a knack for falling forward for extra yardage. His counting stats were artificially inflated in a breakout campaign because the Patriots played with a commanding lead in all but one game from mid-season on.

Availability: "Law Firm" is a restricted free agent with three accrued years, so he won't hit the open market regardless of the labor outcome. Tendered at the second-round level, Green-Ellis isn't going anywhere even after a career year in 2010. His workload figures to be scaled back significantly, though, with early-round backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley added to the backfield mix.

Prediction: Patriots on his one-year restricted tender.

9. Jerome Harrison, Eagles

Scouting Report: Harrison and his staunch defenders had been requesting a change of scenery for some time when he was dealt to the Eagles for Mike Bell. His role actually decreased in Philly, but he continued to flash in limited playing time, averaging 6.0 yards on 40 carries as the change-of-pace to LeSean McCoy. Harrison's career per-carry average of 4.8 suggests he's long been under-utilized, but he's yet to meet a coach who believes he can hold up to a starter's workload.

Availability: Like Williams and Addai, Harrison has already accrued five years of NFL service. He received a tender offer before the March 3 deadline, though the level is unclear. Harrison is in search of a bigger role at age 28, but the Eagles reportedly want him back as McCoy's caddy.

Prediction: Eagles on his one-year restricted tender.

10. Brandon Jackson, Packers

Scouting Report: A fine role player, Jackson was asked to shoulder too heavy of a burden in Green Bay's offense when Ryan Grant went down for the season. Jackson is a quality receiver with a knack for blitz-pickup, but he's simply not up to the task as a runner. Though he finished with career-high counting stats, Jackson managed just 3.7 yards per carry before James Starks bailed him out in the playoffs.

Availability: After initial speculation to the contrary, Jackson did receive an RFA tender -- likely of the original-pick variety. As a four-year veteran, his freedom hinges on the outcome of the labor squabble. It's not inconceivable that Green Bay could rescind the offer after picking up third-down successor, Alex Green, in the third round of the draft. Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson suggests Jackson as Mewelde Moore's successor in Pittsburgh.

Prediction: Steelers on a two-year, $3 million contract.

Other three- to five-year restricted running backs: LeRon McClain, Jalen Parmele, Marcel Reece, Mike Hart, Patrick Cobbs, Brian Leonard, John Kuhn, Lynell Hamilton

Trade Candidates

1. Beanie Wells, Cardinals

Scouting Report: Wells never came close to his 2009 explosiveness and physicality after tearing his meniscus in the preseason finale last summer. He recovered slowly from the knee scope and looked timid and plodding after a mid-season setback. Wells finished his second season with a per-carry average of 3.4 while bringing up the rear in Pro Football Focus' "Elusive Rating" for running backs.

Availability: The Cardinals shot down speculation that the addition of second-rounder Ryan Williams was a "message" being sent to Wells or a harbinger of a trade in the works. That didn't stop one local columnist from officially declaring Wells a first-round bust after one impressive season and one injured season. Preferring a two-back attack, coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't envision Williams carrying the load in Arizona. Wells put enough on tape late in 2009 to believe he's every bit as talented as Williams -- as long as his knee checks out.

Prediction: Stays with Cardinals

2. Tashard Choice, Cowboys

Scouting Report: Choice has quite simply produced every time he's been given a fair shake. It wasn't long after Choice's game-changing Week 1 fumble, though, that owner Jerry Jones began complaining about his lack of special teams value while standing firmly behind an ineffective Marion Barber. The most well-rounded back in Dallas the past three years, Choice has averaged 100+ yards in nine career games with at least 10 touches. He's sitting on impressive averages of 4.8 yards per carry and 8.0 yards per reception in his three-year career.

Availability: For whatever reason, new head coach Jason Garrett is "not enamored" of Choice. We trust that he has his reasons. Let's hope they go beyond special teams value. The Cowboys' official website acknowledges that Choice was shopped last season to no avail. With DeMarco Murray on board as Choice's potential third-down replacement, the front office will be fielding calls again this summer.

Prediction: Stays with Cowboys, available at the October trade deadline.

3. Steve Slaton, Texans

Scouting Report: The combination of fumbling issues, general ineffectiveness, and neck surgery sent Slaton from the penthouse to the outhouse by the time training camp rolled around last summer. His ideal role has always been passing-down specialist, but the Texans soon realized Arian Foster was too valuable to take off the field in those situations. Slaton was largely relegated to kickoff-return duty, rushing just 19 times and catching three passes in 2010. He's breaking new NFL ground as a running back playing with a cervical fusion in his neck.

Availability: Foster is entrenched as the starter, 2010 second-rounder Ben Tate is now healthy, and veteran Derrick Ward was brought back on a one-year deal. Slaton is the odd man out for a team that won't carry four tailbacks. GM Rick Smith figures to shop the third-down back around, but the rest of the league knows he could be available for free by September. Slaton figures to fetch no more than a conditional late-round pick. The zone-blocking Redskins, with Slaton's former offensive coordinator calling the plays, could have interest.

Prediction: Redskins via trade.


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Chris Wesseling is a senior football editor and Dynasty league analyst for Rotoworld.com. The 2011 NFL season marks his fifth year with Rotoworld and his third year contributing to NBCSports.com. He can be found on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.
Email :Chris Wesseling



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