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Some of the most exciting action in fantasy drafts is projecting how rookie running backs will fit in with their new teams. Nearly every year, some rook becomes an immediate stud, more than justifying the mid-round pick you gambled on him. Chris Johnson and Matt Forte immediately spring to mind. Of course, for every one of those guys, there are many more like Knowshon Moreno and Darren McFadden, who don't live up to the hype. Let's separate the ballas from the poseurs in this year's crop:
Ryan Mathews, Chargers
Mathews was anointed the starter upon the Chargers trading way up in Round 1 to land him. Norv Turner already said he's going to feed the ball to Mathews close to 300 times, and so the kid is an obvious candidate for a RB2 pick. His only real competition for touches is Darren Sproles, and considering Sproles is about the size of a chipmunk, Mathews will surely get all of the red zone "money" touches. That video of Ray Lewis blowing up Sproles last season is a prime example of why. The one thing standing (or more to the point, not standing) between Mathews and big fantasy points is the San Diego offensive line. The unit that paved the way for the 31st-ranked rushing attack was not upgraded in free agency or the draft, and that spells trouble for Mathews. The opportunities alone put him in the RB2 category if he can stay healthy, but the line's ineptitude will keep him from breaking through into the top tier.
Ben Tate, Texans
Auburn University has a long history of sending stud RBs to the NFL and the Texans look like they got a good one in Tate. The second-round pick should easily beat out "Slippery" Steve Slaton for the starting job. Tate is the kind of one-cut RB that can excel in Houston's zone-blocking scheme, and he has the size (220 pounds) to generate push in short-yardage situations. He's also effective at catching the ball, which could keep Slaton and the 10,000 other Houston RBs riding the pine. Realistically, look for Tate to get the majority of the touches, with Slaton filling a complementary role on third downs, for which he's better suited. Tate has RB2 potential, with loads of upside.
Jahvid Best, Lions
It's not as if Kevin Smith brought that much to the table, even before he tore his ACL. Approximately 3.4 yards per carry and broken wheels are exactly the kinds of things that cause you to be in the low end of the rotation when the team trades back into the first round to select another tailback. Best is now Detroit's top dog. Consider how you viewed Smith in your 2009 draft, and give Best a bump for superior talent. He's certainly hamstrung by Detroit's pitiful excuse for blocking, so maybe not that much of a bump. Also consider that Best is a bit fragile, and playing behind that line puts him at increased risk for injuries. Best is a potential RB2 with some yellow flags, but he does have some decent upside. If you're like Jim Schwartz, creepily lusting after YouTube highlights of Best, don't forget the one where Best almost breaks his neck on a touchdown leap. That one is the most telling about his future prospects.
Montario Hardesty, Browns
I'll give Jerome Harrison credit, he looked good in putting up 561 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the last three games of the season. But why couldn't he do that earlier in the year? The Browns didn't seem content with the answer; otherwise, they wouldn't have traded up in the second round to pick Hardesty. Nothing about Hardesty screams star, and odds are that his long list of injuries will continue in the pro ranks. However, he can definitely be the thunder to Harrison's lightning in a time-share that could approach 50/50, health permitting. He'll also have the first crack at replacing Harrison, should that year-closing stretch prove more than just a mirage. Invest a late pick on Hardesty and be patient. It may take some time, but he'll prove valuable at some point.
Anthony Dixon, 49ers
Glen Coffee was a frappaccino as Frank Gore's backup, so the 49ers picked up what could be a future gem. With apologies to Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Dixon was the SEC's best ruunning back last year, doing more with far less help. He's not the kind of RB you put in on third down to catch a swing pass, which could limit his fantasy value initially. He's a big, hard-charging banger. Considering Gore's injury history and Coffee's blandness, though, Dixon will get the bulk of the work when Gore inevitably sits out a few games with injuries. When you consider the upgrades to San Francisco's offensive line, Dixon is an absolute-must handcuff for Gore. Park him on your bench and leave him there, because odds are high that he'll prove useful at some point. Dynasty league owners should strongly consider using an early pick on Dixon.
C.J. Spiller, Bills
The S.S. Bills is listing badly, and instead of investing in buckets (a quarterback, offensive linemen) to bail the franchise out, they splurge on water skis (a speedy, undersized RB). They saw what super-fast RB Chris Johnson did in Tennessee and are hoping to get similar action in Spiller. The difference here is the Titans have arguably the best offensive line in the league; the Bills definitely have the worst. Let's also mention that incumbent starting RB Fred Jackson had more than 1,400 combined yards, and former first-round pick Marshawn Lynch is still on the roster. It would be foolish to dramatically cut back on Jackson's touches for a guy that looks like the next Reggie Bush, but we are talking about Buffalo after all. If it doesn't make sense, the Bills will probably do it. The impact here is not so much that Spiller becomes a fantasy star, but that he murders Jackson's value. If Lynch is dealt, expect to see a split similar to Pierre Thomas/Bush, with Jackson as a borderline RB2/3, and Spiller as a flex player. If Lynch stays, chaos reigns in the Buffalo backfield.
Toby Gerhart, Vikings
Gerhart is in a situation similar to Dixon, but his future outlook is cloudy. While he has nice hands, he's not a third down RB, so don't expect a bunch of swing passes to him. With Adrian Peterson's well-documented fumbling woes, Gerhart could be used as a "closer," i.e. a touchdown vulture and/or spelling Peterson in the fourth quarter. He's such an odd fit in this offense that it's difficult to see how he'll be deployed. He might wind up a Leonard Weaver-type, for all we know. Consider him a late handcuff pick for Peterson, with increased upside in TD-heavy scoring systems.
Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
As Crispin Glover might ask, "what is it?" A running back? A wide receiver? The second coming of Dante Hall? Whatever he is, the Chiefs must love McCluster to death to use a second-round pick on him, considering all the holes on their roster and the overflow of riches at running back. This hybrid position might sound good on paper, but the reality is that this kid is 5'8'', 170 pounds, and doesn't possess the type of blinding speed you'd think would be necessary at that size ... big surprise, he's also injury prone. In terms of touches, McCluster would absolutely come after Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones and Dwayne Bowe. Chris Chambers has a good argument for more love, too. It's possible that McCluster is worth a late flyer in deeper leagues, but that's best case.
Joe McKnight, Jets
Don't expect McKnight to immediately step into Leon Washington's old role with the Jets in his rookie season. First, LaDainian Tomlinson will serve as the primary change of pace to Shonn Greene. Second, McKnight is just not as good as Washington. McKnight never quite lived up to the hype at USC, and if you can't make it there as a RB, you can't make it anywhere. See the career arcs of LenDale White and Bush for evidence of what mediocre backs are capable of in that system. Unless something happens to LT, McKnight won't get enough touches to even be a fantasy afterthought. Don't waste a draft pick on him; he's strictly waiver wire material.