When the Panthers used their top pick in April's draft to select Jonathan Stewart, it was assumed the rookie would become the team's lead back with DeAngelo Williams continuing to contribute in a complementary role. But Williams' improvement as a runner, especially on inside runs, has resulted in a role reversal.
Williams has been the team's starter throughout the season and has thrived in the smash mouth attack. He's seventh on the rushing list with 955 yards, including five 100-yard games. He's also scored in five consecutive games, running his season total to 11.
His 16.1 carries per game are fewer than any rusher in the top 10 other than the Texans' Steve Slaton, but Williams has been effective with a light workload. His 4.9 yards per carry are fourth best among league leaders, and his 10 runs over 20 yards are the fifth-most in the league. Not surprisingly, Williams' success in his new role has scouts throughout the league singing his praises.
"He is the kind of runner that you want on your team," said an AFC personnel executive. "He is explosive and instinctive. He is strong enough to take the pounding, but also has the speed and quickness to take it the distance. People always talk about wanting 'big' backs, but he is the type of back that you build your team around. "
But what took so long? At least one Panthers official attributes it to patience, saying, "He had a horrible offensive line in college, so he had to create his big play opportunities. When he entered the league, he still didn't trust the offensive line and would try to bounce everything outside instead of staying with the play. As he has matured, he has learned how to stay on track and let his big plays come to him."
Williams, the Panthers' top pick in 2006, sat behind former starter DeShaun Foster for his first two seasons, despite flashing more big-play ability than his predecessor. While Foster average a respectable 3.5 yards per carry, Williams gained five yards per clip and produced six runs over 20 yards in 2007. Williams also produced two 100-yard games without starting a single game last season. In spite of his solid production as a back up, many wondered if Williams could carry the load as the team's starter heading into the 2008.
"There were questions about his toughness and ability to handle the workload," said a Panthers' official. "He wasn't a true inside runner, and didn't finish his runs with authority... I think that he has exceeded everyone's expectations in those aspects."
Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud is starting to earn recognition as one of the league's top middle linebackers. While he sometimes gets overlooked on a defense that features Pro Bowl linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, Ruud has played a vital role on a unit that ranks fourth in yards allowed (279.5), third in pass defense (184.1), and ninth in rush defense (95.4).
"He is a really good player," said an AFC personnel director. "He is really starting to come on. He has a strong nose for the ball and is an outstanding tackler. He is one of their biggest playmakers, but no one talks about him."
The Bucs' second round pick in 2005 leads the team with 95 tackles and also has three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery this season. He showed signs of becoming a headliner last year when he led the team with 169 tackles and had three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
"I think that he is a great middle linebacker," said Bucs' head coach Jon Gruden at his Thursday press conference. "He never comes off the field; he plays first down, third down. He's athletic, he's instinctive, he's a heck of a tackler, he makes all the calls and checks, he's very productive, he's durable... He's a winner."
Ruud's penchant for playmaking has scouts comparing him to another outstanding young linebacker in the NFC.
"He reminds me of Lofa Tatupu," said an AFC personnel director. "He is not the most athletic or explosive player, but he is always around the ball. He has great instincts and football intelligence. He has a great understanding of their scheme and where he fits."
If Ruud continues to lead the Bucs' defense with his timely playmaking, it would not be a surprise to see him supplant Tatupu for a spot on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
The season-ending suspension of Plaxico Burress will derail the defending world champions' bid for a repeat. Though the Giants have mustered a 3-0 record in his absence this season, the loss of their top playmaker in the passing game will eventually catch up with them.
"They will miss Plaxico's big play ability," said an AFC scout. "They don't have anyone on their roster capable of doing what he does on a consistent basis."
While Giants' supporters will cite the team's ability to overcome the loss of Jeremy Shockey last season, the circumstances are different. Although Shockey was a four-time Pro Bowl pick, he was not the Giants' top option in the passing game nor did he command double coverage. Shockey's absence didn't alter the way defensive coordinators game planned against the Giants. However, Burress' absence will mean Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward will find running lanes tighter as they face more eight-man fronts on first down and second down. Teams have attempted to mix in some eight-man looks before, but Burress' ability to torch single coverage kept defensive coordinators from using the strategy extensively.
In addition, Eli Manning and the Giants' receiving corps will see more "press" man coverage. Corners were reluctant to press Burress due to his imposing size and leaping advantage on the outside. However, the Giants' remaining receivers are not as big, fast or physical in their play, so corners will routinely challenge them at the line and dare them to beat them deep.
Of course, the Giants will tout Amani Toomer, Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith as being capable replacements, but they lack the special qualities that Burress has displayed since his arrival in New York.
"Toomer is still productive," said an AFC scout. "But he is not dynamic enough to be their number one receiver down the stretch. Hixon is an interesting player, but he is not in Plaxico's class. He is more of a possession receiver. He has flashed some good things when he has been on the field, but it will be interesting to see if he can be a consistent producer when it gets tight down the stretch."
The Giants have handled the loss of several key players on the way to the league's best record, but the dismissal of their troubled star receiver will eventually keep them from being "back-to-back" champions.