THE MOST asked question heading into this year's fantasy draft: Is Darren McFadden this year's Adrian Peterson? It's tempting to answer yes, because there are many parallels between the two, the most obvious being that each was the top back taken in his draft. But if you're searching for this year's leading rookie, it would be wise to look beyond the top pick, because Peterson was an exceptional case. In the past 10 years the first back drafted has gone on to lead rookie rushers only three times; what's instructive is that in the other two instances—Edgerrin James with Indianapolis in 1999 and LaDainian Tomlinson with San Diego in 2001—the players were the anointed saviors of their backfields, with no serious challengers for starter.
But the situations of most of this year's rookie backs are more complicated. Here's a rundown of rookie runners, grouped by who is best set up to produce this year.
1. Clear-cut starter
Only one back fits the bill, and that makes him the top rookie tout: Chicago's Matt Forte. A 6'2" 216-pounder from Tulane, the second-round pick gained 2,127 yards with 23 TDs as a senior and should fend off challenges from Kevin Jones, Garrett Wolfe and (the other) Adrian Peterson to be the focal point of the Bears' offense.
2. Time-sharer (top guy)
What McFadden chiefly has going against him in Oakland is Justin Fargas's huge second half of '07. Beyond that the line isn't what the Vikings' was last year for Peterson and Oakland tries to stretch the field. It's unlikely that the No. 4 overall pick will become the top rusher of his rookie class—at least this year.
August 17, 2008
Others likely to lead backfield tandems include Carolina's Jonathan Stewart, the second back drafted (out of Oregon), who will split carries with DeAngelo Williams, and Detroit third-round pick Kevin Smith out of Central Florida.
3. Time-sharer (supporting actor)
Rashard Mendenhall, believed by some to be the best back in the '08 draft, will start the season in Pittsburgh behind incumbent Willie Parker. At the very least, the Illinois product, a pounder, will steal scores as a third-down and goal line back. Elsewhere, outside threats Chris Johnson (out of East Carolina) in Tennessee and Arkansas's Felix Jones in Dallas will have to impress in relief of veteran starters LenDale White and Marion Barber, respectively.
4. In the Wings
Ray Rice of Rutgers has been drawing raves from the Ravens' staff, but that isn't likely to translate into dependable weekly production because Willis McGahee will be Baltimore's every-down back. For the Texans, third-round draft pick Steve Slaton, out of West Virginia, offers intrigue, if only because the veterans above him on the depth chart (Ahman Green, Chris Brown) have histories of not getting through the season.
5. Long shot with a real shot
You probably haven't heard much about Tim Hightower, a fifth-round pick out of Richmond, but he has vaulted up Arizona's depth chart, putting heat on J.J. Arrington. By Week 1, Hightower could be an Edgerrin James injury away from starting.
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Three to Get Ready
If you need a kicker late, consider these three not-so-obvious choices who should score more in '08.
1. Josh Scobee, Jaguars
He missed eight games last year with a bum quad, but he still placed ninth in the league with 7.8 points per game.
2. Neil Rackers, Cardinals
He made only 70% of his field goals last year, but seven of his nine misses were from beyond 47. The healthy returns of Anquan Boldin and Matt Leinart will help move the ball closer to the goalposts.
3. Mike Nugent, Jets
Off-season moves had improved New York's offensive prospects even before the acquisition of Brett Favre.