GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Running backs are easy to find. Print
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Thursday, 06 December 2007 10:36
NFL Headline News

 Ryan Grant did a lot of things right and nothing wrong in the New York Giants' training camp this summer, even though he had almost no chance to make the team because he was fifth on the depth chart.
Then Green Bay gave New York a sixth-round pick for him and ended up with the running back it needed desperately. Yes, the Packers are still 30th in the NFL in rushing, but Grant, who only started playing regularly in the sixth game, has 588 yards and a 4.9 average.
In fact, running backs are probably the easiest commodity for NFL teams to find.
Granted, Adrian Peterson was taken seventh overall in last April's draft and is special; until he injured a knee and missed two games, he was on course to break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards.
But for every Peterson, there is a Grant, a Selvin Young, an Andre Hall, a Justin Fargas, plus the four guys who were ahead of Grant in New York: Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, Reuben Droughns and Ahmad Bradshaw. Not to mention Chester Taylor, a one-time sixth-rounder in Baltimore who alternates with Peterson in Minnesota and who rushed for 241 yards in the two games the rookie missed, both wins for the Vikings.
``He's really a good system fit for what we do,'' Oakland coach Lane Kiffin says of Fargas, a third-round pick in 2003 who has had trouble staying healthy, but who has 591 yards rushing in the last five weeks, most in the NFL over that period.
``Guys who are first-round draft picks aren't necessarily fitting in this system because they don't understand how to put your foot in the ground. He fits really well in this system and I just love the competitor that he is.''
``System'' is a key word because that's how football people refer to Denver, the team best known for plugging in obscure running backs.
The star of that group was Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick in 1995 who in his first four seasons with the Broncos rushed for 6,443 yards, including 2,008 in 1998, a year that began with him being voted MVP of the Super Bowl. He is a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame this year despite a career seriously shortened by knee injuries.
Since Davis, the Broncos have trotted out a succession of low-rounders, waiver pickups or undrafted free agents and gotten major production from them. It started with Olandis Gary, who replaced an injured Davis, and went through Mike Anderson, Droughns, Tatum Bell, Mike Bell and this year's no-names: Young and Hall.
In part it's the system, although Anderson has had success in Baltimore and Droughns with Cleveland and now with the Giants.
Other teams now seem to be doing the same thing with low draft picks or guys pulled off the unemployment line.
The Giants, for example, have rushed for 1,530 yards in 12 games this season, sixth best in the NFL. That's just 59 yards fewer than they had at this point last season, when their running back was Tiki Barber, a certified star. Beyond that, many players say Barber's retirement removed a major distraction - Tiki spent the latter part of last season bloviating (his word) about his greatness and impending retirement.
It's running back by committee this year as Jacobs, the nominal starter, has alternated with Ward because one is usually hurt, currently Ward, who broke his leg while rushing for 154 yards in Chicago last week. Ward has 602 yards and a 4.8 average; Jacobs has 599 and is averaging 5.2; and Droughns, used as the short-yardage guy, has 247 yards with six touchdowns.
The 260-pound Jacobs, who left Auburn for Southern Illinois because he was behind first-rounders Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams and Ronnie Brown, was a fourth-rounder. Ward was signed off the Jets' practice squad and kept around for three injury-filled seasons because the Giants felt he had promise. Grant spent one year on their practice squad and another on injured reserve.
But in the salary-cap era, even star running backs get moved.
Bill Polian of Indianapolis, who for more than two decades has been one of the NFL's smartest personnel men, has let two of them go.
In 1999, he traded Marshall Faulk to St. Louis because Faulk's salary was about to cramp the Colts' cap, and drafted Edgerrin James. Faulk helped the Rams win one Super Bowl and get to another and won a league MVP award, but James was as effective for the Colts.
In 2006, Polian let James leave for Arizona as a free agent and drafted Joseph Addai. Addai was a key component in the Colts' run to a Super Bowl. So was Dominic Rhodes, who was undrafted but had five productive seasons in Indy as a backup - and now is in Oakland as a free agent.
Picking runners lower in the draft is likely to happen more often, because for every Adrian Peterson, there's a Cedric Benson, taken fourth overall by the Bears in 2005.
Given his chance to start this season when Chicago traded Thomas Jones to the Jets, he averaged just 3.4 yards a carry before being lost for the season with an ankle injury. His replacement, ``the other Adrian Peterson,'' is doing as well (3.5 yards) and has been better than that in previous years since being a sixth-round pick in 2002.
``It's gotten to the point that people aren't going to take a running back in the first 20 picks unless he's special like Peterson,'' says Gil Brandt, the NFL's scouting consultant and longtime personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys.
``There are athletes all over who can run. If you have the patience to find them and overlook what seem to be flaws, you can get a good one way past the first round.
There's likely to be one of those special guys in next April's draft: Darren McFadden of Arkansas, assuming he passes on his senior season. But no other running back is likely to be a top 20 choice except, perhaps, Kevin Smith of Central Florida, a junior who is expected to come out.
Michigan's Mike Hart is the best of the seniors and Rutgers' Ray Rice the next best underclassman. Both are a little small, but have had the kind of productive careers at major colleges that should lead to productive NFL careers.
Still, there might be someone much lower who turns out better. Especially if he goes to Denver.
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DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams in the NFL based on current level of play.
1. New England (12-0). Two close wins show the Patriots are human.
2. Dallas (11-1). Nice 10 days off to rest. Getting closer to the Pats.
3. Indianapolis (10-2). A playoff threat if healthy.
4. Green Bay (10-2). Aaron Rodgers provides the possibility of smooth post-Favre transition.
5. Jacksonville (8-4). Impressive in Indy loss.
6. Pittsburgh (9-3). Road woes a problem.

27. New York Jets (3-9). Signs of life, although it was just Miami they beat. And get rid of those awful throwback unis.
28. Kansas City (4-8). At least Jared Allen is having a good year.
29. Cincinnati (4-8). ``I think some of our problem is we don't have a team attitude.'' - DE Justin Smith.
30. San Francisco (3-9). For all his faults, Eddie DeBartolo was a winning owner. His sister isn't.
31. Atlanta (3-9). Bobby Petrino should have stayed at Louisville.
32. Miami (0-12). Losing 40-13 to Jets makes 0-16 look almost inevitable..
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AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this story.
 

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