Bush, LJ among those who need strong 2008 rebounds
In the wake of Travis Henry's release by the Broncos, what other running backs are facing big questions this season? Jeffri Chadiha gives you five to watch.
But Henry's release from the Broncos made me ponder some other running backs who need to produce this season after disappointing 2007 campaigns. It's not that any of these players are headed to the same unemployment line that Henry just joined if they don't rebound. It's just that there are certain obstacles that all these backs will face as they try to live up to expectations this coming fall. And there are no guarantees they'll all be able to overcome those barriers.
Here's our list:
1.Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints: The hype machine for this guy has lost quite a bit of steam over the past year. What we learned about Bush in 2007 is that he's always going to be a talented open-field runner who will need a creative offensive mind to maximize his skills in the NFL. In other words, he'll never be an every-down back in this league. He proved that much when Deuce McAllister sustained another season-ending knee injury last season and Bush became an unreliable answer to that loss.The big question here is whether McAllister can make another comeback from the second major knee injury of his career. If he can, Bush probably will become the multidimensional threat that he was as a rookie (and he's already talking about returning more punts this season). If not, we can start proclaiming him one of the most overrated players ever to enter the NFL. Prediction: A scout once declared Bush a Marshall Faulk clone. He's starting to look more like the second coming of Eric Metcalf.
2. Cedric Benson, Chicago Bears: Can he do anything more to taint his brief career with the Bears? It was bad enough that he'd been a fragile, inconsistent runner with a knack for vanishing in the biggest of moments over the past three seasons. But when you add his recent off-the-field trouble to the equation -- he's currently fighting misdemeanor charges of drunken boating and resisting arrest in Texas on May 3 -- it's apparent that this fellow doesn't have a clue.
The good news is he's dropped about eight to 10 pounds in a year that is critical to any future he might have with the Bears. The bad news is the weight loss really won't make a difference. The Bears already spent a second-round pick in this year's draft on another running back (Matt Forte) and that's ample evidence of the doubts they now have in a man who was supposed to be their workhorse.
Prediction: The Matt Forte era begins this fall.
3. Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs: There are no questions about Johnson's ability; he's made the Pro Bowl in two of his three seasons as a full-time starter. However, there are plenty of reasons to wonder about the supporting cast that will surround him as he returns from a season-ending foot injury sustained midway through the 2007 campaign.
Brodie Croyle remains an unproven quarterback. There are currently no reliable receivers outside of wideout Dwayne Bowe and Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez. And we haven't yet mentioned the offensive line, a unit the Chiefs are rebuilding this offseason. The point to be made here is that Johnson, while hurt last season, wasn't exactly tearing the league apart when he was healthy (559 yards in eight games, 3.5 yards per carry). With him on that offense -- and every defense in the league poised to stop him -- there will be ample frustration again this fall.
Prediction: He'll gain 1,200 yards but he'll be complaining about the offense of new coordinator Chan Gailey by Week 3.
4. Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals: He tried shedding weight last season. He tried changing his running style to become more elusive. He also discovered he'd made the dumbest decision in a career that had been pretty impressive until Johnson started eating like he was a contestant on "The Biggest Loser."
Now that he's returned to his previous playing weight of 225 pounds, he has to prove that his weight loss was the major factor in his decreased production and not declining skills. It's unlikely that Johnson will be a 1,400-yard rusher with so many other runners also in the backfield mix now (Chris Perry is coming back from an ankle injury while Kenny Watson was the team's leading rusher in 2007). That being said, he's certainly in better position to generate more than the 497 yards he gained in 11 games last fall.
Prediction: The Bengals benefit from having this banger back on a team with plenty of other issues.
5. Thomas Jones, New York Jets: There's a reason former Arkansas running back Darren McFadden was so high on the Jets' board during this year's draft. Jones might have gained 1,119 yards last season, but he didn't offer any explosiveness (he averaged 3.6 yards per carry). In fairness to him, it's not like there was much else going right for the Jets on either side of the football.
But now that McFadden is playing in Oakland, the Jets will need more big plays from Jones. He has more help up front (with Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca and right tackle Damien Woody joining the team through free agency). He also has a new lead blocker (fullback Tony Richardson). Jones also benefits with the return of change-of-pace back Leon Washington. But this is still the same Jets team that won four games in 2007, and Jones turns 30 in August. Any success he enjoys will not come easily.
Prediction: He'll reach 1,100 yards again. It just won't be as ugly as it was in 2007.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com
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