- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The escalation of two- and three-back rotations continues to fascinate. Offensive coordinators are making backfield roles as diversified as sub packages in secondaries.
Think about how backfields are evolving. Reggie Bush enhanced the value of a back who can be isolated outside of the backfield to make big plays through the air or on outside runs. Leon Washington of the Jets and Darren Sproles of the Chargers are other examples of backs who might never rush for 1,000 yards but add big plays from the backfield.
The NFL also is seeing more combinations of big backs and smaller backs. The Titans parlayed the speed of 5-foot-11, 200-pound Chris Johnson and the power of 6-1, 235-pound LenDale White into a 13-3 record last season. And everyone is still trying to figure out the eventual impact of the Wildcat formation.
While it might drive fantasy players crazy trying to figure out roles, more drama and competition is brewing in several backfields. Here are 11 backfields to watch:
Arizona Cardinals: Edgerrin James and J.J. Arrington are gone, but Ken Whisenhunt has interesting designs for a running offense that finished 32nd in the league last season. He drafted Beanie Wells in the first round to give the Cardinals a power running look that Whisenhunt had when he was Steelers offensive coordinator. Wells versus Tim Hightower should be one of the more interesting training-camp battles this summer. It's pretty obvious Kurt Warner prefers to throw the ball out of three-receiver sets, so Hightower better fits that finesse style of play. Wells is the big back who can bring some pop to the backfield. Unfortunately, Ohio State's late graduation schedule has Wells' learning curve on hold until he reports toward the middle of June.
Baltimore Ravens: John Harbaugh keeps shaking up his deep backfield. Le'Ron McClain wasn't particularly happy at the start of the offseason after being told he would primarily play fullback. He led the team with 902 yards and 10 touchdowns when given the chance to be feature back. Harbaugh recently moved Willis McGahee to second string, giving Ray Rice the chance to start. McGahee has battled numerous injuries the past couple of years. Rice versus McGahee should be a good battle as long as McGahee stays healthy. It's likely Harbaugh will keep juggling things when the regular season begins, allowing him to use McClain again to wear down defenses. Last year, the three-headed monster from the backfield averaged 37 carries a game. There are plenty of carries to go around.
Carolina Panthers: DeAngelo Williams is coming off a 1,515-yard season, but he can't celebrate too much because his backup, Jonathan Stewart, has Steven Jackson-type ability. Stewart rushed for 836 yards and averaged 4.5 yards a carry in 2008. Ideally, John Fox would love to find a way to get both backs over 1,000 yards, but that would mean fewer carries for Williams, who had 273 last year and scored 15 touchdowns. One thing that won't change, though, is Fox's desire to run a lot. The Panthers and Jake Delhomme usually don't do well when the quarterback is asked to throw more than 30 times a game.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys might be short a receiver now that Terrell Owens is gone, but they have plenty of backs. Feature back Marion Barber runs with reckless abandon. Felix Jones showed flashes of greatness last season with an 8.9-yard rushing average (on 30 attempts) and soft hands for catching the ball. The Cowboys found a sleeper in Tashard Choice, who averaged 5.1 yards a carry last season. It's pretty clear Wade Phillips is going to ask the running backs to be involved more in the passing game to replace some of Owens' 69 catches. It will also be interesting to see if Phillips and Romo can do enough to keep three talented running backs happy.
Indianapolis Colts: The first-round selection of Donald Brown is one of the more interesting decisions in the '09 draft. Joseph Addai, who looked like a budding Pro Bowl back after 1,000-yard seasons in his first and second years, fell off to 544 yards last season, and the Colts had their lowest rushing total in two decades. Brown is expected to immediately challenge Addai for carries. Although Addai is expected to be the starter, it's not out of the question for Brown to push for as many as 15 carries a game.
New England Patriots: Most NFL teams turn their backs on backs once they turn 30. Bill Belichick embraces them. Because of the struggles of Laurence Maroney, the Patriots have the Senior Tour options of Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk. Taylor is 33 and Morris is 32. They should handle some of the first- and second-down runs from different packages unless Maroney has a great camp. Faulk, who is 32, is the Patriots' best pass-catching back.
New York Jets: Thomas Jones and Leon Washington each missed a portion of his offseason work with the team to protest his low base salary. Jones, who is 30, has little chance of getting a new deal, but he's still a valuable part of the Jets' plan. To make it easier for young quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Mark Sanchez, Rex Ryan plans to run the ball a lot. Add to the mix powerful third-round pick Shonn Greene, a big rookie back who could gobble up playing time. Jones will start, and Washington will mix in receptions and long runs, but all will get plenty of carries.
Oakland Raiders: This should end up being Darren McFadden's job, but don't count out Justin Fargas, who has rushed for 1,862 yards the past two seasons. McFadden didn't get off on the right foot as a rookie because he couldn't seem to find the right shoes. He was plagued by toe and foot problems that limited him to 113 carries and 499 yards rushing. McFadden has been running well this offseason and should at least double his carries from 2008. Talented big back Michael Bush isn't particularly happy about being stuck at fullback despite a 4.4-yard average per carry last season. See Baltimore and Le'Ron McClain if you haven't heard this story before.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brian Westbrook's ankle surgery Friday isn't expected to be a big deal, because it's only supposed to clean up bone-spur problems. But you have to wonder about the accumulation of knee and ankle problems that Westbrook can't seem to shake. He's 29, and the pounding on his body is starting to take a toll. That's why the selection of LeSean McCoy could play big into the equation. McCoy must speed up his education to be the backup, and might be on call to start if necessary. You get the feeling Westbrook should be OK for mid-training camp and the regular season, but it doesn't seem likely he can stay healthy for 16 games.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Willie Parker, in the last year of his contract, is the feature back and scheduled to start. Last year, the Steelers had the luxury of drafting Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. They won a Super Bowl even though he had only 19 carries and went on the injured reserve list with a shoulder injury after a Week 4 game against Baltimore. This year, Mendenhall must become more involved to show he is the back of the future. He is being groomed to be the starter in 2010, so he probably needs eight to 10 carries a game to advance.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Ward somehow survived in the deep New York Giants backfield by getting 1,025 yards, so you figure he should be fine in Tampa. Ward will compete with Earnest Graham for the starting job. The Bucs do plan to be a running team as they make a transition at quarterback. The loser in the deal could be Cadillac Williams, who is still trying to come back from major knee surgery. Williams is fighting an uphill battle for carries, and might struggle to even make the team.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
22hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo