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Where did productive rookie running backs go?

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When I first started playing fantasy football, the running back position held the biggest potential among rookies.

Rookie quarterbacks needed to learn the entire offense and the ability to read complex NFL defenses. Wide receivers had to get on the same page as their veteran quarterbacks in order to read defenses and run the correct pattern.

But all the star running back had to do was not fumble the handoff and run to daylight.

How times have changed.

In the "new" NFL, the passing game is king. These days, any rookie who wants to break into the starting lineup not only has to run the ball well, but he must know how to protect his quarterback on pass plays. A running back who can't recognize the blitz and stop, or at least slow down the linebacker, is simply not going to get enough playing time to become a fantasy-worthy running back.

With this as the background, lets look at which of the rookie running backs might have fantasy value in 2012.

Trent Richardson, Cleveland - (2012 TSN Projection - 1071 yards rushing, 363 yards receiving, 9 TDs).

The 2011 All-American from Alabama appears to be the only "sure thing" in this year's draft. Of the eight running backs listed, he's the lone back who will start the season as the team's primary rusher. He ran the ball 283 times for 1,679 and 21 touchdowns in his junior season in Tuscaloosa. Richardson will be the team's workhorse running back as both Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson have already proven they can't carry a running game. The primary question as to how high is Richardson's ceiling has more to do with the surrounding offense. Can the Browns keep defenses from crowding the box with a rookie quarterback and mediocre receivers?

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay - (881 yards rushing, 315 yards receiving, 8 TDs).

Martin was drafted to replace the one-dimensional LeGarrette Blount and while that will certainly happen, it won't necessarily be from the start of the season. Martin has the ability to catch passes and block, which Blount doesn't, so by season's end the rookie could be a three-down back with the bigger Blount only getting red zone opportunities.

David Wilson, New York Giants - (657 yards rushing, 112 yards receiving, 0 TDs).

A former track man, Wilson should be the backup to Ahmad Bradshaw, but comes with a couple of flaws that could limit his ability as a fantasy option. He's not a great receiver or blocker and had a fumbling problem in college.

Ronnie Hillman, Denver - (526 yards rushing, 229 yards receiving, 7 TDs).

Hillman's arrival should mean the end is near for Knowshon Moreno. Hillman will serve as the backup to Willis McGahee and the 5-foot-9, 200 pounder will be the lightning quick option to McGahee's power running. Despite his size, Hillman was a workhorse at San Diego State rushing 573 times for 3,243 yards and 36 TDs in two seasons.

Isaiah Pead, St. Louis - (492 yards rushing, 288 yards receiving, 3 TDs).

Pead is a smaller, quick back who will be the perfect complement to Steven Jackson. He's unlikely to become a workhorse back who will carry your fantasy team, but he's got excellent hands as a change-of-pace guy. He's the handcuff to the oft-injured Jackson.

Bernard Pierce, Baltimore - (283 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving, 1 TDs).

Ray Rice figures to have a huge season because he no longer has Willis McGahee or Ricky Williams to steal carries and touchdowns. The Ravens' backup option is now the Temple rookie Pierce. Pierce has size at 218 lbs, but is an elusive runner who posted 1,481 yards and 27 touchdowns in his junior season. He did not catch the ball at Temple, so he's not another Rice, but should the top- five overall pick get hurt, Pierce can run like a No. 1 back.

Lamar Miller, Miami - (247 yards rushing, 75 yards receiving, 2 TDs).

Miller fell to the Dolphins in the fourth round because of injury concerns (knee). Unfortunately, Miami's crowded backfield will likely mean few opportunities for the rookie. That is, unless the oft-injured Reggie Bush reverts to his old habits. Barring injury, Miller's 2012 fantasy value is small to nonexistent.

LaMichael James, SF 49ers - (160 yards rushing, 259 yards receiving, 1 TDs).

Like Miller, James joins a crowded backfield. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs are in front of him on the depth chart. At under 200 lbs, James ran in a spread offense at Oregon and we are not sure where he'll get his opportunities in 2012. His value is long-term only, as in 2012 he figures to be watching most of the action from the sidelines.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.


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