In preparation for the upcoming NFL draft, and the fantasy ramifications of who goes where, I was looking back on how rookies performed last season. While I’ll go more in depth on that later in the draft season (which, in case you didn’t know, officially kicks off with the NFL Scouting Combine next week), one figure jumped out and grabbed me by the throat.
Ranking rookie running backs by per-game fantasy production, the Texans’ Darius Walker drifted near the top of the pack. Sure, he didn’t play much, but his per-game results ranked him between Willie Parker and Fred Taylor for the season.
You read that right: between a guy who was a consensus first-rounder and had a pretty good season (aside from the lack of touchdowns) right up until he broke his leg, and a guy who finished the year as hot as any back in the league.
Does that mean you should snap up the former Golden Domer and expect him to churn out numbers next season? Uh, no. But it did get me to thinking about what the Texans might do if they’re able to cull one of the talented backs from this year’s class.
After all, anyone expecting the aging and oft-injured Ahman Green to suddenly find the fountain of youth is delusional. And Ron Dayne is a plodder who’ll get what the line gives him but little more; plus, he proved last season that there are limits to how much of the load he can handle and still maintain what little effectiveness he possesses.
Chris Taylor was intriguing for one game at the end of 2006, but he blew out a knee at the start of 2007 and is a long shot to contribute even if he’s healthy. And Walker was a desperation plug-in who capitalized on his opportunity but isn’t being looked to as the solution.
Which leads us back to the Texans using Draft Day to replenish their backfield. It’s become relatively clear that passing on Reggie Bush wasn’t the blunder we all thought it was, and Gary Kubiak learned under Mike Shanahan that you don’t need to get your successful backs early.
So don’t expect the Texans to spend that first-round pick on Jonathan Stewart or Rashard Mendenhall; there’s a good chance one or both might be off the board anyway. Moreover, word out of Houston is that they’re eyeballing a corner or a left tackle (hooray, finally!) with that first-rounder.
An aside: how much better will Houston’s offense be with a guy like Ryan Clady or Jeff Otah or even Sam Baker up front? And if Charles Spencer comes back from that devastating knee injury, all of a sudden the Texans’ line is a strength instead of a liability.
But I digress.
With Houston’s second-rounder property of the Falcons thanks to the Matt Schaub trade, the Texans’ first shot to upgrade their backfield might not come until round three. The great news for Kubiak and his charges is that there should be options still on the table.
You want proven? Michigan’s Mike Hart played at a high level for four years, but he’s a bit on the smallish side to be an every-down NFL back. Still, if the wear on his tires isn’t too great, he has the vision and quickness to be very successful in Houston’s zone blocking system.
Or the Texans could stay in-state and take UT’s Jamaal Charles. He faces durability questions but has tremendous speed and is a classic one-cut-and-go runner—ideally suited for the Houston offense. This pick might also extend an olive branch to the faction of their fan base still miffed the locals passed on Vince Young a couple years back.
The list of possibilities also features a couple names unfamiliar to those who don’t worship at the alter of Mel Kiper, Jr.
Kevin Smith of Central Florida has good size and all the tools required of a feature back except the major college pedigree. East Carolina’s Chris Johnson is a tad undersized but has tremendous quickness and the ability to burst through a hole; you can’t hit what you can’t catch.
Either way, the hope here—and I’m guessing in Houston as well—is that the Texans use this draft to replace Ahman with someone you can trust will make it to the field on any given Sunday.
Besides, if an undrafted Darius Walker can have success, someone like Hart or Charles or Smith or Johnson could very easily carve out some fantasy relevancy in 2008.