Anthony Thomas will return to claim his starting position at running back. Thomas followed up his amazing rookie season with a disappointing 2002 campaign. On the plus side, Thomas came a long way in the passing game. He's become a very good blocker, and rarely drops a pass. A lot of excuses were made for the running game. The playcalling, blocking, injuries were all to blame.
Unfortunately, it didn't stop there. At the heart of it, Thomas became a hesitant runner. He stopped hitting the hole with authority, and tried to be too cute with his cutting. He's not a speed back who can get away with numerous hesitations. If this wasn't bad enough, he complained about getting the ball in short yardage situations, because he felt the defense knew what play was coming next. In short yardage situations, who else should be getting the ball, and just how many places might he be going other that left, right, or middle? Thomas needs to have a "load back" mentality. In 2002, he ran like a scatback trapped a fullback's body. As one of the nation's best runners at Michigan, he never struggled in this fashion. His return to form is a question mark for next season. He deserves the chance to prove that last season was an aberration.
Last year's second-string running back was Leon Johnson. Johnson didn't try to get as cute as Thomas, but was equally unimpressive. His contract expired, and he was not re-signed.
Adrian Peterson finally saw limited action in the last few games of the season. Peterson flashed enough talent to warrant consideration as a challenger to Thomas as the starting tailback. Although not a speed back, Peterson hits the hole fast and with power. A defining moment in his rookie season was when he took Tampa safety John Lynch's best hit, and broke free for a long gain. In the very least, Peterson will serve as the second-string running back. A big question regarding Peterson's playing time revolved around his ability to pass block. He proved to be solid in those assignments, and showed good receiving skills as well. There is a special quality about Adrian Peterson. Barring injury, he'll be given every opportunity to make a difference in 2003.
Rabih Abdullah is on roster more for his ability to make plays on special teams more than his ability at running back. He will be in jeopardy of being cut because he is no longer considered a viable option in the return game.
Daimon Shelton returns as the starting fullback, and Stanley Pritchett was re-signed for another year. Shelton missed the first few games of the season serving a suspension. When he returned, he wasn't the same devastating blocker he was in 2001.
Pritchett proved to be one of the most valuable players on the team. He proved to be a better blocker than many thought, and his receiving skills added a different dimension to the offense. When Pritchett wasn't helping out at the fullback position, he was serving as the second tight end for a group decimated by injuries and turnover.
INJURY IMPACT: Low (2): Anthony Thomas' hand injury should not be a factor going into mini-camp. Adrian Peterson was in perfect health. Fullbacks Daimon Shelton and Stanley Pritchett should also be ready for the season to begin.
CONTRACT IMPACT: Low (3): There isn't a lot of money tied up in the running back position. Thomas' contract is through 2004.
SUMMARY OF NEED: Medium (5): If Thomas returns to his rookie form, the position is set. Peterson is intriguing, and could be a major surprise. What the position needs is a speed back that can also serve as a receiver on third down.
RESOURCES: There aren't many players at the top of the draft who could fit the bill for the Bears. However, there are some possibilities to add depth further down. Free agency might provide a depth player as well.
SUSPECTS: Players who might be of interest later in the draft include Quentin Griffin of Oklahoma, Ernest Graham of Florida, and Sultan McCullough of USC. All three would be excellent change of pace backs. Griffin and McCullough would be the speed backs, while Graham is a polished back with good balance and receiving skills. On the pro side, veterans like Mike Cloud, Travis Jervey and Shawn Bryson could add valuable depth beyond Rabih Abdullah.