Position outlook: Running backs

This is one story in a series of position outlooks for the Oakland Raiders. Today, here's a look at running backs:

Looking back: Charlie Garner was an underrated but vital cog in the Oakland Raiders offense in 2002. Garner, however, got hurt in training camp and never appeared to be at full-strength throughout the 2003 season. Garner tallied just 553 yards rushing, his lowest total since the 1998 season as a Philadelphia Eagle.

After two seasons of sporadic playing time, Tyrone Wheatley made the most of his opportunity. Wheatley, who surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2000, totaled 678 yards rushing, 541 of which came after becoming the starter in Game 9.

The Raiders were hoping to get a more extensive look at Justin Fargas, a third-round draft choice from Southern California. Fargas had an impressive preseason but his regular season was cut short with a season-ending injury that required surgery. Fargas was one of 12 players to end the season on injured reserve.

Zack Crockett began the season as the starting fullback but also continued his success as a short-yardage specialist. Chris Hetherington was the backup fullback but did not make a significant splash.

Looking ahead: Garner and Wheatley are both 31-years old. Garner is a free agent and his return status is uncertain since Wheatley accumulated most of the carries in the second half of the season.

Fargas has been looked at as Garner's heir apparent but since he carried the ball only 40 times, it's too soon to draw that conclusion. If the Raiders decide to go the rebuilding route, Wheatley would be a quality veteran to keep. He produced a fine second half and his "team-first" mentality is something younger players could learn. If the Raiders part ways with Garner, an addition running back would be a need.

As for fullback, perhaps the Raiders missed Jon Ritchie, who signed as a free agent with Philadelphia, more than they thought. Hetherington did not make Oakland fans forget Ritchie. Crockett is capable in that capacity but is also very valuable as a short-yardage specialist.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached at vdad7@yahoo.com

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