Rookie Running Back Impressions

The Insiders take a look at the offensive "skilled position" players and what we expect to transpire with them in the 2003 season, ranking the players according to our expectations and information from training camp/team information and roster scenario opportunities for this, the 2003 season alone.

This 2003 draft class of running backs is one of the weakest groups at this position in recent memory, with potentially only one running back close to contributing to his team in a significant manner.

The 2003 Draft Running Back Class

Onterrio Smith - Minnesota Vikings:
They loved him on draft day, he got under their skin when he was the lone holdout to training camp, this is Onterrio Smith. Smith did not get off on the right foot with Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, not that it was his fault. Due to a late graduating class, Smith was unable to attend many minicamp/rookie camp settings with the team. When it was time for Smith to report, he was a holdout, but for his sake it was a very brief holdout.

With starting running back Michael Bennett possibly lost for the season due to complications from off-season foot surgery, Smith has the opportunity to step in as a rookie and start for the revitalized Minnesota Vikings. This possibility alone is somewhat surprising, but this talented running back from Oregon stated early and often after the draft that he was in fact 'the steal of the draft,' a phrase that has been echoed within conversations amongst team officials.

Unsure of himself, somewhat overwhelmed and behind from the onset of camp, Smith has battled to be noticed, he has fought to improve. This desire and ability has provided Smith the opportunity to compete for significant playing time in the absence of Bennett. Over the past week to 10 days of training camp, Smith has been the most consistent of the Vikings running backs, even his questionable blocking skills have improved once he began to understand the blocking responsibilities and assignments.

A natural runner with exceptional vision, and the speed and quickness to bounce a play to the outside, but strong enough to run inside has been the thought with Smith in training camp. Running behind what could be the best offensive line in the game, Smith could be an impact player in 2003 for the Vikings. If he can provide Minnesota the rushing threat to balance out the offense, the Vikings will continue to improve upon their solid finish of 2002.

If Bennett were healthy, Smith wouldn't be in this position, but injuries are part of the game and Smith is in the right place at the right time. By far, Onterrio Smith should be the most productive running back from the 2003 draft class.

LaBrandon Toefield - Jacksonville Jaguars: In Jacksonville, Fred Taylor is the man when healthy and that is an issue that has already reared its ugly head in Jacksonville. With Taylor nursing an injury and backup Elvis Joseph sidelined as well, rookie LaBrandon Toefield had received a significant amount of additional reps in practice and he hasn't wasted the opportunity.

Showing better than average speed and some elusiveness, Toefield has had an eye-opening training camp and is now in competition with Joseph for the number two running back spot. An element of his game that could elevate his standing is his ability to come out of the backfield in the receiving game.

Knowing the injury history of Taylor, Toefield may have the opportunity to see playing time in the 2003 season. If Taylor stays healthy, Toefield will see minimal game action in the backfield and will be utilized mainly on special teams. Regardless, Toefield has gotten the attention of the coaching staff in Jacksonville.

Artrose Pinner - Detroit Lions: With the Lions under Steve Mariucci looking to improve the team speed, Artrose Pinner could be a player that has an opportunity to see some playing time. The problem with Pinner is that he has not fully recovered from a broken leg, but when he does he has speed to burn, and Detroit is actively pursuing speed and playmakers.

Very quick and explosive, Pinner has the ability to make big plays in both the running and passing game. Much like starter James Stewart, Pinner has shown to be exceptional coming out of the backfield in the college game. The difference between the two players is Pinner can go the distance on any given play, and Stewart does not possess that ability.

One knock against Pinner is his lack of experience blocking in the backfield. Not expected to contribute much in the blocking scheme in college, Pinner will have to show the desire to block before Mariucci will be comfortable placing him in the backfield in game situations.

When healthy, Pinner should receive some carries in the Lions offense, the big question will be when.

Larry Johnson - Kansas City Chiefs: The running back situation will be interesting come the start of the season if All-Pro starter Priest Holmes does indeed hold true to his word and not play if he does not have an extended, renegotiated contract. Thus far Holmes has been healthy following hip surgery and is solidly the number one running back on the roster. One the other hand, if Holmes were to miss time, Johnson could be thrust into the starting role.

The early prognosis in Kansas City is not exciting. Johnson has struggled in training camp, some of the same questions about his lack of top-end speed and quickness are being noticed in practice. Johnson has been tentative running the ball, though he has improved as camp has progressed. Nonetheless, Johnson has rarely shown that he is capable of handling the load at the running back spot if Holmes were to be out of action with any consistency. His reactions have been slow in reading his blocks, and he is proving to be an average blocker at this stage of his career.

Johnson is improving, but when the bar has been raised to the level that Holmes has taken it, meeting or exceeding expectations will be difficult. The Chiefs drafted Johnson with the expectation that he would be the backup to Holmes as well as be the third-down back in this his rookie season. At the present time Johnson does not look comfortable in the offense, especially rushing the football. The passing game is where Johnson has been at his best. A system like the Chiefs', where the team throws the ball to the backs in the flat, Johnson may have the opportunity to contribute in that capacity.

If the Chiefs are counting on Larry Johnson to replace Holmes during the 2003 season if he were injured, he may not be ready to handle the responsibility.

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