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Teams eyeing late-round RBs as cost-effective role players

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sandwiched around this weekend's combine workouts of Knowshon Moreno, Chris "Beanie" Wells and more than two dozen other running back prospects were the dismissals of Deuce McAllister by the New Orleans Saints and Fred Taylor by the Jacksonville Jaguars, as well as the possible release or trade of Edgerrin James by the Arizona Cardinals.

New York Giants running back Derrick Ward will be a free agent Friday. Larry Johnson wants out of Kansas City, and LaDainian Tomlinson, the best running back of the new millennium, might have to restructure his contract to stay with the San Diego Chargers.

Pro football's veteran ball carriers might not be singing "Hakuna Matata," because what's transpiring is the circle of life for NFL running backs. Not even the trend of two-back systems is slowing the infusion of new blood.

The Tennessee Titans (with Chris Johnson and LenDale White), Atlanta Falcons (with Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood) and Carolina Panthers (with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) seem to have nailed the desired model of having two young running backs who bring different styles but also deliver explosiveness -- especially the Panthers with Williams and Stewart.

Yet, even though it might not seem that way, those tandems are on the clock.

Nearly every team needs, at the very least, complimentary help at running back, with the Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cardinals having it at high priority. Whether those teams will use a first-round pick in April to take one is anyone's guess because productive backs, such as the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte (second round, 44th overall) and the Houston Texans' Steve Slaton (third round, 89th overall) from the 2008 draft class, can be found in the later rounds.

Ward and the Philadelphia Eagles' Correll Buckhalter will join Taylor, McAllister and possibly James in free agency, but none of those proven players appears to be high on any team's wish list, as Turner was last season. Finding a running back in the draft seems to be the much more desirable route these days, as James -- who left the Indianapolis Colts and signed a four-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the Cardinals in 2006 -- learned this season, when he was replaced by rookie Tim Hightower, a fifth-round pick from Richmond, for seven games.

"Thank God we're in this time of the year," said San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, who has one of the NFL's better running backs in Frank Gore. "We're probably going to add some depth to that position. There are some good running backs in the draft, and I'm very excited about getting another guy to help share the load. Frank Gore is a special running back. I'm very excited about the way he runs ... the physicality that I'm talking about. It would help to have someone come in and share the load, maybe someone who adds a different dimension to our running game."

Georgia's Moreno, a multi-purpose back with big-play ability and unquestioned competitiveness, and Ohio State's Wells, a bigger back with good speed, are considered the top two running backs in this year's draft. Connecticut's Donald Brown headlines the next group of prospects, which also includes Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy, Colorado State's Gartrell Johnson, Iowa's Shonn Greene and Michigan State's Javon Ringer.

While the talent and depth is considered very good, no running back in this class carries the must-have quality that Darren McFadden did last season. McFadden, after dazzling at the combine to cap a standout career at Arkansas, ended up being drafted fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders. Then again, McFadden barely registered once the season started, with injuries being his biggest impediment. He was outshone by tail-end first-rounder Johnson, Forte, Kevin Smith (a third-round pick by the Detroit Lions) and Slaton.

Fourth-round pick Tashard Choice was highly effective for the Dallas Cowboys after fellow rookie Felix Jones, a first-round pick (22nd overall), was hurt. Of the NFL's top 20 rushers, five were rookies, and Slaton, Forte and Johnson each surpassed 1,200 yards. Smith and the Baltimore Ravens' Le'Ron McClain -- like Slaton, Forte and Johnson -- were starters.

NFL general managers definitely noticed the production of last season's rookie running backs. Just as many hand-held stop watches were punched Sunday when Abilene Christian's Bernard Scott ran his 40-yard dash at the combine as when Moreno and Wells did.

The success of so many non-first-round picks adds even more value to young running backs because talent can be gathered later in the draft when costs decrease. Being able to get more bang for the buck -- especially with league-wide belt-tightening -- could weaken the need for veteran free-agent running backs seeking big paydays. Still, experience, as James showed for the Cardinals in the playoffs, can't be de-emphasized.

Turner hit it big in free agency last season, leaving San Diego for a six-year, $34.5 million deal with Atlanta, but those types of free-agent dollars likely will go to players at other positions -- defensive and offensive tackle, and maybe wide receiver -- this offseason. And once a running back hits that mark of depreciation -- 30 years old -- pride and a big payday often must take a back seat to job security.

Teams aren't devaluing the need for a ground game, as every coach will bellow that the formula for winning is stopping the run and running the ball.

"It's very important for us to run the ball when you need to run the ball," Singletary said. "I don't care if you have eight people in the box, nine people in the box. When you want to run the ball, when you need to run the ball to win the game, let's run the ball."

It's just that the means for establishing the running game have changed. Two running backs are taking the place of one, to help maintain the players' health and allow for offensive flexibility. That's where Moreno's strength as a pass-catcher might give him an edge over Wells. Then again, a team's need might not be for a multi-purpose back.

The Saints, who own the 14th overall pick in the draft, have one of those in Reggie Bush. To improve their offense, they need a pile-mover -- a younger version of McAllister. But the Chiefs might try to add someone like Moreno (most likely not with the third overall pick) because new coach Todd Haley likes versatile players whose multi-dimensions won't tip off tendencies and allow him to be aggressive with his play-calling.

The way tandem backfields are being used also could be changing. The big back used to wear down teams, and then the smaller, speedier scat back hit big plays late in games. But the Titans, with the slashing and speedy Johnson, got teams to scheme for a game-breaker, then came at them late with White, a battering ram who broke long runs against fatigued players losing gap control to prevent cutback runs by the rookie. So, more teams now might look at smaller, shiftier running backs such as Ringer and McCoy.

Running the ball remains the goal. How it's being done and who's doing it has changed.

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