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Breaking Down the Carolina Running Backs



By: Joe Book; Edited by: Cory J. Bonini

As the 2007 NFL season rapidly approaches, an unsettled running back situation is emerging from the Carolina Panthers camp. DeShaun Foster has been running with the starting unit, leaving 2006 first-rounder DeAngelo Williams in a reserve role. One will surface as the starter, but a committee approach is almost certain – which is a nightmare for fantasy owners.


Foster was drafted with the second pick of the second round in 2002, following a successful, but injury-plagued, college career at the University of California-Los Angeles. His NFL career has been a revolving door of injuries and ineffectiveness. After suffering a season-ending knee injury during the 2002 preseason, Foster served as the reserve to running back Stephen Davis in 2003. He won the starting job the following season, only to break his clavicle after four games.

Besides nagging leg and knee injuries, Foster has missed only three games in the last two seasons. While he’s averaged better than four yards per carry, he has found the end zone only six times in his last 30 games. He set a career high with 227 carries in 2006 and only averaged 5.0 yards per reception last season.

Williams was one of the most successful running backs in college football history. He is the all-time collegiate leader with 7,573 all-purpose yards, and he scored 55 touchdowns in his 44 games at the University of Memphis. He looked like a can’t-miss NFL superstar.

Most fantasy experts expected Foster to suffer a major injury, vaulting Williams into the starting role. While that never happened, owners received a taste of what Williams could do if given the job. He played sporadically for the first five weeks, until suffering an ankle sprain that caused him to miss three games. During Weeks 11-13, with Foster sidelined by injury, Williams racked up 399 total yards and recorded a run of 20 yards or more in each game. He finished his rookie campaign with 814 total yards and two touchdowns.

2007 Outlook

While Williams was expected to win the starting job in the 2007 preseason, it has been Foster showing new life. How long he’ll stay healthy is the major issue, but he has benefited greatly from the Panthers’ new zone-blocking schemes implemented by new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson. The team previously utilized a power-running system, which didn’t fit the styles of Foster or Williams.

The foremost question on the minds of owners regards playing time. Williams’ arrival last year spawned fear that a committee approach would render both backs reserve fantasy players. Williams finished with 121 carries, most of them coming in five games. Foster averaged 19 carries per game over the first six games of the season and had only 113 attempts the rest of the season. Neither one of them established a solid running game, as they combined for only four rushing touchdowns.

The Panthers feature one of the NFL‘s top wide receivers in Steve Smith, who should relieve pressure off the running game. Speedy wide receiver Drew Carter can stretch a defense, and the Panthers drafted 6-foot-5 possession receiver Dwayne Jarrett in the second round of April’s draft. This should allow more lanes for Foster and Williams to run through.

Seeing that the team has no established tight end, Williams should see his receptions total rise. He recorded 33 catches in 2006 and showed good hands out of the backfield. If he doesn’t win the starting job, he’ll be used as a change-of-pace and third-down back, in mostly passing situations. There also may be times in which the team uses both Foster and Williams in the same backfield to create mismatches with the defense.

With all that being said, drafting either player is a risky proposition. In a keeper league, Williams is the better pick simply because of his age. In most other leagues, Foster appears to be a better short-term answer. He’s been injured every year of his career, so handcuffing him with Williams offers some protection.

Neither player is deserving of the No. 2 or 3 running back spots, as neither can be trusted. Both have value as fourth running backs, but neither will for the whole season. Teams should have at least two established running backs before even considering the drafting of either one. As the preseason continues, it’s highly unlikely that the situation will clarify itself. Look for Foster to be the opening day starter, and Williams to have the job toward the end of the year, or pending a Foster injury.

Only once in head coach John Fox‘s five years at the helm has a Panther running back carried the ball more than Foster did in 2006. In every year but one of Fox’s tenure, the team has had two running backs with at least 100 carries. Williams is faster, Foster is bigger. Williams is a better receiver, Foster a better blocker. The pair shared the ball and the job last year. This season should be more of the same.

Let someone else deal with this headache.

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One Response to “Breaking Down the Carolina Running Backs”

  1. Who will the Panthers rely on in the 4th quarter? I have always liked Foster’s talent but he seemingly can’t get the tough yards. And D. Williams is a scat back stud type who could break just about anything but falls into a similar class of back as Foster.

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