The Pittsburgh Steelers opened some eyes when they selected University of Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall with their first-round pick despite the presence of three-time 1,000-yard halfback Willie Parker (leg) in the backfield. The 27-year-old Parker suffered a broken leg during the team's Week 16 game a season ago, but his rehab is reportedly going well. The fact that he is expected to be ready for the start of camp indicates the move was not necessitated by health concerns.
The addition of Mendenhall at what was not considered a position of need heading into the draft looks to be an indication that the team wants to scale back the workload of Parker, who has logged 658 carries combined over the past two seasons. The Steelers enjoyed their biggest success in 2005 when Parker teamed with now-retired running back Jerome Bettis to lead the club to a Super Bowl victory. It now looks like they'd like to recreate a similar dynamic in the 2008 edition of their backfield with Parker's speed complemented by Mendenhall's power.
Mendenhall is not the same type of one-dimensional bruiser that Bettis was at that stage of his career, lacking the sheer bulk of No. 36 but offering a package of strength, speed and durability. This should give Pittsburgh one of the NFL's premier running tandems. Unfortunately for fantasy football owners, it further reduces the number of true featured backs by one as more and more franchises continue to subscribe to the theory that a running back-by-committee approach is the best way to keep players fresh and productive throughout the long season.
While there is still a long way to go before teams take the field for NFL Kickoff Weekend, the conventional wisdom is that Parker and Mendenhall will share time in the backfield with the rookie doing more of the work between the tackles. Ironically, in terms of style it seems to make some sense for Mendenhall to get more carries as the tougher runner while keeping Parker fresh to use his speed to get to the outside and break big runs. However, head coach Mike Tomlin has said Mendenhall will be Parker's backup and odds are that Parker will indeed be the one getting more carries.
Table: Pittsburgh Steelers' 2005 Rushing Statistics
The table above shows how the Steelers distributed the carries in Bettis' final season and could serve as a solid jumping off point when trying to determine how carries will be divvied up in 2008. It seems reasonable that the team would try to get Parker's rushing attempts closer to that 250 mark as he just isn't built to withstand the rigors of 300-plus carries each year. The fact that the 5-foot-10, 209-pounder has seen his per-carry average drop from 4.7 in '05 to 4.1 a year ago supports that claim.
As for Mendenhall, he showed at the collegiate level he could succeed as both a complementary and primary option. While he made himself a first-round pick by racking up 1,681 yards on 262 carries last season, Mendenhall backed up current New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas at Illinois in 2006 and averaged 8.2 yards per carry. Even in a secondary role, Mendenhall is dangerous.
The odd-man out figures to be running back Najeh Davenport, who had his moments as the team's change-of-pace back over the past two years but managed just 52 yards on 28 carries in his two starts in place of Parker following his broken leg. He could still hang around for a few short-yardage carries here and there, but that should be about it.
With this situation still in its infancy it's too early to definitively make any projections about how the final breakdown for touches will come about. Right now Parker sits as an option at the tail end of the first round in deeper leagues or as a second-round selection in shallower formats. He's a quality No. 2 fantasy back, though his lack of touchdown production is always a concern.
Mendenhall landed in a good situation from an NFL standpoint, but it didn't do him any favors fantasy-wise. Still, the Jacksonville Jaguars have shown a team can produce two quality fantasy options out of a single backfield, which gives hope for Mendenhall. Select the rookie as a quality fourth back with the upside to contribute as a No. 3 or flex option even with a healthy Parker.
That leaves Davenport, whose fantasy value has all but dried up with the selection of Mendenhall. His only real chance at fantasy relevance for 2008 is an injury or a change of address. Ignore him in drafts.
About Herija C. Green
A graduate of the prestigious Top Gun school, Green's ego writes checks his body can't cash. When he's not overdrawing his ego's bank account, Green enjoys games of beach volleyball, riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, and buzzing the tower (whether the pattern is full or not). He resides in the Danger Zone and yes, Ice... Man, he is dangerous. He also writes.
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