It feels like a new running back class keeps popping up every week in the NFL, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness.
That’s certainly true this week, with new options emerging in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit -- and of course Pittsburgh, where Le’Veon Bell will make his much-anticipated debut after serving a three-game suspension.
But are any of these newbies actually worth getting excited about? Our NFL Nation crew is here to guide you through the RB Class of Week 4:
Dwayne Washington, Detroit Lions. It’s hard to get too fired up over a running back for the Lions after they ranked 32nd in the NFL in rushing yards last year. But the rookie seventh-round pick might be the most attractive option on this list because he has the clearest path to playing time. Washington will have the opportunity to earn a full-time role with Ameer Abdullah on injured reserve for at least eight weeks with a foot injury.
Washington, who will have to split time with runner/receiver Theo Riddick, gained only 38 yards on 10 carries last week against Green Bay. But as ESPN Lions reporter Mike Rothstein wrote this week, the 6-foot-1, 223-pounder has been turning heads with an impressive combination of size and speed. And his production should only keep growing from here.
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears. Howard's situation is less attractive -- another uninspiring rushing offense that's even more crowded. Starter Jeremy Langford reportedly is out four to six weeks with an ankle injury, backup Ka'Deem Carey is dealing with a hamstring injury and the Bears just signed veteran Joique Bell for depth. For that reason, ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson said he ultimately sees Howard as being "more of a committee guy."
But the rookie fifth-round pick does have a few things going for him: He proved last week he could step up, with 45 rushing yards on nine carries and 47 receiving yards on four catches. He should be the main man again this week, so Dickerson said 100 yards from scrimmage is entirely possible. And most importantly, if Howard plays well enough, there's always the chance that he could win the leading-man job full-time. It’s not like Langford was playing so well that he can’t be Wally Pipp-ed.
Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles. Smallwood (another rookie fifth-round pick) looked even better than Howard last week. He ran for 79 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries while starter Ryan Mathews was nursing an ankle injury.
The problem is that Philly is on a bye week, and Mathews could be back in his usual role by Week 5. ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus said Mathews still is the Eagles’ preferred choice when healthy.
But Mathews has a long history of nagging injuries, and the ankle has been bothering him since the start of the season. So “there should be plenty of opportunities for Smallwood over the course of the season,” McManus said, “and those opportunities will likely grow if he continues to produce like he did against the Steelers.”
Orleans Darkwa and Bobby Rainey, New York Giants. New York’s backfield has changed quite a bit since Week 2, with Shane Vereen being placed on IR with a triceps injury and Rashad Jennings dealing with a thumb injury which leaves his status uncertain for Monday night. Darkwa could replace Jennings as the leading runner for at least one more week, and ESPN Giants reporter Jordan Raanan sees Rainey supplanting Vereen in the pass-catching/change-of-pace role. Rookie Paul Perkins (yet another rookie fifth-round pick!) also lurking as a backup option with potential.
This backfield is a bit too crowded to be fantasy-relevant -- and Jennings shouldn’t be out much longer. But for this week at least, Darkwa could be a nice fill-in option. He stepped up with 53 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries last week.
Damien Williams, Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins randomly went with Williams as their starter on Thursday night -- but then he finished with just two carries for 9 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals, compared to six carries for Jay Ajayi, two for Kenyan Drake and three for Isaiah Pead. ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker's advice last week was "buyer beware" on all of Miami's options while starter Arian Foster is out with a groin injury. That remains sage advice.
Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore Ravens. West isn’t exactly a new option in Baltimore, but ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley said in this week’s NFL Nation buy/sell column that he could see West supplanting Justin Forsett as the starter after Forsett’s lackluster start (Forsett has 21 carries for 57 yards over the past two weeks; West has 21 carries for 87 yards over the past two weeks).
One name to keep in mind here, though, is rookie Kenneth Dixon (a fourth-round pick -- not a fifth-rounder). Dixon began practicing on a limited basis this week after missing the start of the year with a knee injury. Hensley said Dixon will be eased back into the mix -- and he pointed out that John Harbaugh doesn’t have a strong history of giving heavy workloads to rookie running backs. But Hensley said Dixon has the potential to become a No. 1 back in the second half of the year if he stays healthy and proves worthy.
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m guessing this dude isn’t available on your waiver wire. But for anyone having doubts about using Bell in the starting lineup right away because backup DeAngelo Williams has looked so good, don’t fret. ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler wrote this week that Pittsburgh’s offense is creative enough to get both guys involved, especially with a glaring need for Bell to help out in the passing game.
As Fowler wrote, Bell is “almost like a glorified slot receiver,” having caught 83 passes for 854 yards in his last full season (2014).