To all those who think the four NFC South teams are so set at running back they don’t need to touch that position in the upcoming draft, I give you DeShawn Wynn.
In the second half of the New Orleans Saints' playoff loss to Seattle, Wynn was getting much of the playing time and serving as the last-resort blocker for Drew Brees as the Saints tried to come from behind and keep their dream of back-to-back Super Bowls alive. It didn’t happen, and that’s largely because the Saints simply ran out of running backs.
Wynn, who had been with the Saints earlier in the season, had been re-signed in the week leading into the game. Same for Joique Bell, who didn’t make the active roster that day, but the Saints could have used him. They went into the game with Julius Jones and Reggie Bush as their running backs.
Jones was a retread from coach Sean Payton’s Dallas days and was with the Saints only because there already were problems at running back. Bush spent much of last season on the sideline, but was healthy enough to at least set foot on Qwest Field. That’s more than can be said for Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who weren’t available because of injuries.
Jones and Bush quickly got banged up by a Seattle defense that didn’t scare too many people last season. That left the Saints with Wynn and a loss.
There’s a lesson in that for the entire NFC South. No matter how set you think you are at running back, you’re probably not as well off as you think. As they head into the draft, the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers all seem to have at least an immediate feature back, and the Saints look to have plenty of options in an offense that relies on playing a variety of running backs.
But none of the NFC South teams can afford to ignore running back in this draft. Here’s a team-by-team look at why:
Falcons. Michael Turner's coming off a season in which he ran for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns and Jason Snelling's a solid backup with the ability to function as a power runner and catch passes out of the backfield. But that’s not enough.
The Falcons got only two games out of Jerious Norwood before he went down with a season-ending injury. Norwood is the guy the Falcons always have envisioned as their speed back, but he’s never been able to stay healthy, and his time in Atlanta looks to be over.
The Falcons could look for a pure speed back like Kentucky’s Derrick Locke or North Carolina’s Johnny White in the middle rounds. But there’s been talk in mock-draft circles that Alabama running back Mark Ingram could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 27. There are seemingly larger needs at defensive end and wide receiver, but would the Falcons be wise to pass on Ingram if he’s available?
Ingram’s not a pure speed back and he’s not a true power back. He’s somewhere in between, and he’s the closest thing to a surefire feature back in this year’s draft. The Falcons have been pushing their luck with Turner. He carried 334 times last season and 376 times in 2008. He missed five games because of injury in 2009. There were times last season when Turner seemed to lack the pop he showed early in his Atlanta days, and you have to wonder if he’s starting to wear down.
It might be time to get an heir apparent in Atlanta. Even if Turner stays healthy, the Falcons could use someone to pick up some of his carries or else they might end up with an empty backfield like the Saints in Seattle.
Buccaneers. Tampa Bay fans are excited about LeGarrette Blount and rightfully so. The undrafted rookie was cut by the Titans in training camp, and Tampa Bay took a shot by picking him up. By midseason, Blount was Tampa Bay’s feature back. He ran for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries.
Blount’s role and statistics should only continue to improve next season. But it’s tough to look objectively at Tampa Bay’s backfield situation and say the Bucs are just fine. Cadillac Williams is a potential free agent. If he returns, it will be only in the role of third-down back he filled the second half of last season. There’s a chorus of fans in Tampa Bay who believe Kareem Huggins is the perfect complement to Blount.
He might be. Huggins is one of those guys who flashes promise in the preseason. But he has only four regular-season carries in his career and he’s coming off a major knee injury. Before the lockout, the Bucs weren’t overly optimistic Huggins would be ready for the start of training camp.
Then, there is Blount. His physical style and habit of trying to hurdle defenders could leave him open to injury. Also, Blount went undrafted for a reason. He had a violent altercation with an opponent after a college game, and questions remain about his ability to keep his emotions in check over the long haul. Maybe that’s why the Bucs had Ingram in for a pre-draft visit earlier this week.
Panthers. On paper, they’ve got the best backfield in the division. They’ve got DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and either one could be the feature back for most teams. They also have Mike Goodson, who emerged last season when there were injuries in the backfield.
But, depending on how the labor situation plays out, Williams will be either a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Stewart came into the league with foot problems and rarely has been completely healthy. If Williams goes, the Panthers suddenly are on thin ice. They’d be one Stewart injury away from having to use Goodson, who is ideal as a part-time player, as their full-time running back.
Saints. This circle started and will end with New Orleans. The Saints re-signed Thomas before the lockout. They’ve given indications they plan to extend Bush’s contract and keep him. All signs are that Thomas, Bush and Ivory should be recovered from their injuries. Promising young running back Lynell Hamilton also is coming back from injury.
The numbers say the Saints are just fine at running back. But recent history tells another story. The Saints also had Ingram in for a visit, and he has to be a consideration if he’s available at No. 24. Even if it’s not Ingram, the Saints need to add a running back somewhere in the draft.
Of all the NFC South teams, the Saints know best that you never can have enough good running backs. If they had one more last year, they might have gone back to the Super Bowl.