With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Arizona Cardinals will be handing the starting quarterback job to Matt Leinart. With all apologies to Leinart, that's quite a downgrade, Heisman Trophy notwithstanding. Add to that the trading away of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the Baltimore Ravens, and the signing of veteran offensive lineman Alan Faneca, and it's obvious that this offense is not planning to throw the ball nearly as often as in the past. That's great news for Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, a pair of running backs who were pretty much an afterthought in 2009, when the Cardinals were dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts.
Considering the relative lack of work -- Wells ranked 28th among all running backs in carries -- the fact that the rookie finished with more yards per carry than 16 of those who had more rushing attempts bodes well for a successful sophomore season. His 793 total yards is even more impressive when you factor in that he never had more than 17 carries in a single game, and that entering play in Week 6, he had only 95 yards to his name, the result of missing most of the preseason with an ankle injury. Wells also had six touchdowns in the last eight games of the regular season, beginning to show a nose for the end zone. With the Cardinals' three divisional foes having allowed a combined 53 rushing scores last season, it's no surprise that Wells is currently being selected, on average, as the 15th overall running back and 32nd overall pick in ESPN live drafts -- and deservedly so.
However, there's a huge monkey wrench in the works for those fantasy owners looking to make Wells their No. 2 running back. His name is Tim Hightower. Hightower has some skills that Wells simply does not possess. He's a far better pass-catcher -- 63 receptions, as opposed to only 12 for Wells -- and also is much better at overall pass protection and picking up the blitz. While the Cardinals may not be throwing the ball as often with Warner gone, they're certainly not going to give up the pass completely, especially when they still have a weapon like Larry Fitzgerald at their disposal. Not only that, but with Leinart's relative inexperience, having a little more time to make the proper decision is essential to his success. Hightower is definitely going to see a lot of third-down snaps to try to give Leinart that one extra block and those few extra seconds.
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More than that, Hightower has proved himself to be a goal-line vulture of enormous proportions. Last season, he had twice as many carries inside the 5-yard line as Wells, and eight of his 10 rushing touchdowns (including two in two playoff games) were from inside the 3. Wells certainly has the size to be able to pound the ball home from in close by himself, but with his general noninclusion on passing plays, it probably makes more sense for Ken Whisenhunt's offense to pull him for Hightower, in order to leave the defense guessing.
To that end, Hightower looks to be more than just your run-of-the-mill handcuff; certainly those who draft Wells would be smart to select his teammate as well, just in case the injury bug bites Beanie again. Overall, the Cardinals will surely run the ball more in 2010, and Wells will be the beneficiary of the vast majority of those touches. Having said that, at worst, you should expect Hightower to get just as much of the ball as he did last season, and that workload resulted in his finishing second behind only Ray Rice in terms of total receptions, and pushed him over 1,000 yards in total offense.
A quick look at the running backs being drafted around the same time as Hightower right now reveals the following names: Donald Brown, an injury-prone youngster with a lack of pass-blocking skills on the pass-happy Indianapolis Colts; Leon Washington, a question mark for the Seattle Seahawks, coming off a broken leg that may not have completely healed; Montario Hardesty, a totally unknown quantity as a rookie for the Cleveland Browns who has had three prior knee surgeries; and Chester Taylor, an "ancient" 30-year-old backup to Matt Forte for the Chicago Bears, who didn't break 400 yards rushing in either of the past two seasons. Do any of those guys seem ready to produce anything like the floor of what Hightower should be able to provide to your fantasy team?
Hightower may not be the "go-to" guy in Arizona, but the Cardinals are certainly going to go to him enough to make him far more than your typical NFL No. 2 running back. He's not simply there as an insurance policy. He's going to be an integral part of this offense, and while nobody is suggesting that you select him ahead of full-time starters, after the first 32 or so running backs are gone, it's time to move him to the head of the class.