Great back, even better opportunity

Is Pierre Thomas really capable of producing like a No. 1 running back?

Darren Sproles is a handcuff for LaDainian Tomlinson. Felix Jones is the same in Dallas for Marion Barber. We could name many other situations around the league just like this. In New Orleans, however, Reggie Bush is not that guy for Pierre Thomas. Bush is a wide receiver in a running back's clothing. And Thomas is about to become a star.

I don't mean to rip Bush because I think he's turning into a decent value this preseason. Few think he can remain healthy enough to consistently help a fantasy team, but he has an innate ability to catch passes and make things happen in the open field. Bush can be a terrific player, and he can be drafted well after the top 50 players. He just can't be the kind of running back who rushes for 1,200 yards and takes care of business around the goal line. On a team like the Saints that scores seemingly at will much of the time, Bush can catch his 80 passes and take the occasional handoff without infringing on the team's main running back too much.

Thomas showed in the second half of last season what he can do when the Saints give him the majority of the carries. And people forget that Bush was actually on the field a few of those games, as was Deuce McAllister. Thomas didn't care; he ran for 77 or more yards five times in a six-game span, and scored six rushing touchdowns as well. He also caught seven passes in a game against the Bears, and in two other contests, his lone reception of the game went for a touchdown. In all, Thomas scored 12 touchdowns last season despite playing a minimal role in more than half of the Saints' games. He's not going to play a minimal role this season.

Thomas is the team's primary back, so don't worry about Bush. Thomas is the guy slated to receive in the area of 20 rushes per game, and judging by his 4.8 yards-per-carry average not only in 2008 but as a career mark, that's a very good thing. Injuries shouldn't be a problem, and neither should opportunity. Bush does his own thing, and he does it very well, but after three seasons of struggling to find space between the tackles, staying upright after the first hit at the line and, quite obviously, staying healthy, one would think the Saints realize the role he's best suited for is as a backup/pass-receiving specialist. There are no impediments to Thomas' becoming the main running back. That's the first issue at hand. The other is just how good he can be.

In his wildly popular "You Heard Me!" column now posted on ESPN Fantasy, colleague Matthew Berry went out on a major limb and predicted Thomas would end up as a top-10 running back. He's sure to get the requisite guffaws, but is it really such a crazy comment? Thomas showed a knack for the end zone last season, and now we should expect the rushing yards to follow. I could see 1,200 yards and double-digit scores, numbers which actually could make Thomas a top-10 running back. Last season only four running backs scored 10 or more touchdowns and ran for 1,200 yards. One of them was Thomas Jones. Isn't Pierre Thomas better than Jones? He's certainly in a much better situation to succeed. Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton are regarded as first-round picks by many, and they each ran for 1,200-plus yards and scored a total of 10 touchdowns, one each through the air. Thomas catches passes, and he's only 24. And it's not like Bush is going to play all 16 games, after all.

Add it all up, and yeah, believe it or not, Thomas can be a No. 1 fantasy running back, though fantasy owners don't necessarily have to select him as such. This is the year of the wide receiver infiltrating our first round, and if you don't have two really good wide receivers by Round 5, let's just say you're going to be sorry. Thomas is a huge bargain with where he is slipping in drafts: Berry stole him in our most recent mock draft (Monday) with pick No. 29, the 16th running back off the board. In a 10-team league, I wouldn't seek out Thomas as your top running back, but surely there will be some owners who go with wide receivers in the first two rounds, or a wide receiver plus Tom Brady or Drew Brees, and have to do so. Thomas is the rare running back whom people don't trust and won't take too early but will end up with numbers as good as some of the first-round backs. If you build a strong receiving corps early on, you can afford Thomas as your top running back.

You might be wondering then, why don't Berry and I rank Thomas in our top 10? It's simple, really, and it's all about supply and demand, risk versus reward. There are probably 15 or more other running backs with more of a pedigree than Thomas. They've proven it for an entire season before. They have that indefinable upside thing. They don't have a Heisman Trophy winner knocking on the door. Thomas came out of nowhere, and many people are going to be wary of trusting him in Round 3 in a standard league until he proves he can produce 1,600 total yards and score among the best. I see all that.

I'm not expecting Pierre Thomas to end up a top-10 running back, but I certainly won't be a bit surprised if he does. One doesn't have to be a top-10 pick to be a No. 1 running back in fantasy football, certainly not this season. The rules are different now, and probably have been for years. I say Thomas has the skills and opportunity to do be a fantasy team's top running back, so don't panic or be disappointed if your draft ends up that way.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy football. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.