How did Steve Slaton turn out to be fantasy football's seventh-most valuable running back in 2008, especially when he lasted until the 89th pick in the '08 NFL Draft? First and foremost, certainly, it was talent: Slaton is a decisive one-cut runner custom-made for the blocking system Gary Kubiak and Alex Gibbs prefer in Houston. But talent alone doesn't make you a statistical stud.
Slaton had opportunity. Ahman Green and Chris Brown were supposed to be the Texans' starters, but that's like putting Moe and Larry in charge of your gravy factory: eventually, someone's getting poked in the eye and then, y'know, falling into a vat of gravy. Brown couldn't make it out of the preseason because of a bad back that caused him to go on IR, while Green limped through half the year with a bad knee that eventually sent him to the reserve list, too. The field was wide open, so the teeny-tiny Slaton (listed at 5-foot-9, but come on) got a lot of rope. He actually wasn't all that great in the first nine games of '08: he did have five rushing scores, but he produced just one 100-yard rushing day and a not-thrilling 4.39 yards-per-carry average. But no one else was around to steal Slaton's thunder, and he went crazier in the final six contests: 737 yards and four more touchdowns. Now he's a top-20 fantasy pick, a good bet for 50 receptions, and probably a little overrated. Which is hard to believe, considering what we all thought of him last summer.
So heading into 2009, who might repeat Slaton's unexpected rise to fantasy glory? We need fantasy rushers who have a combination of talent and potential opportunity. Here are five:
Caught on film
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Kevin Smith, Lions Smith showed the desired level of gumption amid the Lions' crackup in 2008: he was ticked off that his team was winless, and raised his game in the season's latter stages to try to prevent 0-16. He couldn't do it, but the guy's got moxie. This winter, he even predicted that Detroit would make the playoffs in '09. Now he needs an offensive line. Last season the line's interior was just awful (helmed by free-agent bust Edwin Mulitalo), and the tackles, Jeff Backus and '08 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus, weren't good in pass protection. But Cherilus is a talented run-blocker, and new Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will keep the one-cut system which helped make Smith the NCAA's leading rusher in '07. The similarities between Smith and Slaton are striking: Each is a quick, decisive runner without sprinter's speed but with very nice elusiveness, and each can catch passes extremely well out of the backfield. I'll admit I (like just about every NFL writer out there) thought Smith would have a better career than Slaton, simply because he's got a bigger body. Detroit would need to make a pretty big turnaround under new coach Jim Schwartz, but Smith does have "breakout" written on him.
Pierre Thomas, Saints The Saints spent the winter pondering whether they needed a true big back to replace the departed Deuce McAllister, then decided that a bulked-up Thomas would do the job just fine. He led the team in red-zone carries last year, and after Reggie Bush tore a knee meniscus, Thomas had 99 carries for 501 yards and six touchdowns. Of course, the worries when it comes to Thomas are plentiful: he's not a particularly dynamic runner, he plays on an offense that could lead the league in pass attempts, and he's got Bush stealing a ton of snaps. Indeed, it likely will be the way Sean Payton uses Bush that determines whether or not Thomas becomes a true fantasy star in '09. The former No. 2 overall pick is coming off microfracture surgery, and at this point one wonders whether his knees make clinking noises when he walks, but Bush is still probably the scariest receiving back in the NFL. At the very least, that means Thomas will sit on third downs. Indeed, right now it's tough to envision the Saints truly anointing Thomas their No. 1 guy, or giving him upwards of 20 carries per game. And honestly, Thomas' skills aren't a match for Slaton's; he's now a 220-pound back who'll pound between the tackles and won't post many receptions. But if and when Bush gets hurt, the fantasy sky could be the limit for Pierre Thomas. After all, McAllister scored 10 rushing touchdowns for Payton as recently as 2006.
Darren McFadden, Raiders Maybe it happens for Run-DMC a year later than we all hoped. Coming out of the University of Arkansas as the NFL Draft's No. 4 pick in '08, McFadden was supposed to be an Adrian Peterson clone who'd burst onto the fantasy scene and dominate. It didn't happen. McFadden fought a turf toe injury all season and never recovered his rushing burst, and it didn't help that the Raiders were pretty much hapless everywhere else on offense, too. He wound up with just 499 rushing yards and four touchdowns. If the kid's healthy in '09, though, he's our favorite to wrest carries from a crowded backfield. Justin Fargas is still nominally the starter, though he's the guy we like third-best; bruising Michael Bush is also on hand, and he'd be a natural complement creating destruction in the red zone. McFadden, though, is still the player with superstar upside. He needs to show he's healthy and can endure the pounding his legs and feet will take in the NFL (he's reportedly wearing steel toes in his cleats this summer), but if that happens, and if the Raiders can shore up what was a pretty crummy offensive line in '08, McFadden could give the team no choice but to give him the starting gig this year.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos Oh, great. The Broncos have 71 running back candidates again. New head coach Josh McDaniels never seemed to settle on a single rusher during his time as New England's offensive coordinator, and he's got all sorts of toys to play with now that he's a mile high: Correll Buckhalter, J.J. Arrington, LaMont Jordan, Ryan Torain, Peyton Hillis and this spring's first-round pick, Moreno. That makes any of these guys very dangerous to spend an early fantasy pick on. But the Broncos have two of the best tackles in the game, Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris, and while the line's interior depth chart doesn't leap off the page with awesomeness, it's solid enough. That makes this a potentially valuable backfield gig, and given the mediocrity of the team's other backs, you have to believe Moreno will at least get a long look at being the unquestioned starter. Arrington is a third-down back, Torain is coming off a torn ACL and could begin the year on the PUP list, and Hillis is reportedly moving back to fullback. That leaves Moreno, Buckhalter and Jordan. Moreno has the physical tools to be way better than the other two guys. For a player his size (220 pounds), Moreno has tremendous quickness and is a superb pass-blocker. It's unfortunate that there are so many bodies here, because it almost seems a fait accompli that someone will emerge as a short-yardage player to steal some of Moreno's value. If that doesn't happen, though, Moreno could be a fantasy star right away.
Felix Jones, Cowboys Jones looked tremendous in the first six games of his rookie campaign -- 30 carries for a whopping 266 yards and three touchdowns, plus some dynamic kickoff returns -- before a turf toe injury ended his season. (What is it about those Arkansas rushers and their big toes?) In Jones' absence, Marion Barber pretty much proved his best role in the Cowboys backfield is not as an every-down starter, but rather as a platoon back who can stay fresh until the fourth quarter and then close out games with his punishing style. That should leave a sizable role for the lightning-fast Jones, who might not give you the fantasy consistency of an '08 Slaton, but who could very well wind up winning some fantasy games simply by dint of his ability to hit the home run. Actually, in terms of pure skill sets, Jones may be the best comparable to Slaton of those I've listed here, except Jones has deep speed Slaton can't touch. It probably would take injuries to Barber and third-stringer Tashard Choice for Jones to get a Slaton-style look as a feature back, but if that happens, look out. Jones suddenly would vault into the ranks of the every-week fantasy starters.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.