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Ten Rookie Running Backs Worth Watching in the 2008 NFL Season...By Jay Graziani

With NFL camps in full swing and fantasy draft season rapidly approaching, it's time to evaluate this year's crop of fresh talent. Whether you are looking for early handicapping angles or scoping out sleepers for your fantasy team, finding the next Adrian Peterson is unfortunately more art than science. Here's a quick look at the rookie running backs that could make an impact in the NFL in 2008, ordered by projected impact.

1. Matt Forte, Bears. Forte's stock soared after an impressive 2007 campaign and an excellent showing at the 2008 Senior Bowl where he walked away with MVP honors. Cedric Benson's dismissal has left a huge hole in the Bears backfield, and Forte has impressed early in camp. He will see extensive time on the field this year, and could very well enter the season as the undisputed starter. The downsides are a weak Bears offense and a somewhat cluttered backfield, with veterans Adrain Peterson (the other one) and Kevin Jones also in the mix. Nonetheless, he has already had plenty of time to become accustomed to playing with the starters, so look for an excellent year from him as the potential go-to guy in a run-first offense. Though not as hyped as other rookies, Forte could put up the best numbers of the bunch in 2008.

2. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers. Stewart was the 13th overall pick in this year's draft, widely recognized as one of the most "complete" running backs of the draft after a stellar career at Oregon. While he will have to split the workload with DeAngelo Williams, he has a competent offense behind him and will likely see a lot of catches out of the backfield as well as making appearances on kick returns. Stewart is a quality back, and while the "backfield by committee" approach will hinder his production this year, he still has the chance to post solid numbers.

3. Kevin Smith, Lions. Smith is getting plenty of attention in Detroit, where he is making a push to pass Tatum Bell on the depth chart. The Lions are intent on a run-focused offense this season, and they hope Smith will be an integral part of that offense. He is the second leading collegiate single-season rusher of all time, falling just 61 yards short of Barry Sanders' record during the 2007 season. Smith could get plenty of touches and should have a very productive year for the Lions.

4. Darren McFadden, Raiders. McFadden, the 4th overall pick in the draft, is high on talent, but unfortunately drew the short straw in getting stuck with the Raiders. Their offense still needs work, with a spotty O-line and an inexperienced Jamarcus Russell under center. McFadden is a great long-term prospect, but may have trouble living up to his potential this year in a struggling offense with a crowded backfield.

5. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers. Mendenhall was the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year coming out of Illinois. He is a power runner, something the Steelers have desperately needed since Najeh Davenport has been continuously injured. Mendenhall will see plenty of action in two-back sets and could put up decent numbers even as the sidekick to Willie Parker, including touches on the goal line.

6. Ray Rice, Ravens. Baltimore's selection of Rice in the 2nd round was somewhat surprising. His size and speed have been criticized, though he is immensely talented as evidenced by the number of team records he set while at Rutgers, propelling that little-noticed program into the limelight. He is drawing comparison to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, and may be used in similar fashion in the offense. While it will be tough for him to surpass Willis McGahee on the depth charts, he has impressed the Ravens coaching staff and should get his share of touches and catches out of the backfield this year.

7. Mike Hart, Colts. Once a potential first-round draft selection, Hart plummeted to be scraped up by Indianapolis in the 6th round. He has the most yards and third-most touchdowns of any player in Michigan's storied history. While undersized, Hart has excellent hands (only 3 fumbles in his entire collegiate career) and should at least seem some action as a backup. Unfortunately, he won't have much of a chance to shine unless Joseph Addai is injured, but Hart is one to keep an eye on for the long term or in keeper fantasy leagues.

8. Felix Jones, Dallas. Jones put together an impressive career at Arkansas, even while playing second fiddle to McFadden. He is one of the most NFL-ready rookies, but unfortunately is stuck behind Marion Barber in Dallas. He will be used primarily as a change-of-pace back, but should see some action in 2-back sets as well. On such a strong offense, he could put up some decent numbers even though Barber will handle most of the work and the goal line carries.

9. Tim Hightower, Cardinals. Hightower is a very deep sleeper, a fifth-round pick hailing from the University of Richmond Spiders, but an intriguing prospect, nonetheless. He is currently fourth on the depth chart, but starter Edgerrin James has been on the decline, and veteran backups Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington have been unimpressive for most of their careers. Hightower is receiving plenty of praise in camp, and could be the number two back come opening day. The Cardinals have some offensive weapons, which could bode well for Hightower getting some touches and perhaps moving into the starting role should James continue to decline.

10. Steve Slaton, Texans. Houston has a crowded backfield, and Chris Brown's injury is just muddying it further. After his impressive collegiate career at West Virginia, Slaton should at least get some consideration in Houston, but don't expect much performance out of him in the immediate future. Keep an eye on him as a long-term prospect.

Jay Graziani

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