Highly-touted rookie quarterbacks are not the only ones playing in the preseason. In fact, there are running backs -- remember running backs in football? -- working this month that you should be paying close attention to with the season starting in two weeks.
This is preseason. I believe we are mandated to issue that caveat in any feature discussing player performances in August, but the following running backs have all caught my eye, mostly for the right reasons. Which of these guys do you trust to carry it through the regular season? What other running backs out there are on your radar because of strong showings in camp or the preseason?
The last time you heard about Liberty University it was probably embroiled in an election year controversy. You may be hearing more about it again as Jacksonville Jaguars running back Rashad Jennings keeps on rolling up preseason yardage in place of Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jennings ran the ball 11 times for 62 yards against the Saints over the weekend, an average of 5.6 yards per carry. The week before, he carried the rock 12 times for 56 yards for an average of 4.7 yards per carry against the Giants. Yes, the this is the preseason, but you don't need a diploma from Liberty U to know that Jennings' productivity is not an illusion.
This is not to suggest that Jones-Drew is redundant. He most certainly is not. Jennings was successful in limited work in 2010, working in place of MJD for a sliver of games. His continued success in the preseason only suggests that his team is deep at running back, a very lucky thing should MJD need some adjustment time upon his return.
The Tennessee Titans' running back is still giving fantasy football general managers and fans nightmares after a slow start to the season in 2011. This year, Titans fans can focus their worries on Jake Locker, because CJ2K looks just fine.
He had two touchdowns on 10 carries, accumulating 46 yards, poking holes in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense last week. Johnson's first game of the preseason was less productive, but he two more practice games to reassure the world of his skills. I like what I saw from him in this touchdown run from last week. He has his burst and makes a nice cut then a few lateral steps without slowing down.
Atlanta is going to be throwing the ball much more than it used to under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, moving away from the offense that had The Burner as its centerpiece for years. They may not have much choice anyway, given reports that Turner looks a step slower through the preseason.
If Michael Turner truly did plunge down a bottomless chasm, it's worth remembering that Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter seems quite enamored with Jacquizz Rodgers. It's not like the Falcons' ground game would suddenly fall entirely to pieces, which is a nice change of pace.
The problem with Turner is one of mileage. He carried the ball more than 300 times in three of his last four seasons, and he turned 30 in February. Last year, from Week 12 through 16, he failed to top 4 yards per carry in a game, before exploding for 172 yards and two touchdowns against Tampa Bay in the season finale. Rodgers has 57 yards on 13 carries in the preseason, and his workload is bound to increase this season regardless. Turner's performance in the weeks ahead will determine just how much Rodgers' load increases to start the season.
Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy look exactly like you would expect them to, and both seem poised for big years. I'm far more interested to see what kind of season awaits Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden. He was on his way to a big year in 2011, but a Lisfranc (foot) injury ended his season in Week 7.
The Arkansas product has shown no lingering effect from the injury in preseason work so far. He broke free for a 22-yard run against the Cardinals last week, reminding everyone of the back who had 393 yards in his first three games last season. Oakland is moving to a zone blocking scheme this year, so watch how the line does with that through the preseason. If the front five gets the system down, McFadden could really produce ... just as long as he stays healthy.
The Chiefs laid an egg against the Rams this week in preseason play this week. Struggles with fundamentals aside, Kansas City has to be pleased with what they have seen so far from Jamaal Charles and free agent addition Peyton Hillis.
Charles is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. More importantly, he looks healthy after tearing his ACL early last season. Hillis also looks healthy after his own struggles with injury last season. He averaged more than 10 yards per carry in the first game of the preseason, but running lanes were harder to come by on five carries against the Rams. Hillis' leaping touchdown was a good sign for the Chiefs.
Martin and LeGarrette Blount have each been making their case for the top of the depth chart in Tampa Bay. Blount took a nasty hit over the weekend, and it looked like he might miss some time. He returned to practice a full participant, meaning Martin would not have the spotlight to himself this week.
Bucs Nation contrasted the two running backs after Tampa Bay's loss to the Titans:
Blount was tentative all night, not running with authority.
In fact, the only bright spot on the offensive side of the ball was Doug Martin, who had 23 yards on 7 carries but had a beautiful 16 yard scamper called back on a late holding call.
Martin had third down duties all sewn up, thanks to a natural ability as a pass blocker and as a receiver. He now looks like the better all around back and should have the starting job soon.
The Jets doubled down on their commitment to the running game this year, hiring Tony Sparano and bringing in, you know, that one guy. That dedication to the running game makes the Jets' preseason efforts that much more of a concern. Greene is plodding his way to an average of less than 3 yards per carry through two preseason games.
More troubling is the Jets' struggles in run blocking. They were stuffed by the Giants repeatedly in short yardage situations, including a third-and-1 followed by a fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter last week. The Jets have done little but send up red flags this month, and Greene's play looks like something else to be concerned about as the season gets closer.
Roy Helu is out of action with two sore Achilles tendons. He was one of the few positives from Washington's 2011 season. This year, he could be the latest victim of a classic Mike Shanahan running back shuffle. Alfred Morris worked with the starters last week against the Bears, collecting 34 yards on 10 carries. Blowing a block that got RGIII sacked is no way to endear yourself to the coach. Evan Royster is another underwhelming option to take on more of the workload.
Tim Hightower is working his way back from a torn ACL, and he could be in the lineup this week against the Colts. If he does not play this week, it could be a few more weeks before he plays any role with the offense.