Last season the Giants rode their three-headed rushing attack, nicknamed "Earth, Wind, and Fire" to a 12-4 record and an NFC East division crown, leading the NFL in both rushing yards and yards per-carry. Despite this success, the loss of 1,000 yard rusher Derrick Ward has led many to label the Giants running game as a question mark entering the 2009 season. Many Giants fans have responded that Ward is an easily replaceable cog in the machine, and there will be little dropoff in production from Ward to Danny Ware and/or Andre Brown. Initially, however, it will probably be Ahmad Bradshaw who will be asked to replace Ward's production, with some combination of Ware and Brown taking up the 3rd spot that Bradshaw covered last season.
Rather than leave it to pure speculation, I've decided to dig into the backgrounds of each player to try to determine what the Giants can expect this season. I've left Brandon Jacobs out of the equation, because he's not being asked to take on a new role and we pretty much know what to expect from him at this point. Let's begin the analysis by looking at the player the Giants will be replacing:
We all know how good he's been the past two seasons: 602 yards at a 4.8 YPC clip in only 8 games in 2007 followed by 1,025 yards at a league-leading 5.6 YPC clip last seaon. He also caught 67 passes for 563 yards over that 24 game span. The fact of the matter is that for the past season two seasons, Derrick Ward has been a star running back.
That said, where did Derrick Ward come from? Was there anything in his background to predict that he'd be such a dynamic player for the Giants? Ward started his collegiate career at Fresno St., where he was a freshman All-American. In two years at Fresno St., he played in 20 games, ran for 1,091 yards and 11 TD's, averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and caught 3 passses for 49 yards. Injuries and academic ineligibility cut his career at Fresno St. short, and he transferred to Ottawa University in Kansas for the 2003 season. As a 23 year-old reshirt senior, Ward set NAIA single-season records with 2,061 yards rushing, 28 TD's, and 7.8 yards per carry. He also caught four passes for 47 yards.
Ward's unusual college career was impressive enough to get him drafted in the 7th round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Jets, but he never made their roster. The Giants signed him off of the Jets practice squad, but in the 3 seasons prior to 2007, he had only carried the ball 35 times for 123 yards (3.5 YPC) and caught 2 passes for 13 yards, all during the 2005 season and most of those during a 36-0 blowout of the Redskins.
Other than being named a freshman All-American nearly a decade earlier and dominating an inferior college league as a 23 year old, there was nothing about Derrick Ward that suggested he would become an NFL starter, let alone a star. SI.com, which was the only website whose complete draft archives dating back to 2004 I could access, rated Ward a 2.9, or "future practice squad player."
Bradshaw has become something of a cult hero to many Giants fans, who fondly recall his magnificent game and 88-yard run against the Bills during the stretch of the 2007 season, which he followed up by becoming the Giants leading rusher during the Super Bowl run and leading all rushers during Super Bowl XLII. Just that last sentence alone is more impressive than anything Derrick Ward had accomplished before 2007.
Bradshaw was a highly-touted high school running back who was recruited by the University of Virginia, but was kicked off the team for a brush with the police. He attended Marshall University instead, where he ran for 2,982 yards and 31 TDs over 3 seasons, averaging 5.3 YPC while catching 87 passes for 697 yards. During his junior year, Bradshaw once again got in trouble with the law for stealing a Playstation and decided to take his chances with the NFL Draft rather than stick around Marshall. The Giants selected him in the 7th round of the now-famous 2007 draft. SI.com gave him a 3.23 prospect grade but projected him as an undrafted free agent. Through his first two seasons in the NFL, Bradshaw has rushed for 545 yards, averaging 6.1 YPC and has caught 7 passes for 54 yards.
Coming into this season, Bradshaw has a much more impressive resume than Ward had heading into 2007. He had a much more impressive college career, and in his rookie season alone he accomplished something many Hall of Famers haven't done, let alone Ward (Bradshaw has more career rushing yards in the Super Bowl than Barry Sanders - how's that for cherry-picking?)
Danny Ware attended the University of Georgia for the same three years that Bradshaw was at Marshall. Ware had a good freshman season but saw his production diminish as he was part of a running back platoon for the Bulldogs over his subsequent two seasons. He totalled 1,510 yards at an average of 4.8 YPC and caught 28 passes for 357 yards.
Ware was signed by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent after the 2007 draft, but SI.com actually thought more highly of him than they did of Bradshaw, giving him a 3.33 prospect grade and projecting him as a sixth-round pick. Ware has spent the last two seasons with the Giants and looked very good last preseason, but he has only gotten 2 regular season carries for 15 yards. Because we've seen so little of him on the field, here's what SI.com had to say about him coming out of college:
PROS: Nice-sized ball carrier who has flashed skill during limited playing time in college. Displays a burst through the hole and solid open-field running skills. Effective receiver out of the backfield. Picks up blocking assignments and gives effort.
NEGATIVES: Not a creative or elusive runner. Does not play to his size, break tackles or move the pile.
ANALYSIS: Stuck in a rotational running back situation at Georgia, Ware decided to opt for the NFL after a minimally productive college career. Possesses the physical skills to play at the next level, yet has an unpolished game which needs a lot of work.
The final running back in the Giants equation is the most recently acquired one, this years fourth-round pick Andre Brown. Brown is the only one of the four players we're looking at who played a full four seasons in college, though he is still younger than Ward was when he played his one season of NAIA football. Brown ran for 2,539 yards and 22 TDs at a 4.9 YPC clip while catching 70 passes for 631 yards, with 54 of those catches coming in his final two seasons at NC State. Brown was the most highly rated of the four by SI.com, scoring a 3.86 prospect grade and a second round pick projection. Because Brown has no NFL experience, here's what SI had to say about him:
After a sensational freshman campaign, Brown was stamped as a potential early first round pick and featured runner for the next level. He was able to pull it all together as a senior after several injury plagued seasons then really showed off his talents in the post season. He presents himself as a complete back who can carry the ball, catch it out of the backfield, or effectively pick up blocking assignments. Brown will be productive at the next level in a system that rotates ball carriers and makes the most of his versatility.
Looking back at all the relevant information, I think it's easy to see that Bradshaw, Ware, and Brown are at least as capable heading into this season, if not more so, than Derrick Ward was heading into his breakout 2007 season. I don't mean to belittle what Ward did -- he's been one of my favorite players on the Giants the past two years, and obviously it's possible that none of these guys put it together the way Ward did, but it's my hunch that the Giants will be just fine.
One of the most frequent talking points is that Ward was the Giants "receiving back," and that nobody on the Giants is qualified to fill that role. The thing that struck me most, however, was that Ward actually had the least receiving experience of all four backs profiled here. Between the end of his high school career and the beginning of the '07 season, Ward had caught exactly 9 passes. Bradshaw, Ware, and Brown have each had 10+ reception seasons in college - Bradshaw actually caught 56 passes as a sophomore. Somehow, I don't think that part of the Giants game is going to see too much of a dropoff, if any at all.
As much as I respect Derrick Ward and wish him well in Tampa, I have a very strong feeling that the only reason he was a 1,000-yard rusher was the big boys on the offensive line. As long as they stay healthy they will make Brandon Jacobs and whoever else is running behind them look like stars.