Free Agency has come to a close. The draft is behind us, and team practices have started up once again. In this series — because Mike loves to write in series — we’ll take a look at players who, in spite of playing important roles in 2007, will be looking over their shoulders as competition for their spots in the lineup heats up.
When Najeh Davenport was signed prior to the 2006 season, the intention was to make him change-of-pace back — a guy who could fill the role vacated by the departure of Jerome Bettis, providing the “oompf” to Willie Parker’s “wow.” No razzle, no dazzle, just hit-the-head-pin-hard pounding for the tough yards.
Unfortunately for both Davenport and the Steelers, a notable reluctance to attack holes in the line has led to a much less-than-stellar return on the investment, at least where the original intentions are concerned. While he filled in admirably after Parker, then the league’s leading rusher, went down for the count in week 16, it wasn’t what the previous coaching staff envisioned for the former fourth-round pick. And, after a season is in the books, I would say it’s safe to color the new coaching staff largely unimpressed, too.
This isn’t the first time Davenport has faced the task of out-performing his peers; the Steelers signed Kevan Barlow in the spring of 2007, a move that was, at the time, considered by many to be a welcome addition to the roster. However, Barlow failed to perform in training camp and was cut well before the season started. Facing competition only from unproven commodities Carey Davis and Gary Russell and then-third-down back Verron Haynes, Davenport ultimately was named the team’s second-string runner.
The competition for 2008 looks, on paper at least, to be considerably tougher. Free-agency acquisition Mewelde Moore is considered by many to be a very capable back who was released by Minnesota because of a very crowded — and highly talented — Viking backfield. Moore provides another runner in the Parker mold, though, so he won’t be performing any power-back roles. However, he is likely to take over the third-down role, as he is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield and has a better burst than Davenport, making him a perfect fit for screens and short routes, and a much better candidate for draws.
On the power side of things, there are options there, too. Carey Davis is likely to fill the role of fullback whenever needed unless Dan Kreider is healed up from a torn ACL and is re-signed. Second-year runner Gary Russell has had a season to learn the playbook and is a very inexpensive alternative to Davenport. Then, of course, there’s first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, who was an excellent power runner in college, hits holes with reckless abandon, and has outstanding speed for a back his size. Heck, he has very good speed for a guy Parker’s size. Think a young Edgerin James with better downfield legs.
In all likelihood, there just won’t be room on an already crowded and expensive roster for a guy whose production has not really equaled his price tag, probably leaving Davenport as the odd man out.