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Ward gets a real chance to shine

3/3/2009

Right about this time last year, a smallish power back who averaged more than 5 yards per carry but didn't get his chance at significant playing time with the San Diego Chargers left to become the primary back in Atlanta. That worked out OK for Michael Turner. The 5-foot-10, 244-pound back ended up the No. 5 player in fantasy football, and second among running backs.

So we're all looking for the next Turner, right? Well, there is more than one similarity between Turner and Derrick Ward, the Giants' backup running back who just signed a lucrative four-year deal to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unlike Turner, who didn't get nearly enough chances to show his stuff in San Diego, Ward ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2008, at 5.6 yards per clip, despite starting only three games. And oh, by the way, Ward is of a similar build (he's listed at 5-foot-11, 228 pounds) as Turner.

The Buccaneers have long been a team designed to run the ball, and now Ward can get his chance to be a starting running back. Earnest Graham remains in town, and the early rumors say they'll share the rushing load, but if Ward runs and catches the way he did as a Giant, this shouldn't be much of a competition. Graham, an afterthought his first three seasons in the NFL, broke out in 2007 with 898 yards and 10 touchdowns, then struggled in 2008 and missed the final two months. Both Graham and Ward are 29, but with far less mileage than most players that age. I just think Ward is a better player and ready to bust out even further than he did this past season.

Ward's signing continues a productive offseason for the Buccaneers, who certainly had the money to spend to overhaul a moribund offense. Tight end Kellen Winslow was picked up from the Cleveland Browns for draft picks, and now Ward makes the running game matter again. The quarterback situation could be better, but the Buccaneers still could make a move there as well.

I don't think it would be presumptive to assume Ward is going to see significant carries with the Bucs, no matter who else is in the backfield. Turner didn't average 5 yards per carry as a starter in Atlanta, not with that many carries, but he did rumble for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ward has the potential to post a monster season, but let's play it safe and hope for 1,200 yards and eight scores for now. That wouldn't make Ward a second-rounder in fantasy just yet, but when you consider his upside, and what he already has shown, I wouldn't wait too much longer after that. I'm not sure Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant or Kevin Jones, among others in that 18-22 range among running backs, are any safer.

As for the Giants, who likely expected Ward to bolt, this doesn't make Brandon Jacobs any healthier. I won't go so far as to predict Ahmad Bradshaw rushes for 1,000 yards in 2009, but let's just say he's got the No. 2 job to himself right now, and he'll be on my sleeper list just like Ward was a season ago. Jacobs is very talented and probably best-suited to be drafted in the second round this fall, but he's not durable, and he'll need help.