Up and running
In today's NFL, running back tandems are gathering steam
The Houston Texans went into last year's NFL draft knowing they needed an upgrade at running back. They waited until the third round and selected Steve Slaton with the 89th overall pick. The 11th running back selected, Slaton turned out to be a Texas-sized steal, leading all rookie rushers and finishing sixth in the NFL with 1,282 yards, while averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
So, you would assume the Texans won't be in the market to draft a running back this year, right? Wrong.
"We'd love to draft a back who turns out to be as good as Steve," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak at the NFL's annual meeting last month. "We're not just looking for a guy who's just a backup player. It takes two backs to get through a season. For him to hold up for  games was just amazing. We felt very fortunate. Hopefully that'll continue, but you have to be prepared just in case."
Kubiak was spouting the conventional wisdom in today's NFL, which is it takes two (or more) backs to make a running game go right. So just because a team has one standout running back doesn't mean that it is out of the running to take another rusher in the draft.
The league's top rushing team in 2008 was the Giants, who averaged 157.4 yards per game. New York became the fourth team in NFL history and the first since the 1985 Cleveland Browns to have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers - Brandon Jacobs (1,089 yards) and Derrick Ward (1,025).
Ward left the Giants this offseason, signing with Tampa Bay. However, the Giants have Ahmad Bradshaw, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry and rushed for 355 yards last season, waiting in the wings.
"It's such a long season, and if your running back is getting 25 carries a game in this league he gets beat up pretty quickly," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "If you have a couple of pretty good running backs it always helps."
The Giants have the prototypical tandem with a bruiser in Jacobs and a speedster in Bradshaw. That's why Kubiak said the Texans are looking for a bigger, more physical back to go with the slashing Slaton. It's an idea the Titans rode to the league's best regular-season record in 2008.
Two years after using a second-round pick to select thumper LenDale White, the Titans tabbed Chris Johnson, who clocked a blistering 40-yard dash time of 4.24 seconds, with their first-round pick (24th overall) last year. Johnson rushed for 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns, and White had 773 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"You've got to have two backs who have a little bit of difference," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose team figures to use an early-round pick on a runner. "One who is maybe an inside pounder and can get you those positive yards and one that can do some things in space for you. I don't know that there is one back who can carry the load, game in and game out, anymore."
That's why teams that have a feature back or ostensible feature back could end up using a first-round pick on a running back.
The Eagles, who signed Brian Westbrook to a three-year, $21 million deal before last season, and the Saints, who used the No. 2 overall pick in 2006 on Reggie Bush, have been linked to the top two running backs in this year's draft - Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno - in mock drafts.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 235-pound Wells is the type of big back who could balance out New Orleans's backfield, which features Bush, who was limited to 10 games last season by a torn meniscus in his left knee, and the 5-11, 215-pound Pierre Thomas, who led the Saints in rushing with 625 yards.
All the Saints have to do is look within their division, which housed the NFL's most productive rushing tandem in 2008. Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Panthers had used a first-round pick on Williams in 2006, but didn't hesitate to select Stewart with the 13th overall selection last year.
"I just think you can never have enough of them," said Saints coach Sean Payton.
The Patriots learned that the hard way last year, when Laurence Maroney's season-ending shoulder injury and a knee injury to Sammy Morris forced them to start undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis for three games. That's one of the reasons New England signed veteran running back Fred Taylor this offseason.
Taylor is no stranger to the tandem system. The Jaguars' all-time leading rusher, he still split time with Maurice Jones-Drew, whom the Jaguars took in the second round in 2006, the last three seasons.
"Having Maurice there, it took a lot of pressure off me, minimized the injuries," said Taylor. "We were able to go hard each and every snap. Not having that guy, you tend to sometimes save things. You want to be fresh in the fourth quarter.
"Those tandems, I think it's a great thing for me. I've always been the type to share . . . Some of the younger guys can't deal with it because they want to be the star; they want to create their celebrity and all this different stuff. I think it's easier for the seasoned, older veterans to have someone in there who can help them out. It's the way of the league now. I think every team is going to try to go to it."
Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.