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Back At Impact

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Whichever back the Cards draft -- whether it is Donald Brown (left), Beanie Wells (center), Knowshon Moreno (right) or someone else -- he should make an immediate impact.

Tim Hightower's edge was Edge.

That's the main reason not much was expected of the Cardinals' 2008 fifth-round pick, aside from his draft status. The Cards already had veteran Edgerrin James, so in truth, Hightower's running back contributions were merely a bonus.

Perhaps the same can be said of whatever running back the Cardinals draft in 2009 – and, barring an upset, the Cards most certainly will take a back, the probable precursor to James' eventual release. The Cards have Hightower, now a year wiser and more experienced, along with third-down back Jason Wright, signed as a free agent.

Maybe the Cards don't have to have an immediate impact from their rookie runner, although the league has plenty of recent examples -- the Bears' Matt Forte and the Titans' Chris Johnson just last year -- running backs can step in and do just that.

"Forte or (Oakland's Darren) McFadden, they came in with a lot on their

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shoulders, teams were leaning on them early and often," Hightower said. "Some guys can do that. Chris Johnson benefitted by having LenDale White with him. We have a running back coming this year and he will know we'll all push each other. Plus you have Larry (Fitzgerald) and Anquan (Boldin on offense) … the attention isn't on you per se.

"Any competitor wants the pressure of being the workhorse, wants the attention, wants all that stuff. But it helps when there are other playmakers on the team."

The position does lend itself to making a quick impression. Some of that is because of the relative simplicity of the job – "The bulk of what you are doing is carrying the rock, and that is instinctual," Wright said – and some of that is because of the skewed nature of a running back's life in the NFL.

Most of the time, a running back will begin his career decent sooner than other positions in the league. A back at 22, with a young set of legs, is comparative to a 28-year-old at another position in terms of being at a player's peak.

"It's almost like dog years," director of player personnel Steve Keim said. "The new model is always coming out. The conventional thinking is it's better to have young backs and it's better to be constantly taking backs."

Wright didn't have to make an impact, nor was he really given much of a chance. Undrafted out of Northwestern, he got to spend chunks of two seasons on the practice squad in Atlanta and Cleveland. That helped the learning curve, because it is the periphery parts of being a back – reading defenses, pass blocking – that stump rookies more than the ability to run.

If the Cardinals take a back in the first round, they should have someone like Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, Connecticut's Donald Brown or Ohio State's Beanie Wells available. In the second round, they might still find Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy, Iowa's Shonn Green or North Carolina State's Andre Brown.

With the proper work ethic and discipline, Wright said, a running back should be able to step in and contribute. The slot a draft pick will fit within with the Cards is almost set already too. Wright should become the third-down back, and Hightower will grind out the short yardage and goal line carries.

The way coach Ken Whisenhunt has structured his team with its rookies, any draftee will have to earn time and force Hightower and/or Wright off the field. Wright said new running backs coach Curtis Modkins will look for the same drive.

"There will be roles and everyone will have their niche, but (coach Modkins) will demand everyone is good at everything," Wright said. "But the good thing is, I have been around awhile and a guy like Tim, who has only been in a year, acts like a veteran, carries himself like a veteran, talks like a veteran, works like a veteran. We are guys who are willing to help. There can be situations in a running backs room where older guys see younger guys as a threat, but that's not how Tim is or how I am."

The new running back will end up changing the dynamics of the depth chart. Hightower has mentioned many times he ultimately dreams of being the No. 1 guy, something that could be derailed depending on the draft.

But like Wright, Hightower sees the new back's impact as a positive for the team.

"Everybody wants to hype things up and instigate things and say, 'Oh, that means they aren't confident in you,' " Hightower said. "I'm not worried about that. I know (the coaches) feel confident in my abilities and that showed in the latter part of the season. They know what I can do, and regardless of that, I have something to prove anyway. Having another running back here is only going to help me."


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 4/20/09.

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