5 NFL Running Backs Ready for an Opportunity

Zachary Stanley@@SFLeaguesCorrespondent ISeptember 29, 2011

5 NFL Running Backs Ready for an Opportunity

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    If a running back proves himself enough in training camp to reach No. 2 on the depth charts, there is often a chance that they will get the opportunity to show their stuff in the first few weeks of the season.

    It is a major test for a young back that frequently results in more time spent on the bench, usually due to the player having a poor grip on the offense or exhibiting a major flaw in blocking schemes.

    However, if the student can grasp the material, the explosiveness that usually comes with young talent can rocket them into relevance.

    Miami's Daniel Thomas has already shown how quickly this can happen.

    Here are some players that could shoot into the limelight very soon.

Montario Hardesty

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    Alright. I'm going to go ahead and get this out of the way.

    Peyton Hillis was out of the lineup for last week's game due to strep throat. Why?

    I am not one to believe in curses, but the well-being of Hillis was shoved into immediate peril as soon as NFL fans decided to vote him onto the cover of Madden NFL 12.

    Hillis had a breakout year last season, sure. But was it valid of an NFL cover? Should we be throwing a young back, already a danger to himself by the way he plays the game, into a near-guarantee?

    It seemed as though the curse might be lifted when Brandon Jackson went down, giving Hillis the vast majority or reps. Silly.

    The curse always finds a way.

    A mere week on the bench for Hillis threw rookie Montario Hardesty into the very modest spotlight that the Cleveland Browns can provide.

    Hardesty had 17 carries for 86 yards in his debut as a starter, adding three receptions for 19 yards.

    According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Browns coach Pat Shurmur was quite impressed with the young back.

    “He had some good runs and he played a really physical game, probably more than I expected he would play,” Shurmur said.

    Hardesty's play may have earned him a time share in Cleveland, but either way, he is clearly set for a boost in touches.

    Hillis hasn't looked as explosive as last season, and at only 3.4 yards per carry, the Browns are already worried they need to limit Hillis' touches.

    Look for Hardesty to increase his role as the season goes on, potentially becoming a starter if the curse continues to hold true.  

Kendall Hunter

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    There are more than enough indicators pointing to Kendall Hunter emerging in the San Francisco 49ers offense sooner, rather than later.

    Frank Gore hasn't demonstrated much in the first few games, other than the possibility that his best years might be behind him.

    Gore is averaging a mere 2.51 yards per carry this season, although the 49ers abysmal offense should shoulder some of the blame.

    Despite a recent ankle injury that has limited Gore in practice, the 28-year-old back remains the likely starter for Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Hunter has shown that he can play well in all areas of the game, and with Gore's tendency to miss a few games here and there, the young back might be pushed into a starting role any week now.

    Hunter has demonstrated the kind of big-play ability that coaches love to see in their rookies, and even though his yards per carrry average is only slightly better than Gore's, his upside has earned him a more vital role in San Fran's offense.

Stevan Ridley

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    According to CSN New England, New England Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio has validated that rookie running back Stevan Ridley “made the most of his opportunity” against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3.

    Supposed primary back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has not shown the kind of quality running that earned him significant playing time last season.

    Offensive Coordinator Bill O'Brien says Ridley “still has a long way to go,” but with the rest of the Patriots backs now showing much in the way of consistency, Ridley could be headed for an extensive increase in carries in coming weeks.

    With Green-Ellis floundering and Danny Woodhead remaining a situational back at best, Ridley has an excellent opportunity to show his stuff.

    As always, the Patriots offense relies upon the certainty that each player knows exactly where they are supposed to be in every situationhe same reason why Chad Ochocinco's snaps have been down in the first few weeks.

    Regardless of the high standards of the Patriots offense, Ridley is going to have his shot.

DeMarco Murray

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    DeMarco Murray has the most difficult shot at making a dent in his rookie season, playing behind both Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.

    The opening for Murray resides in the potential for the backfield of the Dallas Cowboys to suffer injuries, which are far from uncommon.

    Jones nearly missed a game this past week against the Washington Redskins with a dislocated shoulder, and probably would have, had quarterback Tony Romo not made anyone with a mild injury look like the ultimate softy to not play on Monday Night Football.

    Although Jones seemingly aggravated the injury near the end of the game against Washington, he has not been limited in practice this week.

    Choice, however, has shown a tendency to make mental mistakes—including running out of bounds in the waning minutes of the Redskins game—and despite earning the praise of owner Jerry Jones early in the season, hasn't demonstrated the kind of ability to earn a starting job should anything happen to Jones.

    Jones has been injury-prone throughout his career and should he suffer another injury, Murray will have a legitimate chance to prove himself as a starting back.

Roy Helu

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    With the acquisition of Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan picked up the type of ideal, hard-running back that has worked well in his offense for years.

    Hightower is an intelligent, extremely effective blocker that has deserved his chance at the No. 1 spot after splitting time with Edgerrin James in his rookie season, then with Beanie Wells in the following two years with the Arizona Cardinals.

    Hightower has been solid thus far, helping the Redskins to a 2-1 record, nearly going 3-0 after a close game with the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.

    Still, the Redskins are very excited about the future of rookie Roy Helu.

    Helu is both quick and evasive, exhibiting the kind of talent that could mean a big future in the NFL.

    Like many young backs, Helu still has difficulty comprehending the immense running schemes that the Redskins offense dishes out, and his blocking ability is nowhere near that of the veteran Hightower.

    Impressively, Helu is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has also contributed with 55 yards receiving on limited snaps.

    With the pound it mentality that Hightower brings, his potential for injury increases by the snap, giving Helu a reasonable chance at starting a game or more this season.