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State of the Bills Roster: Running Backs

Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is in the books and off-season player acquisition will crawl at a snail's pace, Buffalo Rumblings has begun re-examining the Buffalo Bills' revamped roster. We continue off our 'State of the Roster' series this morning with a look at the safety position. Previous installments: QB, TE, OT, DE, S.

It's not often that a position considered a team strength the previous season gets stronger the next year despite having to deal with another embarrassing arrest and a three-game suspension.  But that's exactly what has happened at running back for the Buffalo Bills, despite a second consecutive off-season of legal troubles for starter Marshawn Lynch.

With former Colts back Dominic Rhodes brought in via free agency, the Bills now boast perhaps the deepest and most productive trio of running backs throughout the entire league.  Getting touches for all three (when all three are available, that is) shouldn't be a huge issue, either, as the duo of Lynch and backup Fred Jackson led the league with 84 combined receptions last year - a figure that Rhodes will contribute to as well.

STARTER: Marshawn Lynch
Arrested twice in nine months, Lynch - as it stands right now - will miss the first three games of the season on a league suspension for violation of the personal conduct policy.  When available, Lynch is one of the more reliable workhorse runners in the league - and the Bills have been able to keep him fresh, as well, as Lynch has averaged just a hair over 21 touches per game over his first two seasons.  He'll continue to be the workhorse - again, when he's actually available - and with 16 career touchdowns, Lynch is clearly the team's best scoring threat at the position.  Lynch's on-field attitude is the embodiment of what the offense should be - never-say-die.

Fred Jackson
He is currently seeking a new long-term deal, and though that hasn't been secured yet, conventional wisdom holds that Jackson will get a significant pay raise by the time training camp closes.  'Action Jackson' has come into his own over the past two seasons; he's a smooth compliment to the hard-nosed Lynch, and is as underrated as they come when it comes to NFL running backs.  With Lynch set to miss the first three weeks, Jackson will carry the full rushing load - something he has proven himself capable of coming out of Division III Coe College.  Make no mistake - Jackson is one of Buffalo's most valuable offensive contributors, even when Lynch is on the field.

Dominic Rhodes
We know that Rhodes will see a significant amount of playing time early in the season.  The real question is how much his work load will be reduced when Lynch returns from suspension.  Rhodes has been an underrated player throughout his career as well; the former undrafted free agent has spent eight years in the NFL, and just last year scored 9 touchdowns in helping the Colts finish 12-4.  He's a solid, dependable runner between the tackles and has reliable hands out of the backfield (he had 45 receptions last year).  His skill set is quite similar to Jackson's - he's no home run threat, but he'll produce when he's on the field.

Xavier Omon
Last year's sixth-round pick was a highly productive Division II running back, but failed to make any sort of impact in limited playing time last season.  With Rhodes on board, Omon has an uphill climb to make the roster, even if Buffalo's coaching staff likes his upside.  He might get a look at fullback.

Bruce Hall
He earned a practice squad spot last pre-season as an undrafted free agent after making some nice plays during training camp.  He's small and not very explosive, however.  Omon still has practice squad eligibility - as does Hall - so expect these two to duke it out for a spot there as insurance to Lynch, Jackson and Rhodes.

Contract situations: Lynch enters year three of a five-year deal (in reality a six-year deal with a final year opt-out clause).  Jackson is on a one-year RFA tender.  Rhodes signed a two-year, $2.5 million deal in March.  Running back is one of the easier spots to fill with quality depth on an NFL roster, so nothing here is terribly urgent - though clearly, it would be nice to see Jackson get the extension he covets.  He deserves it.

Bottom Line
Perhaps the most under-discussed topic of conversation regarding Buffalo's three running backs is not how productive the players have been, but how reliable they are with the ball in their hands.  Combined, Lynch, Jackson and Rhodes have logged 1,765 career touches - and, combined, they have fumbled the ball just 18 times (14 recovered by opponents).  That's roughly one fumble every 98 touches.  These guys are safe options because they're productive and secure with the ball in their hands.  If you take Rhodes out of the equation, Lynch and Jackson fumble once every 210.5 touches - a far more impressive statistic.

With Rhodes on board, some of the sting of the Lynch suspension is dulled.  Still, opening the season on Monday Night in New England, it hurts not having your most dependable offensive threat on the field.  Jackson and Rhodes have their work cut out for them that night.  When Lynch gets back, however, Buffalo has three well-rounded backs that can help in every phase of the offensive game plan.  That's invaluable when you're running a no-huddle offense, and it's even more crucial when your quarterback is as green as Trent Edwards.  Most will consider running back to be the clear-cut strength of this Bills team - and I, for one, would have a hard time disagreeing.