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A QUARTET OF ROOKIE RBS WILL MAKE A RUN AT STARTING

Last season was a rocky one for rookie running backs.

Detroit's Kevin Jones (241 carries, 1,135 yards and five touchdowns) was the lone rookie running back to crack the 1,000-yard barrier. Though he started 14 games, he didn't hit his stride until the second half of the season. All four of his 100-yard rushing efforts came after Week 11. In the final seven games, Jones led the NFL with 825 rushing yards, picking up 5.4 yards per carry.

Despite the slow start, he far outdistanced the rest of the rookie field as Dallas' Julius Jones was next with 819 yards.

It's all about opportunity, not draft position, when it comes to rookie fantasy worth. Players in the best positions to step right into a starting job are the ones to target, not the possible franchise guys three years down the road.

Four running backs taken in last weekend's NFL draft have a chance to start from Day One. Since running back is the most valuable position on the fantasy draft board, they get the nod over a host of promising wide receivers, simply because that position is always deeper.

Miami's Ronnie Brown, the second overall pick from Auburn, and Chicago's Cedric Benson, the No. 4 overall selection from Texas, look like fantasy rookie jewels. Tampa Bay's Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, the No. 5 overall pick from Auburn, and Arizona's J.J. Arrington, plucked in the second round from California, also have a great chance to start.

The Dolphins figure on penciling Brown into the starting lineup ahead of holdovers Sammy Morris and Travis Minor, who combined for 911 yards and nine touchdowns last season. As a team, Miami was sent reeling by the unexpected retirement of Ricky Williams just before training camp and averaged 83.7 yards per game rushing, which bettered only the Oakland Raiders (80.9).

Brown's ability to catch the ball should push him ahead of Benson in fantasy value. Despite starting just 21 of 47 games at Auburn, he caught 58 passes for 668 yards (11.5 yards per catch) with two TDs. He also rushed for 2,707 yards, which ranks seventh in school history, and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

Benson's 5,540 rushing yards with the Longhorns put him sixth on the NCAA Division I-A career list and second on Texas' list, behind only Williams (6,279). Benson set an NCAA record by scoring in 37 straight games and ran for 100 yards or more 25 times.

He should be exactly what the Bears need, especially later in the season when the weather turns ugly. Chicago averaged 101.5 yards rushing per game last season, tied for 25th. Benson is expected to unseat incumbent starter Thomas Jones (948 yards).

If Williams' college success translates to the NFL, he'll be the Buccaneers' featured back for years. At Auburn, Williams rushed for 3,831 yards on 741 attempts (5.2 avg.) with 45 scores.

He broke school records held by a pair of fantasy heavyweights. Joe Cribbs held the previous best of 657 rushing attempts, and Bo Jackson, with 4,303 yards the only Auburn rusher with more yardage than Williams, is next with 43 scores. Cribbs had three 1,000-yard seasons and made three Pro Bowl appearances during his five seasons with the Buffalo Bills; Jackson played four NFL seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 1990, a year after he was Most Valuable Player in baseball's All-Star Game.

The retirement of NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith left a hole in the Cardinals' backfield. After unsuccessfully attempting to trade for Bills backup Travis Henry, Arizona grabbed Arrington No. 44 overall. He figures to be the starter ahead of Marcel Shipp, who missed all of last season with a lower leg injury, and Troy Hambrick (6 3/2 8 3/1 ).

Arrington's size (5-foot-9, 214 pounds) is a concern, but his speed (a combine-best 4.46 in the 40-yard dash) is not. He is similar in stature to Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook (5-10, 205), who finished 11th in the NFL last season with 1,515 total yards from scrimmage -- 812 on the ground and 703 through the air. Arrington was the nation's only 2,000-yard rusher last fall with a school-record 2,018 yards on 289 attempts (7.0 average) and 15 TDs.

Nice catches

Several wide receivers have a chance to contribute right away, and the best prospects were selected in the North divisions.

Detroit's Mike Williams, the No. 10 overall pick from Southern California, and Minnesota's Troy Williamson, the seventh pick from South Carolina, should be right at home. So should Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, the third overall pick from Michigan, and Baltimore's Mark Clayton, the 22nd choice from Oklahoma.

Williams (6-5, 229) has the size that should make him nearly impossible to cover in the red zone. Williams, who sat out last season due to draft eligibility issues, had 176 receptions for 2,579 yards (14.6 avg.) and 30 TDs, just two shy of the Pacific-10 career record. He, along with third-year man Charles Rogers, who missed all of last season with an injury, and second-year man Roy Williams (5 4/8 1 7/8 ), should provide the Lions the brightest stable of young receivers in the league. It's up to quarterback Joey Harrington to get them the ball.

Williamson was taken by the Vikings with the pick they got from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade. He had 91 receptions for 1,754 yards (19.3 avg.) and 13 touchdowns at South Carolina. I'd feel a lot better about Edwards' prospects if he had someone other than Trent Dilfer to throw him the football.

Clayton holds Sooners career records for receptions (221), receiving yards (3,241), TD catches (31) and 100-yard games (15), but Baltimore's Kyle Boller may be the sorriest starting quarterback.

Good bets

Others who figure to make an immediate fantasy impact include New York Jets kicker Mike Nugent, a second-rounder from Ohio State; Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, the 30th overall pick from Virginia; Atlanta receiver Roddy White, picked No. 27 from UAB; and Tennessee receiver Brandon Jones, a third-rounder from Oklahoma. Nugent was successful on 24 of 27 field goals, kicking in the cold and wind around the Big Ten, and hit five field goals of at least 50 yards. Michael Vick desperately needs somebody to throw the ball deep to with the Falcons, and White, a former high school wrestler who stretches the field, could be the answer.

Dark horses

If their situations break right, these guys could make quite a mark as rookies: Jacksonville receiver Matt Jones (6-6, 242), the converted Arkansas quarterback who won't dazzle you with yardage but could be a bear in the red zone; Kansas City receiver Craphonso Thorpe, who enters a crowded wideout picture but was a game-breaker at Florida State; San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson, who honed his skills in anonymity at Northern Colorado; Green Bay receiver/return specialist Terrence Murphy, who broke Bethel Johnson's career records at Texas A&M; San Francisco running back Frank Gore, a third-rounder from Miami who has twice returned from reconstructive knee surgeries; and Dallas running back Marion Barber, a fourth-rounder from Minnesota who suffered a season-ending hamstring injury against the University at Buffalo in 2002 but rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 TDs on 231 carries last fall.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com