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Fantasy Football / Drafting running back first is anything but a slam dunk

So much for the Bush Bowl.

The San Francisco 49ers did the unthinkable on Christmas Eve, winning on the road for the only time this season, 24-20 over St. Louis. Had they lost to the Rams as expected, Sunday's finale between the Houston Texans and 49ers at Monster Park Stadium would have been a showdown for the first draft pick.

Now it belongs to the Texans if they can manage to drop their eighth consecutive road game. Whoever ultimately picks first seems destined to select Southern California running back Reggie Bush, who garnered the highest percentage of points ever in capturing the 2005 Heisman Trophy.

"I don't see how he couldn't help our team," said Houston quarterback David Carr, who has been sacked 208 times in 59 games since 2002, when he was the Texans' first draft choice.

Some long-time NFL scouts have called Bush the best running back they've ever seen. He conjures memories of The Kansas Comet, Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who led the NFL in rushing in 1966 (with 1,231 yards) and 1969 (1,032), and scored 22 touchdowns during his rookie of the year season of 1965.

Like Sayers, Bush absolutely fills the stat sheet: 1,658 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, 31 catches for 383 yards and two scores through the air, and 39 combined kickoff and punt returns for 569 yards and a touchdown.

All this while sharing carries in the USC backfield with LenDale White, who has 177 attempts (just 10 fewer than Bush) for 1,178 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns. Bush has gained 20 or more yards on plays an incredible 34 times this season, including 10 against Fresno State, when he tallied 513 all-purpose yards.

But maybe the 49ers did their homework before refusing to tank it last Saturday. As great a prospect as Bush may be, running backs taken as No. 1 overall draft picks don't have a perfect track record.

Since 1967, when the NFL and AFL agreed to merge and began conducting a combined draft, only O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell have provided exceptional bang for the buck as running backs taken first overall.

Simpson, grabbed by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, made six Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons and was rated top overall fantasy performer twice (in 1973 and '75) by the Web site pro-football-reference.com. He was the first to rush for 2,000 yards (2,003 in '73), went over 1,000 five straight years (1972-76) and ranks 14th all-time with 11,236 rushing yards.

Campbell, taken first in 1978 by the Houston Oilers, made it to five Pro Bowls in eight seasons. He rushed for 1,301 yards or more five times, was the NFL rushing leader three straight years (1978-80), and the top-ranked fantasy player in the game in 1979. He finished with 9,407 rushing yards to rank 19th all-time. Both Simpson and Campbell are Hall of Famers. Other backs taken first overall include: Ricky Bell by Tampa Bay in 1977, Billy Sims by Detroit in 1980, George Rogers by New Orleans in 1981, Bo Jackson by Tampa Bay in 1986 and Ki-Jana Carter by Cincinnati in 1995.

Sims and Rogers had good careers. Sims made three Pro Bowls in his five seasons, rushed for 5,106 yards, had three 1,000-yard seasons and ranked first at his position in 1980 and '81. But a major knee injury in the 1984 season ended his career abruptly.

Rogers was a two-time Pro Bowler in seven seasons, rushing for 7,176 yards with four 1,000-yard campaigns -- two with the Saints and two with the Redskins. He ranked fourth at his position in his rookie season, when he rushed for a career-best 1,674 yards.

Bell played six seasons, never made the Pro Bowl and had just one super season (1,263 rushing yards in '79). He finished with just 3,063 yards and died of heart failure in 1984.

Jackson's football career was cut short by a devastating hip injury in 1991 that required a transplant. He never gained 1,000 yards during his four seasons with the Raiders.

Carter suffered a major knee injury in his third preseason game and sat out his entire rookie year. He also missed the 2000 and '02 seasons, and played in a combined 12 games in three other years. He became unneeded as a Bengal with the emergence of Corey Dillon -- who had six straight seasons of 1,129 rushing yards or more in the Cincinnati backfield -- and finished with 1,144 career yards.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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