When Dennis Green was running his high-powered offense for 10 years in Minnesota, the linchpin that made it go wasn’t Cris Carter or Randy Moss or the cornucopia of quarterbacks.

It was speedy running back Robert Smith, who forced teams to play the run and inevitably get burned by the pass.

When Smith abruptly retired in 2000, Green went out and took another blazing back, Michael Bennett, in the first round of the NFL draft.

The Cardinals don’t have a burner in the backfield. Marcel Shipp isn’t one, and neither is backup Emmitt Smith. But while the Cards could end up taking a back somewhere in this weekend’s draft, Green’s confidence in Shipp has been obvious.

“I feel good at running back,” Green said. Green points to times when the Vikings won not with Smith or Bennett but with Scottie Graham and Leroy Hoard, players more in Shipp’s mold.

And after a frustrating couple of years for Shipp, in which he outplayed both Thomas Jones and Smith but remained the backup, he wants to be the anchor of the Cards’ offense.

“The coaches are on the same page as I am on, and I really feel this will be my year to shine,” Shipp said. “This is my opportunity to make it or break it. I am sure I will make it.”

It isn’t a great year for running backs in the draft. Almost all of the top prospects ran a little slower than expected during workouts, disappointing for a lot of teams. Oregon State’s Steven Jackson and Virginia Tech’s Kevin Jones will still be drafted in the first round, but it may end up being later in the round.

Another factor is the rising thought that a team need not use a high draft pick on a running back. Many productive backs have been found in the third round and later while others, like Shipp, went undrafted. Arizona’s Josh Scobey, whom Green said is in line to take over the backup role from Smith in 2005, was a sixth-round choice. That trend should continue this year. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has said teams can get the best running back value — and possible gems — later rather than earlier in 2004.

“It’s guaranteed, in rounds three through five this year, quality (backs) will come out of that portion of the draft,” Kiper said.

That depends on what kind of quality you are looking for. Of the NFL’s top 15 rushers last year, only two — Stephen Davis (a fourth-rounder) and Priest Holmes (undrafted) — weren't taken after the first or second round of the draft.

“Backs taken in the later rounds can have success,” Cardinals vice president of football operations Rod Graves said. “I don’t know if that affects your attitudes toward the top guys. Those top guys we still believe are great players.”

With Smith in his final year in Arizona and the future of third-stringer Damien Anderson murky because of injuries after an offseason car accident, the Cardinals will eventually need to find another runner.

Shipp is prepared for it to be this year — and plans to fend off Green’s newest version of Robert Smith or Bennett.

“I know (Green) will make the right decision whatever it might be,” Shipp said. “I just have to focus on getting better, so if they do bring somebody in I can be a step ahead.”

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