Trent Richardson’s Redemption Song

– Colts running back Trent Richardson seemed confident talking about his goals for 2014, “1,000 yards is not it for me-it’s much higher”. Fortunately for fantasy owners, Richardson’s psyche certainly doesn’t seem shaken by that disastrous 2013 performance. He also said that he is “finally healthy” after undergoing surgery to repair the torn AC joint in his shoulder this offseason; that injury clearly affected his play more than we realized at the time. The third-year back also struggled with a hamstring injury earlier in camp, costing him about a week of practice. Thankfully the issue was minor and appears to be in the rearview mirror, as it hasn’t flared up since. Now that he is finally 100 percent, the Indianapolis faithful can only hope he is ready to maximize his full potential. Richardson’s outlook hasn’t been affected by his poor showing last season or spectators heckling him during red zone drills earlier in training camp (after averaging 2.9 yards per carry following the trade with the Browns that brought Richardson to Indy, very few would blame the Colts fans for doing so). I may be in the minority here, but I am betting on the Alabama product quieting those many critics. Trent Richardson is going to redeem himself in 2014, silencing the doubters and regaining the trust of the fantasy football universe.

Expectations were unfairly high last year given the circumstances. Considering the trade prior to week three of 2013, he didn’t have a chance to live up to the hype. There is a reason very few in-season blockbuster trades are made in the NFL; it’s a whole different animal than the NBA where the adjustment period is minimal to non-existent. Getting acclimated to a new offense takes time. It really takes an entire offseason to become comfortable with a playbook at this level. When you are constantly thinking out on the field rather than simply reacting, you don’t have a chance at playing full speed; and in a game of inches like football, you don’t have the luxury of playing at anything less than full go. Another downside of not having a grasp of the playbook: a running back can’t be trusted in pass protection. Early on during his time in Indy, it was pretty clear that Richardson was rushing the ball when he was in the game because he was a liability in pass pro. This is fairly obvious, but your odds of succeeding on a given play are significantly reduced when the defense knows what’s coming. Not to mention the offensive line in Indy last year was porous and the receiving core was decimated (Dwayne Allen and Reggie Wayne suffered season-ending injuries in the early going, causing both to miss the majority of the 2013 season), allowing defenses to key in on the former first-rounder.

Trent Richardson was the first running back taken in the top five picks of a draft since Darren McFadden in 2008. Considering today’s pass-happy NFL and coaches’ reliance on committee backfields, that’s a statement. There have been a total of zero backs taken in the first round since. This is still the same guy that had 1,317 total yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games his rookie year where he was the entire offense for the Cleveland Browns. There was a reason he was the third overall pick behind only Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012 and a consensus top-10 pick in fantasy drafts last year: rare natural ability. Well, that talent hasn’t disappeared. This is a young Marshawn Lynch we’re looking at: a big, bruising, powerful runner with 4.4-speed and the ability to make defenders miss both in the hole and in the open field. If you don’t think he’s elusive, watch this run again. To top it off, he’s a terrific receiver out of the backfield. Now that he’s had a full year to master Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton’s playbook, expect a big season out of T-Pain to the tune of 1,500 total yards and 10-12 touchdowns.

General Manager Ryan Grigson targeted Richardson via trade because the Colts brass firmly believed Richardson was not only uber-talented, but an ideal fit for their system. He still is. Having given up a first round pick in the deal, the Colts want the Trent Richardson experiment to work. And the coaching staff has given him their full support, something that is invaluable for a running back coming off such a dreadful 563-yard season. Illustrating that point, they brought in no one to compete with Richardson for the starting job (even letting Donald Brown walk in free agency)-and now Vick Ballard will miss the rest of the year with a torn Achilles. Ahmad Bradshaw is the only other back of note in that backfield, and he missed most of last season with a neck injury.

Remember last season when everyone was scrambling to a computer to make offers for Trent Richardson following the trade out of Cleveland? We were on the right track, just premature. The 5-9 225-pound RB is playing with Andrew Luck on a playoff team with a top-10 offense. They will be leading in many of their games, relying on Richardson to pound the rock and salt the game away in the fourth quarter. There will be abundant scoring opportunities for a runner that specializes between the tackles and in short yardage/goal-line situations. Richardson will be one of the leading contenders for fantasy comeback player of the year and finish as a top-12 RB. This is when you have to love how other owners will hold a grudge and refuse to draft him, even as an RB3. At his current ADP, he could be the steal of the draft. Have a short memory because hitting on picks like this in the middle rounds wins fantasy championships.

– As for the recovering quarterbacks, there is good news surrounding Tony Romo, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees. Romo (back) is expected to make his preseason debut this week as Dallas takes on Baltimore this Saturday. The Cowboys QB underwent back surgery for the second time in as many years on December 22nd. Saturday will mark 232 days since the procedure. Cam Newton (ankle) has also been cleared to play this weekend as the Panthers take on the Chiefs in a nationally televised preseason game Sunday. Newton is now practicing in full, even running the read option in practice Sunday for the first time since undergoing ankle surgery this winter. Lastly, Drew Brees (oblique) participated in individual passing drills with Saints receivers for the first time since the injury on August 1st. It appears Brees will ramp up his activity level moving forward. The Saints signal caller is closing in on a return to full participation in practice in the near future. All three quarterbacks missed their teams’ initial preseason game but should have ample practice time and game reps to get in sync with their receivers before the regular season begins. Each player has been a mainstay in fantasy lineups for years and should be again in 2014.

– Seahawks fans got quite a scare yesterday when Percy Harvin went down to the ground holding his lower right leg after catching a pass in team drills. Harvin was in obvious pain as he limped off, heading to the locker room. Fortunately, he returned to the field just a few minutes later without the limp. According to Head Coach Pete Carroll, he “got stepped on at the back of his heel…got scraped up pretty good. He’s OK though”. The entire state of Washington just breathed a huge sigh of relief. While the injury history for the 26-year old has been somewhat overstated (only three missed games in his first three seasons), Harvin has been pretty fragile the past two years. The sixth year veteran has played in just 10 of 32 games in the last two seasons due to a high ankle sprain in 2012 and hip surgery in 2013.

Seattle gave up quite a bit to get the wideout in March of last year in the form of three draft picks and a rather sizable contract extension. After letting Golden Tate walk in free agency and seeing Sidney Rice unexpectedly retire, Seattle isn’t overly deep at the wide receiver position. The Hawks did draft Paul Richardson out of Colorado in the second round of the draft to go along with Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, but they will be counting on Percy Harvin to be the game-changer he was in Super Bowl XLVIII all season long in 2014. If Harvin stays healthy enough to play a full season, there is no telling how good he could be. I know-he’s never had 1,000 yards receiving. It’s true-he’s never had more than six receiving touchdowns. I get it-he’s on the injury report every week, making it a “headache” to set your lineup (see what I did there?). But the upside is huge and the risk is priced into his current ADP. Percy Harvin is one of the most dynamic players in the league, giving you kick return yards on top of what he does rushing and receiving. In 2010-2012, he scored TDs rushing, receiving, and returning in each season (nine total scores in 2011). If your fantasy league counts return yards, the former Florida Gator goes from the WR2 tier to fantasy gold.

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– In Houston, both Andre Johnson (hamstring) and Arian Foster (hamstring) participated in Wednesday’s practice after missing significant time early in camp, the Houston Chronicle reports. Because Johnson and Foster will be vital cogs in that Houston offense, it is understandable that Head Coach Bill O’Brien brought both back slowly from these minor injuries (especially with each player having dealt with hamstring injuries in the past). These preseason reps are invaluable even for veterans as the Texans are learning a new offense under their rookie head coach. However, at this time it remains to be seen if Johnson and Foster will suit up for the Texans’ second preseason game this Saturday against Atlanta as O’Brien was non-committal on the availability of both players.

In other Texans news, RB Andre Brown was unexpectedly released earlier this week. Brown signed a one-year deal with the team this offseason after rushing for 492 yards and three touchdowns on 3.5 ypc in eight games for the Giants in 2013. Brown cleared waivers Tuesday and has yet to find a new home. With David Wilson’s career now over, New York could be a possible destination for the 27-year old. Houston also cut second-year running back Dennis Johnson. Johnson signed with the team after going undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft and wasn’t overly impressive in rushing for 183 yards on 49 attempts (3.7 yards/carry) last season. Jonathan Grimes, Alfred Blue, Tim Cornett, and recently signed Ronnie Brown remain in the competition for the backup running back job behind Arian Foster.

– Jaguars’ Head Coach Gus Bradley backed off his negative comments about rookie wide receiver Marqise Lee following Monday’s practice. Lee drew some criticism from Bradley this past weekend after failing to record a single reception on zero targets in Jacksonville’s first preseason game last Friday versus Tampa Bay. The original harsh words seemed to center around effort, with Bradley noting that Lee needed to be “more focused…running your routes every time as if it is coming to you”. Bradley said Monday “that was on me” and made it clear that effort was not the issue, it was a matter of a young player learning to understand his role in the offense. The specific play was a comeback route where Lee was confused about his assignment on the play, and it showed up on film in the 22-year old not running full speed. This sort of thing will happen with first-year players, especially in complex NFL passing games. The positive takeaway here is that his work ethic is not in question.

Marqise Lee turned heads during the first couple weeks of training camp. The Jaguars coaching staff raved about his athletic ability early on, and, according to Gus Bradley, “He has that speed factor…He has a chance to break one and is extremely quick. He’s freakish in his skill set in some of the things he does”. Along with that high praise from Bradley, Offensive Coordinator Jedd Fisch mentioned he intends to utilize the rookie in a variety of packages this season to maximize that skill set. With Cecil Shorts (a litany of injuries over the offseason) and Allen Robinson (out two weeks with a strained hamstring) sidelined, Marqise Lee had taken full advantage of his opportunity running with the first team up until that game against the Bucs. He seems like he is out to prove the Jags got a great value at 39th overall in the NFL Draft, and very well could be Chad Henne’s go-to guy on the outside in 2014. Coming into the 2013 college football season, the USC junior WR was seen as one of the clear cut top-10 prospects in the 2014 draft. After winning the Fred Biletnikoff award in his sophomore year with a line of 118/1,721/14, Lee was considered one of the elite players coming out along with the likes of JaDaveon Clowney, Jake Matthews, Khalil Mack, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.

Unfortunately, injuries during Lee’s junior season limited his production and began raising doubts about his potential to truly be a number one receiver at the next level. Then the former Trojan disappointed at the combine, running a 4.52 forty-yard dash. At 6-0 195 pounds, scouts and coaches anticipated a better result. The time just didn’t match up with the explosiveness he displayed on tape (or the 38-inch vertical and 127-inch broad jump, other indicators of explosion); anyone who watched film of his 345-yard day vs Arizona in 2012 can attest to that. Lee was absolutely dominant during his freshman and sophomore seasons, consistently making game-breaking plays that showcased elite speed and quickness. Look for the rookie to make an immediate impact for Jacksonville this season as they try to reinvent a passing game that finished dead last in the NFL in 2013 according to Football Outsiders. The learning curve won’t be nearly as steep for Lee as the transition is for many because he was fortunate enough to play in a pro-style offense under Lane Kiffin at Southern Cal. Marqise Lee very well could join the short list of receivers to break the 1,000-yard mark in a rookie campaign (Keenan Allen, AJ Green, Marques Colston, Michael Clayton, Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway, Cris Collinsworth, John Jefferson, and Bob Hayes are the only ones to do so in the Super Bowl era). Odds are this little wake-up call will motivate him to capitalize on his opportunities during the second preseason game. Watch Lee closely tomorrow night against Chicago on ESPN, we could see the young fella make some sensational plays.

– The Sacramento Bee reports 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore is still absent from training camp and is now in jeopardy of starting the season on the non-football injury list. Fantasy owners had high hopes for Lattimore in 2014 after he was effectively redshirted last season. Unfortunately, his knee hasn’t fully healed and the hamstring injury he sustained in minicamp is still lingering. At some point you have to wonder if the young man will ever recover from the two gruesome knee injuries he suffered at South Carolina. You certainly hope not, but it may end up being one of those “what could have been” stories. With Kendall Hunter’s torn ACL, LaMichael James‘ permanent reservation in coach Jim Harbaugh’s doghouse, and Lattimore’s inability to return to the field, it would appear Carlos Hyde is the clear-cut backup to Frank Gore in San Francisco.

– Lions running back Reggie Bush had some advice for Cleveland QB Johnny Manziel this past week, which got me thinking about the 2005 Heisman trophy winner. Bush finished 12th in fantasy points at the running back position in 2013 (standard scoring). So how is it that he is rated as the 22nd running back/43rd player overall? The lowly rankings are likely due to new Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi mentioning a “split role” when asked how Bush and backfield mate Joique Bell would be used in 2014. Any time the words “timeshare”, “committee”, or “split role” get thrown around it sends us into a panic. And rightfully so; it’s understandable to want the maximum amount of opportunities for the players on your roster. Our immediate thoughts go straight to CJ Spiller and Lamar Miller’s failures last year due to splitting time in their respective backfields. Anyone who owned either of the aforementioned running backs in 2013 knmows first-hand the roller coaster that is the running-back-by-committee, or RBBC backfield. Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin (Head Coach of Buffalo and Miami, respectively) were on a Bill Belichick/Mike Shanahan level of frustrating fantasy owners with their inconsistent use of RBs last season.

However, the Detroit situation is nothing to fear. Why? Because last year the Lions totaled 2,709 yards from scrimmage via the running back position-good for third in the NFL behind only New England and San Diego. Detroit’s dynamic duo was easily the best RB tandem in fantasy football last season as both of the Lions runners were top-16 backs. They were already in a “split role”. Nothing will change going forward. Reggie Bush had 277 (223 rushing/54 receiving) total touches last season compared to Joique Bell’s 219 (166 rushing/53 receiving). Amazingly enough, that was a career high in touches for him…in a split backfield. Let that sink in: he had more touches last year in a shared role than in either season as the three-down back for the Dolphins. The reason being Detroit runs enough plays in that high-octane offense to minimize the usual effect of a timeshare. Bush was on the field for a total of 625 offensive snaps while Bell played 562, almost a dead heat; and both were more than fantasy-relevant. What about this should be frightening you as a potential fantasy owner?

Reggie Bush is one of the most electric players in the entire NFL. His speed, quickness, and elusiveness in the open field make him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. For that reason, the eight year veteran really doesn’t need 300+ touches to be an effective fantasy player for your team (i.e. Jamaal Charles prior to last season). Bush will touch the ball in a variety of different ways, creating a multitude of scoring opportunities even though he isn’t often deployed in goal-line situations. The former USC Trojan posted a career high 9.4 yards per reception last year. Look for more of the same as Lombardi proved in New Orleans he understands exactly how to get the multi-talented star in space. Bush was able to score seven times while amassing a career-best 1,512 total yards in just 14 games last season. He is one of very few backs in the league capable of totaling 1,000-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards as he did last season.

The 29-year old truly hasn’t lost a step at this stage in his career, likely due to such a light workload early on. Sir Reginald Bush wasn’t actually a full-time starter until he signed with Miami in 2011. With his elusive running style (defenders rarely get a clean hit) and just three seasons as a primary ballcarrier, Bush still has quite a bit of tread on the tires. For all the grief he took about being injury prone early on, Bush has missed just three games in the past three seasons. We all know about the natural ability, drafted 2nd overall in 2006 out of USC the expectations were Hall of Fame or bust. The 5-11 205-pounder runs 4.33, jumps 40.5 inches and benched 225 pounds 24 times in pre-draft workouts. To say he’s an athlete doesn’t even begin to do the guy justice. Reggie Bush is one of the most dynamic talents we’ve seen enter the league since the new millennium. Explosive playmakers that can carry you to fantasy glory on their shoulders alone are rare, and he certainly is one of them. If you can have that caliber of player in your RB2 or flex spot, even better.

– Lastly, Jeremy Maclin left Eagles practice early Wednesday and later said he slightly tweaked his left hamstring while making a touchdown catch, CSN Philadelphia reports. Maclin still hopes to play in Friday’s preseason game, but is unsure if he will be able to do so. Even if he wants to go, it seems highly unlikely coach Chip Kelly will play his receiver against the Patriots in Philly’s second preseason game. The player will often think the issue is minor and feels good to go, but better to err on the side of caution with hamstring injuries. Fantasy owners would be wise to keep an eye on the situation going forward. On the plus side, Maclin has been routinely roasting premier cornerback Darrelle Revis during the joint practice with New England this week according to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. In one-on-one drills, he’s flashed serious speed in burning Revis deep multiple times. McLane also noted that Maclin looked over to the sideline after beating the Pats corner to say, “You reporters catch that?” The confidence is clearly back in the 26-year old’s game after the torn ACL last spring. It would appear Jeremy Maclin is ready to fill the void left by Desean Jackson‘s departure and become the top target for quarterback Nick Foles in that fast-paced Eagles offense this season.