Fantasy Take: Trent Richardson and the Backs of the First Round

It’s tough to project how well college stars will perform in the NFL. Extremely tough. If it was easy, guys like David Carr and Tim Couch wouldn’t have been selected with the first overall pick of the real NFL draft. When drafting rookies, fantasy owners need to be wary about putting too much stock in their own analysis of the player’s ability. When drafting a free fantasy football team, concentrate on examining what you do know: the situation the player is entering.

When I advocated picking Chris Johnson in the second round as a rookie, it wasn’t because I had studied college game tape. I’d never seen East Carolina play a down. But I’d seen the Titans play sixteen games the previous year, and I knew that a merely competent running back would put up big numbers there.  Of course, you shouldn’t be blind to the draftee’s potential talent. There is always the Randy Moss, the Adrian Peterson. Some guys will succeed anywhere. More often though, the situation determines how much young players contribute to weekly fantasy football teams.

So the big question for the rookie that should be the highest on free fantasy football draft boards is how friendly the Browns running game will be for Trent Richardson. For a few years, the Browns briefly elevated backs of marginal talent to fantasy stardom. (Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis) Richardson should be more talented than either of those two ball-carriers. The opportunity will be there for fantasy success as Cleveland will be eager to get value out of a top-five selection. It will not be easy for Richardson, as his division will boast a few tough run defenses and he will likely see relatively few goal-line chances.

With the departure of the aforementioned Hillis, Montario Hardesty is the only back who should steal carries away. Thus far, Hardesty has done little to inspire confidence in his ability to do so. For the 2012 fantasy football rankings, I would feel comfortable slotting Richardson into the fourth tier. Feature backs on bad teams make great flex options, or number three running backs. Specifically, I’d slot the Browns new franchise player ahead of Cedric Benson but behind Willis McGahee. And Hardesty, now undraftable.

The first round featured two other running backs, though both destroy more fantasy value than they create. At 31, the Bucs took Doug Martin from Boise State. This makes sense for the Bucs, as Martin provides speed outside to complement LeGarrette Blount’s inside power. But this smells like the one thing that angers fantasy owners everywhere: a committee. The Bucs don’t exactly have a high-powered offense. There is not a lot of fantasy value to go around in Tampa so further splitting it among two backs means it will be tough to own either. As of now, there is no room for either in the top thirty, though I would prefer to own Martin in salary cap fantasy football.

The last pick of the first round was David Wilson. The Giants selected the former Hokie to replace Brandon Jacobs in the backfield. Sadly for those who wanted to select Ahmad Bradshaw, Wilson likely represents a better threat to Bradshaw’s fantasy value than Jacobs did. We will likely know about how this situation will play out come August, but assuming a split close to 50:50, both backs should be taken in the late twenties.

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