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The New York Giants released Ahmad Bradshaw on Wednesday in a move that creates almost $3 million in salary cap space and removes a medically risky veteran running back from their roster. More importantly, it signals that the Giants feel comfortable with the notion of last year's first-round draft pick, David Wilson, inheriting their starting RB job.
Wilson is a track-star kind of runner, a burner who flashed big-play chops during his rookie campaign: a 97-yard kickoff return for a TD and a 52-yard (garbage-time) TD scamper in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints; a key 40-yard TD run that kept the Cleveland Browns at bay in a Week 5 win; and several other long kickoff returns -- he led all NFL kickoff returns in yards, topping the next-closest man by 293 -- that tilted the field in New York's favor.
However, Wilson also earned Tom Coughlin's ire with the same ball-security questions that plagued him at Virginia Tech; he never topped more than three touches in a game in the season's first five weeks, and didn't eclipse 10 carries in a game until Week 14. While it's fair to be tantalized by Wilson's speed and willingness to mix it up on inside runs, it's also wise to wonder whether his 5-foot-9, 205-pound frame can handle his running style, which appears to invite contact.
Indeed, while this roster move indicates that Wilson should lead the Giants in backfield touches (and for a guy with pretty good receiving skills, he only had four catches on nine targets in 2012), I won't be a bit surprised if he doesn't lead the team in rushing TDs, especially if last season's midseason darling Andre Brown recovers from his broken leg and claims a complementary power-back role. Brown is a restricted free agent but should return to the Giants, and considering he scored all eight of his TDs from inside an opponent's 2 last year, he's positioned to be Gotham's TD vulture for '13.
As a result, neither of these Giants backs deserves to crack the top 15 fantasy RBs. I'm willing to consider Wilson in the 16-to-20 range depending on Brown's health this summer as well as New York's revamping of its offensive line (both their starting tackles are unrestricted free agents, and nobody on the interior of the line is without either contract or health questions). But Wilson will probably be a week-to-week boom-or-bust kind of RB who relies on big plays to make his statistical bones.
Meanwhile, Bradshaw will hit the free-agent market and almost certainly won't lack for suitors. Will he get close to $4 million in '13, which is what he'd have earned with the Giants? I doubt it. Some team will give him what looks like a multi-year deal, but it'll be the kind of contract that protects his new squad against the inevitable foot and/or ankle injuries that derail Bradshaw every season.
Make no mistake: With a lesser financial risk attached, Bradshaw is an attractive option. He'll turn 27 this March, and he looked much more like his quick self again in '12, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and putting several would-be tacklers on their backs. No team will rely on him to be their workhorse, but as a timeshare back, Bradshaw will produce enough yards and highlight plays to be a factor.
Alas, he'll be sidelined until at least mid-April coming off yet another foot surgery, so he'll likely have to prove it to somebody in training camp. This means that Bradshaw's days as a no-doubt fantasy starter are behind him, and it's likely that he'll be a thorn in some other, more "fantasy-relevant" RB's side, siphoning off looks and creating depth-chart confusion. And that, friends, is the tail end of a running back's life cycle in the NFL.