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Friday, September 20, 2013
Should you panic on RG III?

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Don't forget, I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film, and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes, that way you'll never miss a show! And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter @CHarrisESPN. All right, let's get to today's topics:

Four In Depth:

1. The Trent Richardson trade, Cleveland Browns edition: Now that I'm over the shock, I believe it's my job to try to understand what the Browns are thinking. I rule out the idea that T-Rich is "damaged goods," except he's already suffered broken ribs as an NFL back, and needed two knee scopes before his rookie season. I also completely disregard the argument that Richardson is a bad "scheme fit," which is something the Browns were trying to sell to reporters Wednesday night. We can't completely rule out the human element, the idea that T-Rich has hitherto unknown maturity problems that were dragging his teammates down. (Under the "Department of Convenient Timing," I've no doubt such stories will come to light this week.) But this would be surprising, considering the extent to which Richardson was the new face of the Browns franchise.

I suppose we have to factor the franchise's desire to be "Unsteady For Teddy," whereby they get really bad, try to get a high draft pick, and select Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater. Of course, if that's the case, that would mean the Browns secretly thought Richardson was a difference-maker whose absence makes the team significantly worse.

Some combination of these conspiracy theories may track, but I'm a film guy, so I went back and watched Richardson's play this season. After all, he's got 105 yards on 31 carries, which isn't good. But anyone who wants to proclaim that T-Rich is some kind of plodding 224-pound doof of a running back should re-watch his first carry of the season, against the Miami Dolphins. It was a simple pitch to the left, well-blocked except for TE Gary Barnidge, who initially got a nice seal against LB Oliver Vernon, but lost his technique a little and allowed Vernon to get upfield. But Richardson attacked the perimeter with such speed that by the time Vernon pushed into his path, T-Rich was already past him and around the edge, getting a 9-yard gain. This was not the speed of a lumbering, fullback-style player. I'm not trying to sell him as Jamaal Charles. But he's not Jason Snelling, either.

Or look at Richardson's third carry of the season, on that same initial drive, a pretty simple run to the right where right guard Oniel Cousins gets jolted at the snap by DE Cameron Wake, and suddenly Wake is in the backfield to meet T-Rich. But Richardson sees it happen and accelerates, surprising a grasping Wake, who gets his hands on the RB, but who can't get enough of him. T-Rich's combination of power and speed get him to the edge, Wake tries to hold on but spins off and goes flying to the turf, and Richardson gets 10 yards.

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Have there been plays where T-Rich got stuffed? Absolutely. But maybe not as many as his 3.4 yards-per-carry mark might indicate. In the first two games of this season, Richardson gained two yards or fewer on 12 of 31 attempts. That doesn't seem so bad when you consider Doug Martin has gained two yards or fewer on 29 of 53 attempts, or Marshawn Lynch on 25 of 45. No, I'm sorry, the evidence that Richardson is already some kind of plodding bust just isn't what I see. And that's what makes this such a weird, weird move.

Fantasy owners can invest in Willis McGahee and hope he stays healthy; he was a nice surprise for the Denver Broncos last year and should easily outpace Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey once he's up to speed. (Obie is a third-down back; Rainey is Bilal Powell.) But Richardson was almost literally the least of what was wrong with the Browns.

2. The Trent Richardson trade: Indianapolis Colts edition: I've heard the argument floated that all University of Alabama RBs are overvalued (see also: Mark Ingram) because their offensive line is so dominant in the college game that rushers find copious room to roam that doesn't exist in the NFL. Maybe there's some truth to that. But in a single season, I've already seen Richardson do things that Ingram hasn't done in two years. The speed and change-of-direction with which Richardson attacks defenses when there's room to run is something Ingram has never shown. If you watch film on those two players, you'd swear Ingram is the bigger player (he's two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter). In short, no RB's health is ever guaranteed, but we're talking about a 22-year-old who runs a 4.45 40 at 224 pounds, catches the ball wonderfully, is willingly physical when he needs to be and certainly says all the right things about being a team player. I'm sure I'm going to get scorned Browns fans telling me they're happy this move was made. But the idea that 31 NFL franchises wouldn't want Richardson is wrong.

So what happens in Indy? Well, hopefully we no longer need to ponder Donald Brown as a potential starter at some point this season. Ahmad Bradshaw loses all but handcuff value for T-Rich owners, as he'll put his extraordinary pass-protecting skills to use as the Colts' third-down back much of the time (though remember, Richardson excels in that role when he needs to).

T-Rich will be the power back for a squad that desperately wants to provide relief for Andrew Luck. Through two weeks, Luck has been sacked seven times and pressured another 19 times, which is too much. Against the Dolphins Sunday, the Indy O-line did an OK job at the game's beginning, but allowed more and more push up the middle until by the final few drives, Luck was having to tap-dance in the pocket to stay upright. He's remarkably adept at doing this. But his crucial interception on the Colts' second-to-last drive (on a pass into the end zone intended for Reggie Wayne) was absolutely influenced by RG Mike McGlynn getting steamrolled by Randy Starks. Indy's tackles played well in Week 2 and certainly have the pedigree, but it's the line's interior that continues to be a huge question mark.

So on the one hand, the presence of a true power back with some breakaway ability should balance out a defense's desire to pin its ears back and send the cavalry up the middle. Of course, on the other hand, a shaky interior line doesn't usually bode well for a fantasy RB. The idea that Richardson's value suddenly skyrockets as a result of this trade is, I think, the domain of the overly excitable. The fact is, we were already ranking Richardson as a borderline top-10 RB in Cleveland, but that was under the assumption that offensive coordinator Norv Turner was going to use him in a proper manner, not have him split time with Ogbonnaya.

The best fantasy owners can hope for here, I think, is that T-Rich goes back to being a feature back, one who's actually on the field most of the time when there's a chance for a short TD. I don't think this unleashes Richardson into becoming a 1,500-yard back. But I think it definitely puts the double-digit TDs he scored last season (and very much appeared not to be headed for after two games in Cleveland) back into play. So in my mind, Richardson doesn't become a top-five fantasy RB. He just stays where he should've been, had he been used properly in Cleveland.

3. Panic on Robert Griffin III begins In 3...2...1... : It started well for Bobby Three Sticks Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. On his first snap, he got no pressure, took his time, and found Leonard Hankerson over the middle for a 14-yard gain. But as early as his second throw, the cracks began to show. On a third-and-4 around midfield, RG III did get pressure, and he did his new thing: He didn't step into his throw, and it sailed ludicrously on him. When he's on time, when he's in rhythm, Griffin doesn't look any different to me this season than he did last. He executed a second-quarter play-action fake and instantly zipped a pass to Pierre Garcon for an 18-yard gain, on time, no muss. But when there were bodies around him, we saw too many batted balls, too many across-the-body downfield wings, too many stressed-out mechanics.

I never want to be the guy who tries to get inside an athlete's head, call him "scared," call him "gun-shy," question his competitiveness. And I won't do that here. All I can report is what I see, and I see a player who's not fully committed to using his plant leg on every play. When defenders aren't around him, he looks relaxed, but in traffic it seems that his first motion after throwing a pass is to jump backward. I don't think this is intentional, or represents some kind of strike against his character. But it's there.

The good news, however, is that I don't see any diminution of Griffin's athletic talents. He's still slippery in and around the pocket, and is still frustratingly elusive when he has to be. He's still fast. He still confused the Packers' D later in the game, when the Redskins started to employ some triple-option concepts (out of which RG III mostly threw). This is not a completely lost cause, nor would I blame Griffin for his team's horrid start. That falls much more on a defense that hasn't been able to stop anyone.

However, RG III's fantasy status depends largely on his ability to run. Regular readers of this column are probably tired of reading this, but Griffin wasn't an elite fantasy thrower last season. I'll trod out this chart one more time to illustrate the point:

You may have the impression that Griffin was a great deep-ball thrower last year, but that's all it is: an impression. He tied Christian Ponder for 27th in pass attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. (To be fair, he tossed for seven TD passes on those 35 attempts, which is good, but he didn't do it often.) The reason RG III was a fantasy stud last season involved his legs, and so far this year, the team hasn't called any designed runs for him. I think that will change, and maybe soon. I'm not giving up on him as a fantasy asset. I rated him No. 12 among QBs this week, but something must change for him to live up to his billing.

4. Is Terrelle Pryor rescuing Darren McFadden? I studied the Oakland Raiders film in great detail this week, to get a sense of what Pryor is really doing for that offense. I think there's a big risk in getting too excited about some kind of Raiders resurgence under Pryor, because they've faced the Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, neither of whom boasts a great defense. But any objective soul would have to admit that the Pryor/McFadden dynamic is putting pressure on opposing defenses that wouldn't be there without the threat of a running QB.

Juxtapose two plays: Pryor's second-quarter 27-yard run and DMC's third-quarter 30-yard scamper. On the former, defensive end Jason Babin dramatically overcommits to the run, making a classic mistake defending the read-option. Pryor sees Babin dive inside, keeps the ball, runs to the space Babin vacated, and is off. On the latter, the Jags have good contain on Pryor, with an outside linebacker in their 3-4 play-call performing a scrape exchange with the defensive end. But middle linebacker Geno Hayes (not known for being a strong run defender) doesn't trust the contain, sees the read-option, and takes a fateful step to the outside, thinking he needs to help get Pryor. Pryor takes advantage of the tongue-lashing the Jags' D no doubt received for making a mistake on Pryor's big second-quarter run, hands it to DMC, and watches him plow through an open hole for a long run. This dynamic is a good example of why the read-option isn't really a "gimmick." It's meant to stress the defense.

And in the Raiders' case, it's probably entirely necessary, because when they line up man-on-man and just try to straightforward beat you, they haven't succeeded. McFadden has 36 carries this season. Of those, eight have been stuffed for zero or fewer yards, and 21 have gained two yards or fewer. In each case, that "stuff percentage" puts him among the five worst in the league among RBs who have had at least 20 carries. If watching film has taught me anything about RBs, it's that stuffs rarely have tons to do with the rusher. Sure, sometimes a RB has poor instincts and runs himself into tackles, but when a guy is met in his own backfield? That's the line.

My point is that I think DMC is a good bet to make a couple of pretty nice gains per week as a result of the Raiders' commitment to misdirection and forcing defensive mistakes. But they'd better get those big plays, because their lunch-pail plays don't tend to yield much. Listen, coming off a 185 total-yard effort where chunk plays were common, I'd have a hard time sitting McFadden even in a Monday night tilt against the powerful Broncos. I think Pryor has brought hope to Oakland that I never would've expected. That said, given DMC's tortured injury history and his offense's limitations, would I consider him a decent sell-high candidate? I sure would.

Four In Brief:

5. Knowshon Moreno is a fantasy starter you can trade: I don't look at Moreno's tape and see a total dud of a running back. He's not all that fast, he's not all that big (nor is he all that small), he's not all that elusive ... but he's not a dud. His second TD run against the New York Giants last week was a nice one, and there was a strong third-quarter 7-yard scamper where I saw him put his foot in the ground and make a linebacker miss, something he doesn't do very often. Furthermore, he was already his team's best pass-protecting RB and has taken advantage of Montee Ball's horrendous beginning to become the unquestioned current Broncos top back. He's No. 17 on my RB list this week, and most of his fantasy owners are going to start him Monday night, but I can absolutely see trading him.

I don't think we've seen the last of Ball as a thumper. He was famous for almost never fumbling at Wisconsin despite his huge workload, yet bobbled away a red-zone touch that Peyton Manning magnanimously gave him in Week 2. The kid just isn't ready (much to my surprise). But I don't think he'll stay "unready" all year. Given Moreno's long (and I mean long) injury history, my guess is Ball still will get a chance to be a fantasy factor later in the season. This doesn't absolve me of a bad call about his Week 1 readiness, but it does lead me to the conclusion that if someone wanted to overpay me for Moreno, I'd consider it. For as long as he's healthy and on my roster, however, I'm probably starting him.

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6. Do the St. Louis Rams need to re-think their backfield? Through two weeks, Daryl Richardson has 98 yards on 30 carries, and that's not good. But stats aren't really my currency; I'm more concerned with how he looks. Against the Atlanta Falcons last week, Richardson didn't provoke great love from his fantasy owners: 80 total yards and no TDs. There's concern brewing, no doubt, that as Isaiah Pead gets up to speed, the Rams may try him as a real alternative in the backfield. Pead had three touches Sunday, but actually (vexingly) was on the field quite a bit as the Rams played catch-up. But here's the thing: While I don't rule out the possibility of St. Louis trying to get a spark by changing things up, the tape tells me that it isn't really necessary. While he's undersized at 195 pounds, D-Rich does a pretty solid job on all kinds of runs. This isn't Jacquizz Rodgers (who's supposedly about the same weight as Richardson, but is several inches shorter) bouncing backward off defensive players. I see strong vision and heads-up running and near-elite receiving talent.

I grant you that an ideal situation would probably see the Rams employ a thundering first- and second-down back, with Richardson used more as a third-down guy. But I don't think that "other RB" is on the roster right now. Could Pead be that guy? Truthfully, he hasn't put down enough NFL game tape to answer that question one way or another, but that in itself is a condemnation. Richardson and Pead are similar players, I suppose, but there's a reason the Rams have clearly chosen D-Rich to this point: He's a smarter, better player. If I've been rolling with him as a fantasy flex -- especially in a PPR league -- I'm not losing faith just yet. Despite his numbers, to me he's been a fairly pleasant surprise.

7. Stay at (T.Y.) Hilton: I'm hoping that the ridiculous notion that Darrius Heyward-Bey is somehow worthy of the No. 2 receiving job in Indy fell by the wayside in Week 2, after he suffered a shoulder injury and Hilton went off. Actually, that notion seemed foolish as early as the Colts' first possession, when out of a three-WR set, DHB got targeted on a deep "in" route, let the ball carom off his breadbasket, and Hilton swooped in and made the ricochet catch. Life doesn't usually present such perfect metaphors. Hilton has some DeSean Jackson in his game, and the Colts know it: They put him in a bunch formation and threw him a short pass with two blocking WRs in front of him, they threw him crossing routes (which hasn't regularly been the norm with him), and of course they gave him deep shots, including one in the second quarter where he showed terrific ball skills for such a little guy, outmuscling (and outsmarting) Brent Grimes for a huge catch.

Heyward-Bey supposedly is going to be OK for Week 3, but the Colts would be crazy to continue playing him in two-wideout sets. Hilton has run only 19 of his 48 routes so far this year from the slot, which is consistent with his usage last season; Reggie Wayne is actually more commonly the slot wideout. Does Hilton occasionally struggle getting off the line against press coverage? Maybe. But the rewards are obvious. Hilton is a "buy" right now in fantasy leagues.

8. The Philadelphia Eagles' offense hits a speed bump: Thursday night wasn't a good look for Chip Kelly and Michael Vick. But don't jump to conclusions about Kelly's tempo or schemes. The problems, as is often the case when it comes to Vick, were turnovers and sacks. Vick personally accounted for two interceptions and a fumble, and took five sacks. He had a couple of long runs (winding up with 95 yards on the ground) to salvage his fantasy night, but 13-of-30 passing looked just as bad as it sounds. And that's to say nothing of the fact that he took numerous blows and looked questionable to stay in the game late, had his last-gasp drop of the football not been ruled a fumble. LeSean McCoy overcame a scary-looking ankle injury to produce another wonderful effort, and DeSean Jackson at least made a late catch that got him up to 62 yards.

But there are two issues here. One: Vick. If you don't know his deal by now, you aren't great at learnin' stuff. Two: When you pair a high-tempo offense with a defense that -- even when it's not allowing a ton of yards -- can't get off the field, you're asking to be dominated in time of possession. That doesn't automatically mean you're going to lose, but it makes every offensive trip that much more important. Listen, even in a horrendous effort, Vick scored 15 fantasy points. We're not in panic mode with him yet. At least until he gets injured. Which is definitely, definitely coming.