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Could Doug Martin disappoint in '13?

7/31/2013

Is there a chance that Doug Martin could disappoint in his second season?

On average, Doug Martin was the 65th player selected in ESPN fantasy football drafts last year. That made him the 25th running back taken. As it turns out, that was a little low.

Martin had a tremendous rookie season, finishing fifth in rushing yards, tied for fifth in rushing TDs, fifth in receiving yards among RBs and fourth in targets among backs. In Value-Based Drafting terms, Martin tied Arian Foster as the second-most valuable player in fantasy football. You can make the argument that Alfred Morris' freshman campaign was more unexpected, but Martin's was better.

Here's the profile I wrote for Martin heading into 2012: "The Muscle Hamster is a strong all-around player; unlike LeGarrette Blount, he's an accomplished blocker and pass-catcher, and he has some wiggle to his game. ... It's ambitious to say Martin is instantly a fantasy starter, because the behemoth [LeGarrette] Blount will still be in the mix. But Martin has potential."

I'll say. His all-around game was on display immediately. On the first drive of his pro career, against the Carolina Panthers, he made a fallaway diving catch on a ball Josh Freeman never should have thrown (Martin was covered) and, in total, accounted for 39 yards using sharp cuts and power. By Week 6, his numbers didn't look great, but I went on the Fantasy Underground podcast and sang his praises. He just popped on film. And Martin proceeded to go ballistic from that point forward.

I'm an ardent admirer of Martin at his best. He has wiggle, is already among the more decisive runners in the NFL and couples breakaway speed with 220 pounds of thickness. Watch any of his highlights from 2012 and you'll understand why Martin is generating so much buzz for '13. In ESPN's group ranks and in my personal ranks, he's the No. 5 RB. And I've heard from readers who think he should be even higher than that.

It's rare for such a young, relatively unproven player to generate such universal love. It's also rare for such players to pan out. Here are the highest-drafted first- or second-year players the past eight years in fantasy:

ADP vs. Final VBD Rank, Since 2005

To say the least, this is a sobering list. Only Addai lived up to his ADP; every other "best young player available" busted. Of course, this isn't a completely fair comparison. Martin is already coming off a season in which he was a clear top-five fantasy performer; Murray, Bryant and Greene all played like fantasy bench players the year before their supposed breakouts-to-be, and Lynch, Williams and Jones were all coming off rookie years that were good but not fantasy magic. The truly apt comparisons are Forte and Addai. Forte finished fifth in VBD as a rookie, and Addai finished No. 11. Although Addai responded with an even better sophomore campaign, Forte did not.

In general, Forte is a pretty great comparable for Martin. Forte is a few inches taller, but they weigh the same, are both good receivers, are solid in pass protection and can play in any down-and-distance situation. In 2008, Forte produced 1,715 total yards and 12 total TDs (Martin had 1,926 and 12 last year). Yet Forte slogged through an uninspiring '09: 1,400 total yards and four TDs. He was supposed to be every bit as bulletproof as Martin is today. Instead, he battled an MCL sprain and, although he played the full 16 games, wasn't at full strength.

Could things go similarly wrong for Martin? Yes. Here's how:

Big play overreliance: Last year, Martin scored one-third of his fantasy points in two games: Week 8 against the Minnesota Vikings and Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders. A pessimist would point out that, if you take away his four breakaway runs in those two games -- which resulted in 223 yards -- Martin would have finished ninth in rushing yards, one spot behind Chris Johnson. As the lesson of CJ1K himself points out, when you live by the big play, you often die by the big play. If Martin becomes even more of a feast-or-famine player in '13, his fantasy owners will suffer.

Injury bounce back: Naturally, any NFL running back can get hurt. But with players such as Adrian Peterson, Foster, Ray Rice et al., we've seen multiple seasons' worth of toughness. We've seen them shake off the inevitable sprains and strains, and we know they've produced when they haven't always been at their healthiest. Do we know how Martin will react to having to play hurt? I'm not impugning the man's toughness; in fact, he's an admirably powerful and vicious runner when he has to be. But if you're asking me which RBs I feel can safely perform sub-100 percent, I'll take the veterans.

Short-yardage issues: An area I noticed on film where Martin sometimes struggled in '12 was close to an opponent's goal line. On 13 attempts inside an opponent's 3, Martin scored four times and gained zero or fewer yards five times. Again, the Forte comparison is apt: In his career, Forte is a dreadful 9-of-40 converting TDs from inside an opponent's 3, with zero or negative yards an incredible 24 times. I think low-to-the-ground Martin will wind up being better in this area than 6-foot-1 Forte, and perhaps the return of guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph will be the tonic he needs. Still, when you have to rely on long TDs, you can get burned.

Josh Freeman: There's a not-insignificant chance that Freeman could continue the downward spiral that saw him fade hard in December. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mike Glennon this spring, and Freeman is entering a contract year. Speculation has been rampant that Freeman will have a short leash if his trademark mental mistakes and inconsistent mechanics rear their head again. And if Freeman goes sour, the offense could go sour. If the offense goes sour, Martin could get swept up in the mess.

Do I think Martin is doomed to suffer a sophomore slump? I most certainly don't. That's why I've ranked him No. 5 overall. Anyone who heard me talk about the Muscle Hamster last year knows how much I think of him. But if you have any question about why I don't have Martin higher than No. 5, I hope I've answered it. Peterson, Foster, Rice and Marshawn Lynch have all earned their higher ranks by doing it for a longer period and in more varied circumstances. As such, despite his admirable talent, Martin comes with more potential downside than these other RBs. As safe as some seem to want to paint Martin, he's absolutely not risk-free.