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Fantasy Debate: Marshawn Lynch vs. Trent Richardson

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Can Trent Richardson overcome the power of Skittles in 2013? Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

With the NFL’s seemingly never-ceasing increase in reliance on the passing game, the relevant fantasy football wide receiver inventory is deeper than ever. While the increased pool of productive receivers means there are plenty of mid-round draft targets that will put together healthy stat lines, the need to draft a running back early in fantasy drafts is more apparent than ever. Owners with the top pick in drafts this summer will simply snag Adrian Peterson then leave their computer to go make a sandwich, but what about the rest of the first round? The agonizing debates of “running back A” vs “running back B” will surely shape the seasons of fantasy teams and one such debate will undoubtedly revolve around two beastly, dreadlocked running backs in Marshawn Lynch and Trent Richardson. Who will be the best back to hitch a fantasy football wagon to in 2013? Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against each running back and find the answer.

We will begin with the Skittles-munching man that fans affectionately refer to as “Beast Mode.” Marshawn Lynch had a 2012 season for the ages, as he racked up 1,590 yards rushing to go along with a solid 11 touchdowns, as the Seattle Seahawks marched within a few plays of the NFC Championship game. Will 2013 be as kind to the Emerald City running back? The pro-Lynch argument is fairly simple and largely revolves around past performance and team philosophy. First and foremost, Seattle was and will remain committed to running the football. In 2012, Seattle was tops in the NFL in rushing attempts per game (33.5) and third in the NFL in rushing yards per game (161.2). While the additions of dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin and rookie running back Christine Michael may take a few carries away from Lynch this season, the offensive philosophy won’t change much and there will continue to be a huge dose of carries at Lynch’s disposal. In terms of track record, Lynch’s last two seasons in Seattle have seen him average 300 carries for 1,397 yards and 11.5 touchdowns so there is no leap of faith required when selecting “Beast Mode” as he is a ready-made fantasy force.

Lynch’s detractors are not without ammunition, however. First, and this is one of my own personal fantasy pet peeves, is that Lynch does little to contribute in the passing game. The 2008 season in Buffalo saw Lynch’s career high in receptions (47) but he hasn’t topped 28 catches in a single season since. This year will be no different, as Lynch’s receiving skills have never been a strength, which leaves fantasy owners in the danger zone if Seattle falls behind early in games. A cornerstone fantasy back should be useful on all downs and in all game situations and Lynch simply doesn’t offer that flexibility. The second argument against Lynch is his rapidly rising total of career carries. Coming off a season with an enormous workload (315 carries in the 2012 regular season alone) is difficult enough, but Lynch is now the owner of a whopping 1,452 career carries in six seasons. In addition to the high total of touches, we are not talking about easy carries with Lynch, which is made evident by watching any of his highlights. Lynch runs harder than any running back in the league and seeks out contact when he rumbles through opposing defenses. At some point Lynch’s running style and carry totals will catch up with him, and the sun could begin to set as early as this season.

The other running back that fantasy owners may be debating when blankly staring at draft queues in the mid-first round this season is Cleveland Browns sophomore Trent Richardson. T-Rich had a fine rookie season despite a dreadful Cleveland offense, as he totaled 1,317 total yards and found the end zone 12 times. As Cleveland’s bell cow back, Richardson showed plenty of promise and displayed proficiency in the passing attack, something that Marshawn Lynch lacks. After the 2012 season wrapped up, Richardson had a total of 51 receptions in 15 games, good for seventh among NFL running backs, which is a great feature for a first round fantasy running back. In addition to Richardson’s well-rounded skill set, Cleveland has also added a new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner. Now, before you roll your eyes at the mention of our good pal Norval, please remember that Ryan Mathews was not the only running back to tote the rock in San Diego under Turner’s watch. The 2007-2009 seasons still belonged to the great LaDainian Tomlinson, and the first two of those seasons were huge for LT. Fantasy owners should be confident in Turner’s past history with featured backs, despite the recent infuriating struggles of Ryan Mathews, which means Richardson should be in line for another healthy workload in 2013.

On the flip side of Trent Richardson’s solid rookie campaign is the fact that he didn’t quite light the world on fire with his 267 rushing attempts. Blame it on the paltry Cleveland offense or the ineptitude of Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, but Richardson averaged a mere 3.6 yards per carry in 2012. That 3.6 average put Richardson behind the chilling names of such running backs as Shonn Greene, Donald Brown and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Clearly, Richardson needs to be able to make more of his carries or risk being associated with the plodding slugs listed above. The other major concern with Richardson is his durability and the possible lingering effects of the rib injury he sustained during the 2012 season. Richardson managed to play through the pain in his rib cage after the week six injury, but also missed the final game of the 2012 season due to a “mild” high ankle sprain. These aren’t torn ACLs or Achilles tendons (sorry Crabs), but are minor dings that can be worrisome when Richardson will command a first round fantasy selection.

Ultimately, this boils down to a toss-up between a proven fantasy commodity in Lynch and the young upside of Richardson. Personally, my preference of running back pass catching skills pushes me slightly toward the Trent Richardson side of the debate (especially in PPR leagues) but there won’t be any fantasy draft chat room snickering if either running back is selected to be the workhorse for your fantasy team in 2013.