With Ahmad Bradshaw Out, Who Should Fantasy Football Owners Target in the Colts' Offense?
Ahmad Bradshaw will finish his 2014 season without a 100-yard game, but as one of the best fantasy football options on a week-to-week basis who will be sorely missed in quite a few lineups. The Colts running back made a living off of touchdowns this season, finding the end zone 8 times in 10 games, while also adding some solid receiving stats for those in PPR leagues.
The veteran back was placed on inured reserve with a fracture fibula (according to ESPN), meaning the Colts will have to find some way to replace his production over these last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs. So who is next in line in Indianapolis, and how should fantasy players react to the reshuffled Indianapolis offense?
These Colts Can't Run
Setting aside fantasy production for a moment, let's get a "real football" fact straight about the Indianapolis offense:
They suck at running the football.
In fact, according to numberFire data, the Colts have been third-worst in the league on a per-rush basis when judged by Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). Only the Chargers and Raiders have been worse. And while it's easy to blame the frustrating Trent Richardson for all the problems in Indy, he wasn't the only one failing as a runner.
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Among the 36 backs with 90 or more carries in the NFL this season, Richardson ranks 29th and Bradshaw 25th in per-rush NEP. This is largely thanks to a questionable offensive line that keeps Andrew Luck running for his life, as the Colts don't pave the way for their backs very well on offense. What gave Bradshaw value was his receiving ability.
In fact, among those same 36 backs with 90 or more rushing attempts, Bradshaw ranks fifth in Total NEP, which combines Rushing and Reception NEP totals to measure overall contribution for a back when he touches the ball. Richardson moves up to 11th in those same rankings, meaning both back's overall work has been above average thanks to their pass-game opportunities.
Who Steps Up?
So the question on the minds of fantasy players everywhere heading into this week's game against Jacksonville is "who will be the Indianapolis back to play?" And for good reason, as the Jags are a fairly easy opponent who should allow the Colts to score a few times and hopefully give plenty of volume to their backs.
The short answer, when considering just backs, has to be Richardson. The former Alabama runner was getting the lion's share of carries through the first 10 games, and now lost his only legitimate competition. The Colts are heavily invested in Richardson, and have seen him flash at times, and will likely continue to give him his opportunities.
But Bradshaw did most of his damage in the red zone, which hasn't been the case for Richardson. The now-injured back had 6 receiving touchdowns thanks to a team-leading 14 red zone targets which led to a ridiculous 13 catches and all 6 scores. The Colts have only caught 39 passes inside the 20 this season, meaning one-third of their red zone production is gone with Bradshaw hurt.
Richardson only has four red zone targets on the year, leading to three catches for six yards. He does stack up better as a runner inside the 20 when compared to Bradshaw, seeing only one fewer carry, but also picking up 31 fewer yards on those attempts. Yet, outside of Andrew Luck (who is a very efficient runner), the Colts don't have any other backfield players with Richardson's talent on the roster, and his size and experience will likely keep him at the top of the goal-line priority list moving forward.
And even though Richardson is a respectable receiver (he finished seventh among all backs during his rookie season in Reception NEP), don't bank on him getting all of Bradshaw's targets. The tight ends, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton will likely all see more chances inside the 20, with Richardson seeing only a modest uptick in passes thrown his way near the end zone.
The Colts know they can't run the ball, which is why they've run 72 pass plays inside the 20 this season as opposed to only 49 rush plays (with 11 of those "rushes" coming from Andrew Luck scrambles or designed runs). Which is why Trent Richardson's value is only as good as his ability to contribute in the passing game as a receiver and a blocker, and why he's a gamble in fantasy football despite a seemingly golden opportunity.
So bump up the tight ends for Indianapolis, give a slight nudge up in your rankings to the receivers, and increase your expectations for Richardson just a bit. But there's a reason why it was Bradshaw seeing all the high-leverage looks in the Colts offense, and why Bradshaw was finding the end zone so often. Don't expect a one-for-one swap with Richardson playing more snaps in Ahmad's absence.