In one corner you have rookie running back Trent Richardson, and in the other corner you have second-year back DeMarco Murray. Both are going in the top 10 of fantasy football drafts, and both have plenty of upside.
First off, let's take a look at the Browns' new ball-carrier.
Trent Richardson's ability and (what looks to be) every-down status gives him top-five upside in a group of injury-prone and running back-by-committee-prone backs. At first take, I worried about the Browns offense, but if you are the every-down back on any NFL team, you are in a great situation when it comes to fantasy football.
In Adrian Peterson’s rookie season, the Minnesota Vikings had Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb and Brook Bollinger all at quarterback. Is Brandon Weeden worse than that group? I’d go out on a limb and say he is at least comparable with a good chance to be better.
As a group, Tarvaris, Kelly and Brook threw for an extraordinary 2,817 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Oh, and the leading receiver? The immortal Bobby Wade, with 54 receptions, 647 yards and three touchdowns.
So teams knew the Vikings were going to run, and also knew that if they didn’t run, the chances of Jackson to Wade hurting them were pretty slim.
So how did the Vikings' run game fare? Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor had great numbers, both averaging over five yards a carry. Peterson scored 12 touchdowns, and Taylor scored seven, while Peterson finished as the third-best fantasy back in the league.
Is Richardson as good as Peterson? Probably not, but he is close enough. He comes out of college as a better receiver and is now on a team that will use him more in the receiving game. He’s 5’11" and a stout 224 pounds with speed, balance and agility, which will make him nearly impossible to bring down at the goal line.
If he can get 250-plus carries, there is no reason he won’t put up similar to much better numbers than Peyton Hillis did in 2010, when he finished as the third-best fantasy running back in the league on an offense that was pretty much just him and—well, him.
The 2010 Browns finished 5-11 and a quarterback amalgamation that threw for 13 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Much like the 2007 Vikings, the 2010 Browns had no way to take the pressure off Hillis, and he still scored 13 touchdowns and topped 1,600 total yards. Oh, and Hillis is not Richardson. Not even close.
I see Richardson conservatively getting 270 carries, 1,250 yards rushing, eight rushing touchdowns, 40 receptions, 300 yards receiving and two receiving touchdowns with plenty of room to exceed those numbers. There’s nobody to take carries away from him, and he’ll be the goal-line back and the third-down back.
So I like Richardson, but what about DeMarco Murray?
He burst onto the scene last season averaging 168 yards a game in the five games he touched the ball over 20 times, averaging 6.3 yards per touch. That's what you want out of a running back.
Unfortunately, the closer I look at those games, the more I question that he could put up huge numbers for a full season.
First off, he rushed for 253 yards in one game, against the St. Louis Rams, who were 31st in rushing yards allowed per game. And his second-best fantasy game came against the Buffalo Bills, who were 28th in that same category. If you take those two games out of his stats, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored no touchdowns.
Yes, every team should take care of lesser teams, and taking those stats away from him isn't fair, but it's also a bit unfair to extrapolate a top-10 fantasy year based predominately on two games against weak opponents.
Another question about Murray is his durability. During college, he often had nagging injuries, including knee, knee-cap and hamstring. And then in Week 13 of last season, his rookie campaign ended with a broken ankle. I'm not one to take much stock in past injuries, but he does run hard and between the tackles, which exposes him to more contact.
The lack of touchdowns for Murray is also concerning. The Cowboys are a pass-first team, with receivers who can do good work in the end zone. Dez Bryant is made for red-zone passes. Unlike the Browns, who need someone to finish drives, the Cowboys aren't crying for a goal-line back. Murray will be the de-facto goal-line back, but that isn't his or the Cowboys' forte. They will throw the ball.
This of course isn't as cut and dry as I'm making it out to be. If Murray stays healthy, which is very possible, he should see plenty of work on a strong offensive team. I currently have Richardson ranked as my eighth-best running back and Murray as my 11th.
Both have very high upsides this season, but I feel Richardson is a little safer.