Can Reggie Bush break through?
Is this finally Reggie Bush's time to shine?
I was checking out ESPN.com's live draft results, specifically the page where you can see which players have taken the biggest fall in the past seven days. And I was met with a shock. As of Aug. 30, just behind Ryan Grant, Jonathan Stewart and Ryan Torain, is one Mr. Reggie Bush: Heisman winner and Heisman giver-backer, 2006 No. 2 overall pick, and relatively disappointing professional running back. On average, he has seen his average draft position drop 5.4 slots.
That's an intriguing development in a week when Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano named Bush his starting running back. Now, I'm not so callow as to say just because a guy is the "starter," that means he's not in a platoon. Rookie Daniel Thomas is on hand, and he's going to play some. Nor does Sparano's endorsement ("I would think he's going to have the most touches and the most carries," courtesy of The Miami Herald) automatically mean he's the most valuable running back on Miami's roster. But it certainly doesn't mean his fantasy value drops, does it?
It's easy to bash Bush. He might have done some pretty questionable things in college, at a university that was dominant in football at the time of his attendance. He's a rich, handsome, well-spoken guy who carries a public perception that things have come easy. And he never lived up to the hype in New Orleans; after two productive committee seasons with the Saints in 2006 and '07, he was hurt for a good portion of the subsequent three years and didn't look particularly comfortable with contact, often choosing to evade tacklers rather than taking them head on. But let's be honest, much of the problem we fantasy folks have with Reggie Bush is that his name is Reggie Bush. If he were a veteran fifth-round pick who had averaged 59 catches and 846 yards from scrimmage per season in his NFL career and was going to a run-first offense where his only competition was a rookie, we'd be touting him as a sleeper. Instead, his ADP is going down.
Listen, I've led the charge on Bush critiques. He hasn't represented himself on the field as an elusive guy or a tough guy. Whereas theoretically he was supposed to be a breakaway runner of the Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles mold, only three of his 524 career carries have gone for 40 or more yards; CJ2K had four such runs last year, and Charles had three. Charles averages 6.0 yards per carry for his career and Johnson averages 5.0; Bush averages 4.0. And, of course, there are the injuries. Bush has played in 60 of a possible 80 games, including just 32 of his last possible 48.
Does Bush deserve his "soft" label? Let's look at those injuries. He broke his right leg last year, something for which we shouldn't hold him accountable. It's a broken bone. His left knee has been a constant source of problems; it has suffered meniscus damage and sprained ligaments and has required surgery. Again, I would argue that's not a "toughness" issue but rather bad luck. However, Bush has faced a few calf pulls and hamstring strains -- possibly related to his left knee troubles -- that fall in a grayer area. Let me put it this way: I do consider Bush's left knee perpetually at risk because of his persistent injuries, and that diminishes his fantasy value. But I can't say, "He'll definitely get hurt."
The larger question is: Is Bush simply much less talented than we all believed when he was lighting up the USC backfield? I don't think he is. The guy I saw run in the second preseason game, against the Carolina Panthers, looked elusive and dynamic, bursting up through lanes between the tackles. He was impressive. Of course, the very next week, Bush had five carries for minus-1 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so it's not likely he'll be a superstar. Still, I don't think this is a matter of a man severely lacking talent.
And then there's the matter of Thomas, the rookie I thought looked best-positioned to have fantasy impact as a rookie. By most accounts, he's been a preseason disappointment. The most damning evaluation came from The Palm Beach Post, which reported that Thomas looked as if he was regularly tiptoeing at the line of scrimmage. Anyone whose mind instantly flashes to Ron Dayne is forgiven. If Thomas had come into Dolphins camp and grabbed the starting gig by the neck, would the team have felt compelled to give Larry Johnson a look-see? And would the Fins be talking up Bush to this degree? Heck, glorified fullback Lex Hilliard could conceivably be a better bet for Week 1 goal-line carries than Thomas at this point.
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Of course, you're not playing fantasy in Week 1 only. Bush's legs have been injured enough that it's legit to be concerned that he won't hold up to 15 or 20 touches per week. And Thomas can't be completely flushed away; countless good NFL backs have made less-than-favorable first impressions, then figured things out later. Heck, I still think I'd draft Thomas before I'd take Bush, just for the bruising, 230-pound upside and the chance he'll get himself straightened out. But if you don't have to take Bush to be a starter on your fantasy team (and you don't), he's worth a draft choice, too. It sure sounds for all the world as though Bush is going to get a chance to be the lead dog. He's going to line up all over the place, and Chad Henne should look for him an awful lot in the passing game. For a game or a month or half a season, there's a chance the guy will become a fantasy story. The left knee -- and the soft-tissue leg injuries -- concern me enough that if Bush does start strong, I would consider dealing him away. But as an 11th-rounder in 10-team drafts? That's absolutely a risk worth taking.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
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