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The last signings

Jeremy Shockey during a 2007 training camp Cat...

New Panther Jeremy Shockey. Image via Wikipedia

This may be the last week of NFL transactions for a long, long time. And as teams and players prepare for a potential lockout, a few deals are being made. So today and tomorrow, we’re going to look at these moves and their impact on the field in 2011. Today, we start with the last signings; tomorrow, we’ll look at salary-cap clearing cuts.

Saints add DT Shaun Rogers, keep RB Pierre Thomas – Rogers, who was released by the Browns last month, can still be a disruptive force inside. So you can see why the Saints wanted him in the middle of their defense. Rogers got a $4 million contract (reportedly $2 million less than he was offered elsewhere), which is pretty good money but reasonable for a starter. But it’s a good deal for the Saints, for two reasons. One, not many guys are available because of CBA limbo, and Rogers is clearly the best defensive lineman available at this point. And getting Rogers on a one-year deal should ensure that he stays motivated and focused throughout the season, since the carrot of another payday is out there. Give the Saints credit for anteing up and making a deal while they can. Thomas got a four-year, $12 million deal to remain in New Orleans after a rather contentious contract squabble throughout 2010. The deal is worth it to the Saints because they saw how their offense fell off when Thomas’ solid if unspectacular production wasn’t in the lineup in 2010 due to injury.

Chargers add S Bob Sanders – When healthy, Sanders is a premier in-the-box safety who hits like a ton of bricks and makes plays as a tackler, blitzer, and coverman. But Sanders has been healthy far too infrequently in the past three years, which led the Colts to cut their losses on the former defensive player of the year. But the Chargers were more than happy to take a one-year shot on Sanders, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle (or on the helmet?) and get a premium player for cheap. For a defense with far too few impact plays last year, it’s a good gamble. But Chargers fans should remember Sanders’ health problems just as much as they remember his highlight film.

Patriots add NT Marcus Stroud – Stroud, who had been released by Buffalo, moves within the AFC East to the Patriots. New England hopes that, like Gerard Warren last year, Stroud can provide sturdy play in a limited role. If he can do so, it will allow the Pats to use standout Vince Wilfork as a 3-4 defensive end in addition to a nose tackle, which makes the Pats defense more dangerous and more versatile. So for a contending team like the Patriots, giving Stroud a two-year deal to play a specific role makes sense.

Redskins add S O.J. Atogwe – The Redskins love to make a free-agency splash, but with the lockout looming, the pool of players was limited. Still, they spent big money on Atogwe, the turnover-causing machine from the Rams. Atogwe could combine with LaRon Landry, who had a breakout season in 2010, to provide an elite safety pair, and Atogwe’s ability in coverage makes him a nice compliment to Landry, who’s at his best in the box. Plus, Atogwe played some of his best ball in St. Louis under current Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. But the five-year, $26 million deal is miles beyond any other deal on this list, and it makes you wonder if this is a savvy move or an overreaching headline grab by the Skins.

Panthers add TE Jeremy Shockey – Shockey was released by the Saints after an injury-plagued tenure there, and now he lands with the division-rival Panthers on a one-year deal. His former University of Miami tight ends coach Rob Chudzinksi is the new offensive coordinator in Carolina, so there will be some familiarity for him there. Shockey is still a good (not great, but good) receiver, and if he can stay healthy he’ll add an element to the Panthers’ offense that hasn’t been there in a while.

Texans keep TE Owen Daniels – Daniels, who was miffed to get a restricted free-agent tender instead of a long-term deal last season, was paid off for his patience this year with a four-year deal worth up to $22 million with $13 million in guarantees. It rightfully pays Daniels as a top-10 tight end, which he has proven to be. Daniels’ receiving ability adds an important dimension to the Texans’ offense, and now that he’s healthy, it should help Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson find a few more openings for big plays.

Seahawks keep RB Leon Washington – Washington, whom the Seahawks acquired in a draft-day trade last offseason, got a four-year, $12.5 million deal with another $3.5 million in incentives. That’s a nice payday that Washington has been seeking for several years. Washington is an elite returner – he practically won a game against the Chargers by himself with two kickoff return touchdowns last year – and he is also a dangerous third-down back. The price may be steep, but Washington adds value in his role.

Bills keep OT Mansfield Wrotto and S George Wilson – Wrotto, whom the Bills signed off the scrap heap at midseason last year, ended up starting seven games for the Bills, earning a callback for 2011. Wilson serves as Buffalo’s special-teams captain and also has started some games at safety.

Giants keep RB Danny Ware – Ware, who has been the Giants’ third-string back the past couple of years, returns to provide depth. That’s important considering that Brandon Jacobs is likely on the outs and Ahmad Bradshaw is a free agent.

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle – As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia – This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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Marshawn shipped out

The long-rumored Marshawn Lynch trade finally went down Tuesday, as the Bills swapped their former first-round pick to Seattle for a pair of draft picks. Below are some thoughts on the deal; we’ll compare it to other in-season trades at the trade deadline.

Lynch, a former first-round draft pick, has been effective but unspectacular in his three-plus years in Buffalo, although off-field issues have raised consternation. He’s averaged around 4.0 yards per carry, which is good but not great, and last year Fred Jackson began to surpass Lynch on the depth chart. This year, the Bills spent a top-10 overall pick on C.J. Spiller, who is more explosive than Lynch and took more carries away. And given the depth of the Bills’ needs elsewhere, having three starting-caliber backs was foolish. So the Bills finally gave in and dealt Lynch to Seattle for a fourth-round pick this year and a sixth-rounder in 2012 that can become a fifth-rounder if things go well for Lynch with the Seahawks. The trade doesn’t significantly lessen the Bills’ chances of recording even a single win, so whatever price they got will help.

For the Seahawks, Lynch represents an upgrade over Julius Jones (who was released when the deal went down). He is a far better every-down back who can be supplemented by former college teammate Justin Forsett and Leon Washington to add more explosiveness. It’s another piece for a Seahawks offense that is adding pieces wherever it can to upgrade the talent level. Given the weakness of the NFC West, adding Lynch could help the Seahawks get another win that could get them to 8-8, which could be enough for a playoff berth. Given that situation, then, this price isn’t too much to pay for a guy who will come in and start for 12 games in 2010 and who is also signed for 2011.

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OP: Can the Wests be won at home?

One of the things you’ll see from time to time here at Football Relativity is our outlandish prediction. We’ll analyze things that seem far outside of the realm of possibility and try to decide if they’ll happen.

In this post, we’re going to look at two teams leading the West divisions – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-1 Seattle Seahawks. The thing these teams have in common, besides first-place standings, is massive home-field advantages. But can these home-field advantages lead these teams to division titles? Let’s look at the facts and then try to predict the future for these teams this season – even if that prediction ends up being outlandish.

The Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start thanks to home wins over the Chargers and 49ers, along with a road win at Cleveland. Both home wins figured to be tough, at least when looking at the schedule before the season, so the Chiefs’ record is truly a surprise. While the Chargers and 49ers are slipping enough that we don’t want to read too much into these wins, the Chiefs have a lot more weapons than they did last year. Last season, the Chiefs claimed Chris Chambers off waivers from San Diego in a desperate attempt to add explosiveness to their offense. This year, that explosiveness is there in spades. Rookie slot receiver Dexter McCluster and TE Tony Moeaki have both proven to be dangerous targets (along with holdover Dwayne Bowe), and Thomas Jones adds some solid aspects to the running game while Jamaal Charles remains a threat to break a big run at any time. Those targets have helped Matt Cassel overcome a slow start. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense (under new coordinator Charlie Weis) is a legitimate NFL attack. And on defense, the addition of rookie DBs Eric Berry and Javier Arenas, along with bounceback efforts from former first-round disappointments DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LB Derrick Johnson, have made the Chiefs scarier to face. Tamba Hali, one of the few Chiefs’ first-rounders who had performed OK in previous years, had three sacks last week, and Brandon Flowers continues to be a pretty good cornerback. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has pulled the right strings and made the most of the talent available, which is a good sign.

But will it last? Road games at Indianapolis and Houston after this week’s bye will probably drop the Chiefs to 3-2. But K.C. then has home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, along with a winnable road games at Oakland and Denver, mean that winning six or seven of the first nine games is possible. If the Chiefs do that, steal another road game at St. Louis later in the season, and hold serve in five of their six remaining home games, they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6. That’ll be good enough to win the AFC West – to the point that we’ll now make the outlandish prediction that the Chiefs will in fact win their division.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 after a convincing home win against San Francisco and hard-fought win over San Diego this week. This week’s seven-point win is due to Leon Washington’s two kickoff-return touchdowns, which is something the ‘Hawks can’t expect to do every week. Seattle’s offense has been OK, as Matt Hasselbeck has been healthy (which will be easier going forward now that OLT Russell Okung is playing), and TE John Carlson has emerged as a dependable target. Seattle needs receivers to emerge, whether it be reclamation project Mike Williams, promising rookie Golden Tate, or someone else. They also need a run game that produces more. On defense, offseason additions Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons have provided some pass-rush punch, and rookie S Earl Thomas has two interceptions already. The Seahawks have added to their talent base this offseason, although they’re not as far along as the Chiefs are. Still, Pete Carroll has undoubtedly put of jolt of energy into this franchise and the players currently on the roster.

So where does that leave the Seahawks in terms of their division? Seattle is tied with Arizona with a 2-1 record, so the two games between the teams could mean a lot. Arizona is more talented than the Seahawks, but Seattle has more consistent QB play. For Seattle’s playoff hopes, this week’s trip to St. Louis is key, because it’s a winnable road game that can help the “Hawks get to nine wins. Trips to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and San Francisco could also prove fruitful, and if Seattle can win a couple of those and ride home-field advantage to wins against opponents they should beat, big things are possible in Seattle. They’ll likely be favored in every remaining game at home except for perhaps Atlanta’s visit.

But while the schedule looks good, our hunch is that the Seahawks’ lack of depth and premium players will cost them as the season goes along, and they’ll top out at eight wins. Maybe that’s enough to win a flagging NFC West, but our outlandish prediction still leaves Seattle out of the postseason picture.

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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

As more NFL teams turn to running back committees, it gets harder and harder for fantasy football owners to sort out crowded backfield situations. So in this post, we’re going to analyze some of these situations to see what fantasy insight we can glean. We’ll do this on a team-by-team basis. If we missed a team you want to discuss, leave a comment and we’ll add them in.

As always, there’s much more fantasy football coverage in the category listing on the blog. And we once again referred to this great depth-chart site to help us along.

BillsRookie C.J. Spiller is the enthralling pick among Buffalo’s stable of running backs because of his breakaway ability, and he makes an ideal No. 4 fantasy back because he can score at any moment. But our suspicion is that holdover Fred Jackson will be a bit more consistently valuable from a fantasy perspective and end up with more fantasy points. So Jackson creeps just above Spiller in the pecking order. Holdover Marshawn Lynch is in the doghouse and shouldn’t be drafted by fantasy owners.

Broncos – It appeared entering training camp that Denver had a pretty clear-cut breakdown in its backfield, with Knowshon Moreno emerging as a fantasy starter and Correll Buckhalter fitting in as bye-week flex play who got a few opportunities. But both Moreno and Buckhalter suffered training-camp injuries that slowed their preparation, and the Broncos added LenDale White and Justin Fargas just to get through the preseason. We still believe in Moreno as a high-end No. 2 fantasy back, but we’ve dropped Buckhalter to a No. 4 back until we see how he heals and whether White and/or Fargas make the team.

Browns – Some fantasy touts are pushing Jerome Harrison as a starting running back, but we don’t agree. Despite Harrison’s strong finish, we are much more comfortable slotting in Harrison as a low-end No. 3 fantasy back and borderline flex play instead of relying on him as a starter. Instead, we’d rather take a chance on rookie Montario Hardesty, who we see as a No. 3 fantasy back with upside. Second-year man James Davis has some talent but will trouble carving out a role and therefore is not draftable for fantasy owners.

Buccaneers – The offensive situation around Cadillac Williams is a bit more favorable than it was last year, and Williams actually had a decent fantasy year last year with 1,040 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he’s a solid fantasy backup who could edge into flex position consideration. Derrick Ward, who signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year, had a disappointing season with only half the yardage Williams posted and three touchdowns. He’s worth drafting in larger leagues, just in case he emerges quickly, but he’s a No. 5 fantasy back and not much more.

Cardinals – We’re big fans of Beanie Wells this year and expect him to break out as a top-15 back. As a result, we expect Tim Hightower to function more as a handcuff or a No. 4 back who’s an emergency fill-in instead of as a potential flex play, as he has been in the past. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a third-down back who won’t get enough chances to be fantasy relevant unless there’s an injury.

Chiefs – Jamaal Charles broke out as a fantasy performer over the second half of last year, and he’s a hot prospect this year. But because of the crowded backfield around him, it’s hard for us to project Charles as a No. 1 fantasy back. He’s a great investment with upside on Tier 2. The crowd is largely because the Chiefs added vet Thomas Jones in the offseason after he had a great season for the Jets. However, because of his age and Charles’ presence, Jones is more of a No. 3 fantasy back than a starter who will complement Charles instead of compete with him. Note also that rookie Dexter McCluster could get running back eligibility and merit No. 5 fantasy back status.

Colts – Joseph Addai had a solid season last year, holding off rookie Donald Brown to be a fantasy starter. Now Addai enters a contract year, and Brown is the heir apparent. Addai remains a fantasy starter, while Brown is a No. 5 fantasy back who can serve as a handcuff to Addai or as a speculative investment in the draft.

Cowboys – The buzz is around Felix Jones, but the hype doesn’t match reality. We prefer Marion Barber as a fantasy option to Jones (as we discussed in this post), and while we’re comfortable relying on Barber as a No. 2 fantasy back in larger leagues, we can’t say the same about Jones. Jones is an ideal flex play, not a starting running back. Tashard Choice is a talented back with limited opportunity who gains tons of value if either Barber and Jones get hurt. Choose Choice as a No. 5 back and stash him for a rainy day.

Dolphins – Miami, along with Carolina, is one of the few places where the top two running backs both merit fantasy starter consideration. We prefer Ricky Williams, who was amazing down the stretch last year, to Ronnie Brown, but we expect both guys to surpass 1,200 total yards if they stay healthy. Both are solid fantasy starters.

Eagles – Even with longtime stalwart Brian Westbrook gone, the Eagles once again have a crowded backfield situation. Second-year man LeSean McCoy figures to get the most touches, although we see him as much more of a No. 2 fantasy back than a guy with the upside to pace a fantasy roster. Free-agent addition Mike Bell could get some goal-line touches, because that isn’t McCoy’s forte, and fullback Leonard Weaver will get some shots as well. Both Bell and Weaver are No. 5 fantasy backs with a bit of upside in case McCoy struggles.

Jets – Shonn Greene’s performance in the postseason convinced the Jets he was ready to be a bellcow back, and we believe he’ll deliver fantasy starter numbers now that Thomas Jones is in Kansas City. With Leon Washington gone, some people expect LaDainian Tomlinson to emerge as a potential flex fantasy play, but we don’t. Tomlinson’s skills have fallen off the precipice, and we wouldn’t draft him as more than a No. 5 back. We’re far more inclined to bet on rookie Joe McKnight as the complement to Greene as a receiver and runner in the old Leon Washington-style role.

Panthers – As in Miami, Carolina features two running backs who deserve to start for fantasy teams. DeAngelo Williams is a Tier-1 back who will deliver fantasy starter numbers and who could carry a fantasy team to a title, while Jonathan Stewart is a dependable No. 2 fantasy back. Other options, like Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton, gain fantasy value only if Williams or Stewart is hurt.

Patriots – Few backfield situations are as inscrutable as New England’s, because so many guys have defined roles. But that makes it hard to mine much fantasy value from the situation. Laurence Maroney, although he’s been disappointing, is still the best prospect. He only had 856 total yards last year, but he scored nine touchdowns, including a stretch in which he had at least one touchdown six games in a row. He’s a No. 3 fantasy back who could emerge as a starter but probably won’t. Venerable veteran Fred Taylor played only six games last year, although he finished strong once he got healthy. If he stays healthy he could actually surpass Maroney in the pecking order. Right now, we have Taylor as a No. 4 fantasy back. Sammy Morris will steal some carries, but not enough to be fantasy relevant, and Kevin Faulk’s third-down back role won’t make him a fantasy option either.

Raiders – Justin Fargas is gone, but the Raiders still have a crowded backfield. Michael Bush and Darren McFadden both could lay claim to being No. 1 running backs, although the most likely scenario is that they split time. Bush averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, which is a fine number, but he must prove he can handle more than 140 touches in a season. McFadden averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and missed four games, but his pedigree as a top-5 overall pick speaks to his talent. He’s also a much better receiver than Bush, which will help him get more touches. Right now, we have both Bush and McFadden as borderline No. 3 fantasy backs with upside, and if one emerges in the preseason, he could jump up to the top 25 at the position. And it’s not a bad strategy to draft both Bush and McFadden in the middle rounds in hopes that one separates himself.

Redskins – The Redskins have the most geriatric RB corps in the league, and that’s not a good sign. But the situation around those runners is good now that Donovan McNabb and two new offensive tackles (Jammal Brown and Trent Williams) are in town. Clinton Portis thrived with Mike Shanahan in Denver, but he struggled in a big way last season and looks like a No. 3 fantasy back on performance right now. Larry Johnson bombed out in Kansas City last year, but he rebounded a bit in Cincinnati and looks like he could be a No. 4 fantasy back in larger leagues. There’s at least the potential that Johnson could usurp Portis, which adds fantasy upside. Willie Parker (aka old dog No. 3) is more likely to get released than to make a fantasy impact.

Saints – The Saints had a three-headed monster at running back last year, but it looks like a two-man show this season. Pierre Thomas is a solid No. 2 fantasy back, especially now that Lynell Hamilton is out for the season. Thomas should get more touches this season if he can stay healthy. Reggie Bush has carved out a feature role that makes him a nice flex option for fantasy owners. He can score in so many different ways that he’s capable of producing for fantasy owners, but it won’t happen consistently, which is why Bush is a No. 3 fantasy back and not a starter.

Seahawks – The Seahawks have a convoluted situation, but it appears that Justin Forsett will be the best fantasy option among their backs. It’s risky to count on Forsett as a No. 2 fantasy back, but if you can get him as a flex option, you’ll have a great situation. Leon Washington should carve out enough of a role to be a No. 4 fantasy back, and Julius Jones is still around. But Jones averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and will primarily keep Forsett and Washington from getting pummeled too often. That’s not a fantasy-friendly role.

Texans – Few coaches have been as frustrating to fantasy owners as Gary Kubiak, because he’s willing to give any running back a shot at any time. That means that Arian Foster, rookie Ben Tate, and former 1,000-yard rusher Steve Slaton all have upside, but they also have limited roles. Our suspicion is that Foster, who appears to be in line for the first shot at starting, will be the most valuable of the trio, and that’s why we slot him as a No. 3 fantasy back with a lot of upside. Tate is a borderline No. 3 fantasy back, while Slaton, who appears headed for a third-down role (at least for now) is a No. 5 back at best.

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Fantasy Football: Starting Running Backs

Few things in fantasy football are more frustrating than not having solid starters at running back. So in this post, we’re going to continue to break down our running back draft board to identify guys you can trust to start for you this season.

We’ve broken down Tier 1 at running back and looked at rookie running backs and potential breakout running backs. That has given us a clear view of Tiers 1 and 2 at the position, which as of now includes 11 RBs on Tier 1 and six RBs on Tier 2. That means Tier 3 will feature several running backs that will start for fantasy teams. So in this post, we’re going to use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss running backs on Tier 3 so that we can find the next 8-10 backs that will fill starting spots in 12-team leagues. Players are listed alphabetically.

Joseph Addai, Colts – After a disappointing ’08 season, Addai had a bit of a fantasy bounceback in 2009, piling up 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. That was a bit surprising, especially after the Colts added first-round running back Donald Brown. But don’t be deceived by Addai’s numbers, because he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and just 6.6 yards per catch, which was a yard and a half below his previous career low. Part of Addai’s low yards-per-touch averages was Indy’s offensive line, which struggled last year and has been upgraded in the offseason. But Brown’s emergence is still a danger to Addai’s production. Given his role, Addai still fits as a Tier 3 running back, but barely so. He’s only a fantasy starter in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber piled up 1,153 yards from scrimmage last year, and he scored seven touchdowns (giving him 49 in a five-year career). Still, the buzz is behind Felix Jones, not Barber, in the Cowboys’ backfield. Yes, Jones is more explosive than Barber, but we like the fact that Barber rebounded to average 4.4 yards per carry last year. Yes, Jones will get his chances, but Barber’s running and receiving should pile up 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns, which makes him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back and a solid Tier 3 member. Verdict: Applaud

Jahvid Best, Lions – Besides Ryan Mathews (a Tier 2 back), Best is the rookie back with the clearest shot for a starting job, as we discussed in this post. Detroit hasn’t been a great home for fantasy running backs in recent years, but Kevin Smith has put up decent numbers, and he’s not the explosive threat that Best is. Best is a nice investment as a top-25 back because his breakaway ability adds upside. He’s safely onto Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw had a breakout season last year, totaling 985 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, continuing his strong work in that category while increasing his workload. From about midseason on, Bradshaw was in basically a 50-50 split for carries with Brandon Jacobs, and we believe that trend continues this year based on Bradshaw’s performance last year. Bradshaw be a 1,000-yard producer with 6-8 touchdowns, and there’s a possibility for more if the Giants continue to swing the carries percentage toward Bradshaw based on performance. Verdict: Applaud

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – How do you break down the Dolphins’ backfield? Brown ran for 648 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in Miami’s ninth game, and afterhe injured his right foot. After Brown’s injury, Ricky Williams ran wild. So it’s safe to say that the Dolphins have a run-friendly offense with a stout offensive line, and even with Williams around Brown should pile up about 1,000 total yards with 8-10 touchdowns. That’s enough to place Brown safely on Tier 3 and consider him a top-25 running back, even though we slightly prefer Williams this year. Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Bush, Saints – At this point, fantasy owners need to accept who Bush is and who he’s not. Bush is a terrific triple threat who can score running, receiving, and on punt returns. But Bush isn’t going to be a mega-yardage producer who is a consistent fantasy performer. Last year showed that, as Bush totaled just 725 yards from scrimmage but had eight total touchdowns. That makes him a terrific No. 3 back who fits as a flex option or as a bye-week fill-in with great upside on any particular week. But if you depend on Bush to deliver on a weekly basis, you’ll be disappointed. He’s on Tier 3, but not as high as his teammate Pierre Thomas. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett was one of the few bright spots in a lost season in Seattle last year, amassing 969 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns despite sharing time with Julius Jones. Jones is still around, and Leon Washington is now around, duplicating many of Forsett’s skills. But Forsett is still the best option the Seahawks have, and we expect him to win enough touches in Pete Carroll’s always-compete system to come close to his 2010 numbers again. That encourages us to leave Forsett on Tier 3 as a potential starter in larger leagues.Verdict: Applaud

Matt Forte, Bears – After a terrific rookie season, Forte was a top-5 overall pick in many fantasy leagues last year. But his results dropped off significantly as he ended up with 1,400 yards from scrimmage and just four touchdowns. Even worse, aside from four pretty good fantasy performances against the sorry Lions (twice), Rams, and Browns, Forte’s weekly performance was even worse than his season numbers indicate. The Bears’ offensive line, which was a part of the problem, has gotten an offseason overhaul that should help, but the offense is different for Forte this year with Mike Martz on-board as offensive coordinator. Even more of a threat to Forte’s stock is the appearance of Chester Taylor, a versatile back who could merit at least 40 percent of the work and could take a greater share if Forte struggles. Forte’s receiving acumen fits Martz’s system, but his chances will decrease because of Martz’s system. After last year, we don’t trust Forte as a top-25 back, but he’s still a starter (barely) in large leagues and therefore a fit on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Montario Hardesty, Browns – In our rookie running back post, we talked about how Hardesty is worth drafting at the bottom of Tier 3 because of his upside. He’s not a starting-caliber running back, but we recommend drafting him as such in order to have his significant upside as your No. 3 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – As we recommend Hardesty, we believe Harrison will settle into No. 3 fantasy running back status on Tier 4. Yes, he ran for 862 yards last season, but his numbers were inflated by a 286-yard performance against an abysmal Kansas City defense. More importantly, in games in which he had at least eight carries, that was one of only two games in which he averaged at least four yards per carry. Hardesty’s breakaway ability will surpass Harrison’s workmanlike status, and so Harrison’s numbers will rely on a heavy dose of carries and catches. He’ll have enough for 800 yards from scrimmage and 5-6 touchdowns, but not significantly more. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson successfully carved out a role in Buffalo despite facing off against a first-round pick in Marshawn Lynch, and now he must maintain such a role alongside first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Jackson’s receiving skills will help him do so. While Spiller’s also a talented receiver, the Bills will likely want to limit Spiller’s exposure as a rookie so that they can prolong his career. That means Jackson will continue to pile up around 1,000 yards from scrimmage and with six touchdowns or so. That dependable production means that Jackson is a candidate to start in larger fantasy leagues and therefore a member of Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – After a terrific ’08 fantasy season, Jacobs slipped in a big way in 2009, running for just 835 yards and scoring just six touchdowns. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost carries as Ahmad Bradshaw was far more productive on 60 fewer carries. Part of the problem was that the Giants’ offensive line, which had been solid for so long, started to slip, but there’s a very real possibility that Jacobs is in decline. Because Jacobs isn’t a good receiver, his stats are all about the carries, and we don’t see him as a top-25 back, which means he shouldn’t be a starter in 12-team leagues. We’ll leave him off of Tier 3 because, while his numbers figure to match the Felix Jones and C.J. Spiller types, Jacobs doesn’t have the upside those guys do. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – In his second season, Jones played 14 games and still averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which is a remarkable number. But he only had three touchdowns on 135 touches. On first glance, we figured Jones was a good No. 3 back with upside, but after studying Marion Barber’s numbers, we’re a little less bullish on Jones. He’s still on Tier 3, but just barely, and he shouldn’t  be considered a fantasy starter. Don’t get carried away. Verdict: Applaud

Thomas Jones, Chiefs – At age 31, Jones had a career year in ’09, rushing for a personal-best 1,402 yards and a personal-best 14 touchdowns. But he slowed down in the playoffs, and the Jets actually cut him in the offseason to save several million dollars. Jones landed in Kansas City, where he will team with Jamaal Charles in the backfield. In this situation, there’s no way that Jones gets 331 carries as he did last year, and he may not get half that total. That means that Jones’ numbers are headed downward. The question is how far. We learned last year not to doubt Jones’ abilities, but our hunch is that Charles’ explosiveness will earn enough carries that Jones ends up in the 800-yard range. He has the potential to be the goal-line back, which could put him near double-digit touchdowns again, but Jones is still a better bet atop Tier 4 than among starters on Tier 3. Verdict: A fraud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – As a rookie, McCoy had a nice season, stepping in for the injured Brian Westbrook and totaling 945 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Now that Westbrook is gone, McCoy seems to have a clear shot to more touches, and that should help him get into the 1,000-1,200 yards from scrimmage range. Don’t get too carried away with McCoy’s stock, because Mike Bell could steal some short-yardage and goal-line carries, and fullback Leonard Weaver is a burly breakaway threat. But McCoy is worth the investment as a starting fantasy back, even in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Clinton Portis, Redskins – Portis isn’t even 29 yet (his birthday is just before the 2010 season opens), but he has a lot of miles behind him, which makes us skeptical of his production. The fact that he missed the second half of last season (after concussion symptoms) reminds us that Portis’ decline is coming, if it’s not already here. Portis’ numbers projected to 1,000-yard rushing season (although he scored just one touchdown in one game). Maybe he can recreate those numbers in 2010 under his former head coach Mike Shanahan, who’s now in D.C. But remember that the Skins also added over-30 backs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker in the offseason, which could limit Portis’ numbers. Our hunch is that Portis will be drafted as a No. 3 fantasy back, but we’re slotting him below that level on Tier 4 because we get the sense that his numbers could fall completely off the table. Verdict: A fraud

C.J. Spiller, Bills – We discussed Spiller in our rookie RB post and talked about how his talent doesn’t outweigh his situation in Buffalo. Spiller isn’t a guy you can rely on as a starter because of that situation, but we’ll stick him on the bottom of Tier 3 because his talent creates enough upside to take him as a priority No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas was the lead back in New Orleans’ three-headed backfield last season, piling up 793 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That production didn’t quite match his ’08 fantasy numbers, but they were still good enough to merit being a fantasy starter. This season, with Mike Bell gone to Philadelphia, Thomas could actually see his workload tick upward, especially at the goal line. He’s among the top backs in Tier 3 and a safe No. 2 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – At age 32 last season, Williams defied the odds by putting together a terrific season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry as he piled up 1,121 rushing yards and seven touchdowns despite sharing time with Ronnie Brown for the first half of the season. Plus, Williams had 35 catches, which marked the seventh time in his eight full seasons that he had at least 29 catches. With 13 total touchdowns, Williams ended the season with legitimate No. 1 fantasy back production, especially during the second half of the season. With Brown returning, expectations shouldn’t be that high, but Williams is back to being a reliable starting fantasy back who fits comfortably in Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud


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Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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Fantasy Football – Rookie running backs

Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.

To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.

(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)

9 – none

8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.

7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.

7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.

(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)

6 – none

5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.

4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.

4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.

3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.

(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)

2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.

1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.

1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.

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Rise/Sink/Float – RBs in new places

As we continue our fantasy football preparation for 2010, we’re going to analyze players with new teams and predict whether their 2010 numbers will rise above, sink below, or float alongside their 2009 production. In this post, we cover running backs. We covered quarterbacks here, and we’ll cover wide receivers and tight ends in subsequent posts.

RB Chester Taylor, Bears – Taylor passed the dreaded 30-year-old milestone last year, but he remained a productive second back in the Vikings’ system. He surpassed 700 yards from scrimmage in each of the last two years as Adrian Peterson’s understudy. Now he moves to Chicago, where he figures to have more of a 50-50 split with Matt Forte. Taylor’s receiving skills seem to be a hand-in-glove fit with new Bears coordinator Mike Martz, which leads some fantasy analysts to predict big things for Taylor. Add in the fact that Taylor scored at least six touchdowns in the three seasons preceding ’09, and Taylor looks like a nice No. 3 fantasy back who will get some chances to make plays. Because of the new offense and the growing opportunities in Chicago, Taylor looks to move from the 40s at running back into the 30s, which is at least a noticeable rise. Verdict: Rise

RB Thomas Jones, Chiefs – Jones bucked the trend of over-30 running backs falling off last season, rushing for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in the Jets’ run-heavy offense. The former first-round pick, who turns 32 in August, did appear to wear down during Gang Green’s playoff run, but that kind of January workload doesn’t seem to be a threat now that he’s in K.C. What is a threat to his fantasy stock is Jamaal Charles, who broke out over the second half of last season and emerged as an electric big-play threat. Our hunch is that the Chiefs see Jones as a balance to Charles in a 60-40 split (Jones is the 40). And while Jones may get some goal-line carries, his fantasy stock won’t come close to the starter level it was last year. Instead, Jones falls into the 30s at running back and becomes an emergency fill-in but not much more. Verdict: Sink

RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Others tried to talk you into Tomlinson last year, but his 12 touchdowns didn’t offset his 3.3 yards per carry or the fact that he had just 20 catches after surpassing 50 in each of his first eight seasons. Tomlinson’s numbers ended up making him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back, and that was all because of touchdowns, which are an unpredictable stat. The Chargers saw Tomlinson as on a pretty steep decline and so they cut him. Tomlinson landed in New York, where he and Shonn Greene replace the Jones/Leon Washington combo that New York entered last season with. While we’re pretty bullish on Greene’s stock, we see Tomlinson as the bottom half of a 75/25 split designed to do little more than keep Greene from breaking down midseason. And rookie Joe McKnight could easily emerge as a far better receiving option out of the backfield than Tomlinson is at this point. After nearly a decade atop the fantasy rankings, Tomlinson was in the 20s at running back last season, and now he falls at least one more level – if not two – into the land of No. 3 and No. 4 backs. Don’t let his new gig distract you from the fact that LDT is D-U-N done. Verdict: Sinking like a rock

RB Mike Bell, Eagles – Bell has had a strange career. He ran for 677 yards and eight touchdowns (with 20 catches to boot) as a rookie in Denver, and then had just 19 total carries the next two years as he moved from the Broncos to the Saints. Then last year, Bell emerged as a complement to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and carved out a niche, running for 654 yards and five touchdowns. Now Bell moves to Philly, where he will complement LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver now that Brian Westbrook is gone. Bell is an effective between-the-tackles runner but not a breakaway threat, which makes him a No. 2 running back for a team. But with Weaver in Philly, Bell’s goal-line chances will be limited. Bell’s a No. 4 fantasy back, and because Weaver is more of a runner than Bush was, his stock actually slips a bit in his new home. Bell will probably run for 500 yards or so, but expecting a bunch of TDs or receptions with that production isn’t wise. Verdict: Sink

RB Larry Johnson, Redskins – Continuing a trend in this post, Johnson is now 30, which is usually a death knell age for running backs. His 2009 stats indicate that he may be in decline, as he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry with the Chiefs before being released. In Cincy, Johnson rebounded a bit, averaging 4.2 yards per carry for a run-first team. That gives a little bit of hope for Johnson from a fantasy perspective, but the glimmer of hope is actually a mirage. The crowded Redskins backfield with Johnson, Willie Parker, and holdover Clinton Portis will limit any of those backs from breaking out, and the Redskins’ offensive line doesn’t look like it will boost performance for any of those aging backs. We believe Johnson will be close to Portis in terms of having the most value of any of the Redskins’ backs, but that’s damning with faint praise. Neither guy will end up in the top 35 fantasy backs. Maybe that’s a slight increase over Johnson’s 2009 value, but don’t draft LJ looking for upside. Verdict: Rise

RB Willie Parker, Redskins – Like Johnson, Parker, a long-time Steeler, is looking for a renaissance in Washington. Parker, who turns 30 in November, averaged 4.0 yards per carry last year but lost his starting job to Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh. Fast Willie doesn’t have the breakaway speed he once had, and last year he had just one touchdown. He figures to settle into a complimentary role in D.C. as a change-of-pace back – which leaves him out of the top 40 among fantasy running backs. Verdict: Sink

RB Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis showed some fantasy promise as a rookie in Denver with 5.0 yards per carry and five touchdowns over 68 carries. He lost his role in Josh McDaniels’ offense last year, which is why Denver was willing to include him in a deal with Cleveland. Given the Browns’ questions at running back with Jerome Harrison unproven and Montario Hardesty a rookie, Hillis could find a role as an inside runner in a carries split. He’s just a No. 4 fantasy back, but that’s more than Hillis was last year, and it’s reason enough to put Hillis back on the draft board for 2010. Verdict: Rise

RB Ryan Moats, Vikings – Moats burst onto the scene at midseason for the Texans last year, then burst right back off of it. By the end of the year, he was behind Arian Foster and Steve Slaton in Houston’s pecking order, and after the Texans drafted Ben Tate they released Moats. But Minnesota, looking to replace Taylor, claimed Moats on waivers. Moats is a different kind of back than rookie Toby Gerhardt – smaller, shiftier, and more of a receiver. That gives Moats the chance to establish a little value as Adrian Peterson’s valet. Moats is probably a No. 5 back, but being cut actually landed him in a situation where his value floats along at the same level. Verdict: Float

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