- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Last week I performed a One-Man Mock Draft for the 2011 fantasy football season, reading the pre-NFL draft, pre-CBA tea leaves to figure where this summer's draft pressure points might be.
Well, I found some.
How dare I, for example, not rank Michael Vick as a top-five overall player for 2011? Don't I know he finished first in fantasy points among all quarterbacks in '10, and that despite playing only 12 games? My answer: Yes. Yes, I do know that.
It would be quite simple to make 2011 rankings that look a lot like 2010. In fact, it would take about three minutes. OK, just copy last year's scoring leaders into a new spreadsheet. Sort by position. Remove Brett Favre. Et voila! We've got ranks for '11! But guess what? History tells us that's not a particularly accurate way to predict the future. Past performance doesn't guarantee future returns, and all that. Indeed, the key to success in fantasy football is to figure out how the new season will differ from the previous one. And one way I think the 2011 season will differ is that I don't think Vick will be as successful as he was during 2010. Let me tell you why.
In fact, here are 10 flashpoint players from my first '11 mock -- guys about whom I received the most questions -- along with my current thinking about them. I'm not promising you that I'm universally correct, because some of these predictions are quite nervy. But at least you'll get a sense of why I think these might be some of fantasy football's most important players -- to own and to avoid -- this coming season.
Michael Vick, QB, Eagles (Mock draft position: Round 3, Pick 4). When you look at Vick's season statistics for '10, there's a lot to like. He notched career highs in completions, pass yards, touchdown passes, completion percentage and yards per attempt, to say nothing of his career-best nine rushing touchdowns. Indeed, following his record-setting Monday night outing against the Redskins on Nov. 15 (in which he accounted for six TDs), Vick had 15 TDs (11 passing, four rushing) and zero turnovers of any kind. But after that, I'm sorry, the worm turned a bit.
In the seven games that followed (including a home playoff loss), Vick's numbers took a tumble. He threw for 11 scores but had seven interceptions. He rushed for another six scores but lost three fumbles. His pass yards per attempt dropped from 8.8 to 7.7. His rush yards per attempt dropped from 7.8 to 5.7. His rushing touchdowns still made him a fantasy star, though he didn't quite carry all his fantasy teams across the finish line: His poor Week 16 performance against the Vikings (which helped cost Philly the NFC's No. 2 seed) produced a good-not-dominant 20 fantasy points, and of course he didn't play at all in Week 17 against the Cowboys. The fact of the matter is that late in the season, opposing defenses decided to throw caution to the wind and do everything they could to beat the hell out of Vick. In losing his final two starts (versus the Vikings and Packers), Vick took an ungodly number of shots on a seemingly limitless array of blitzes, and he struggled through rib and quad injuries. For the season, his rate of 9.1 sacks per 100 attempts was fourth-highest among quarterbacks with at least 250 pass attempts (only Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen and Jason Campbell were higher). And he turns 31 in June.
I'm not saying Vick is bad. When he's healthy, he'll be terrific. I just worry the lightning he captured in a bottle last season isn't repeatable. I saw too many shaky decisions in December and January, and too many times where he was blasted by men 100 pounds heavier than he is. Add that to the VBD notion that reaching for quarterbacks early doesn't usually pay off, and I say Vick will almost certainly be overvalued in your draft this summer. And I say the risk of taking him in the first round won't be outweighed by the obvious rewards you'll get when (and if) he's healthy.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens (Round 1, Pick 6). I've received dozens of Facebook and Twitter posts to the effect that Rice murdered an innocent fantasy team, and will never, ever again be drafted by the poor soul who took him in '10. And I guess I understand it. Rice's fantasy owners took him No. 3 or No. 4 overall in most drafts last summer, and he finished just 10th in fantasy points among running backs. He went from 228 fantasy points in '09 to 200 in '10. Worse than that, Rice committed the sin of starting the year egregiously slowly: He had 71 touches for just 304 total yards and zero touchdowns in the season's first four games, and going into Baltimore's Week 8 bye he'd averaged only 10.3 fantasy points per game. Heck, take out a 27-point Week 5 effort against the Broncos, and he'd averaged only 7.5 fantasy points per game. Rice was far stronger in the second half, but for many of his fantasy teams, it was too late. They were buried, in part because of his awful start. Still, from Week 9 forward, Rice averaged 14.2 fantasy points per game. His average week consisted of 24 touches for 124 total yards.
Hey, I'd be overselling to say Rice was great last year. He wasn't. And what's more concerning is that whereas in '09 Willis McGahee vultured Rice's value (with his unexpected 14 total touchdowns on just 629 total yards), in '10 nobody in the Ravens' backfield stole Rice's value. He accumulated 71.4 percent of Baltimore's running back fantasy points (compared with 57.3 percent in '09). And Joe Flacco had nearly an identical season in '10 as he did in '09. So what happened? Well, Rice did battle a knee injury during that slumping first half, one that wasn't bad enough to force him out, but which he says affected his explosiveness. But the larger issue may have been the Baltimore offensive line. Left tackle Jared Gaither missed the entire season, and ironically Michael Oher was miscast on the "blind side." Worse, usual right guard Marshal Yanda is miscast at right tackle, and Oniel Cousins is miscast as a starter (when he starts), period. Beat reporters seem to doubt that Gaither will be back, so the answer to what ailed the Ravens up front may not yet be on the roster, and that's a bit scary.
That said, there's a very strong chance McGahee will finally be gone from the Baltimore backfield, and Le'Ron McClain is a free agent whom the Ravens mostly view as a fullback anyway. I believe Rice will have a larger chunk of the offense in '11 than ever before, and I trust that the Ravens are smart enough to get their O-line house in order. And while his '10 fantasy owners don't want to hear this, 200 fantasy points isn't a train wreck. Rice finished the year third among all running backs in total yards. Yes, his touchdowns have disappointed in back-to-back years, but I think that changes in '11. I'm ready to go back to the well.
Frank Gore, RB, 49ers (Round 1, Pick 10). Yes, I still view Gore as a first-round pick in fantasy. The irony here is I was lower on Gore than most of my ESPN cohorts last year, precisely because I viewed him as an injury risk. Whereas some of my brethren had Gore rated third or fourth overall, I had him No. 8 overall, sixth among running backs. When the argument was made that Gore would be awesome because the 49ers drafted Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis in the first round last April, I scoffed. Rookie offensive linemen do not a fantasy stud make, and that opinion was borne out by Davis' borderline terrible play. Gore was quite good before his fractured hip (125.3 yards from scrimmage per game in his first 10 contests), especially in the receiving game. But for the fifth time in six seasons, he failed to make it through a full season because of injury.
Now I'm guessing by ranking Gore 10th overall (and eighth among rushers), I'm probably higher on Gore than many of my colleagues, and I've certainly rankled readers who are fed up with Gore's injury history. It feels weird to do this, because I argued in the opposite direction this past summer, but when you take an actual look at Gore's injuries, you'll see that this hip fracture was actually the most serious of his pro career, the one that caused him to miss the most games. True, he's played 16 games only once in his career, but until '10 he'd also missed a maximum of only two-plus games. In '09, he nearly missed three full games because of an ankle injury, but those were early-season contests, and he still wound up as fantasy's No. 6 running back. The bottom line is that I think it's fair both to cap Gore's upside (as I did in the summer of '10) because of his injury history and to keep him as a late-first-round pick despite that same history. He'll probably miss more time next season. I just don't think it'll be quite as calamitous an injury.
The reason I'm still bullish on Gore, then, is a balance between what I assume will be more minor injuries and his usage pattern, which is excellent. The 49ers don't have a viable platoon partner for him. Brian Westbrook won't be back. Anthony Dixon has potential and will probably be Gore's handcuff, but 3.4 yards per carry in his rookie season doesn't convince me he's ready for prime time. New San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has no intention of shying away from his best offensive player, and Gore is the very definition of an every-down back, as his receiving totals perpetually illustrate. I still make him a late-first-rounder, just as I did last year.
Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (Round 2, Pick 2). Turner is my surprise candidate to see his '11 value tumble way out of the first round. I didn't expect this to be the case. When I did my first ranks for next season, I put the Burner well inside my top five overall, where he usually belongs. His overall numbers from '10 look wonderful: eighth in fantasy points among running backs (and just three points out of sixth), 1,371 rushing yards (third in the NFL), 12 rushing touchdowns (tied for fourth), and a serviceable 4.1 yards per carry. Then I went back and looked at the tape. Turner continued to be a battering ram through December. The guy will never shy away from contact. Unfortunately, he broke fewer tackles, he ran away from fewer defenders, and he rarely got to the second level the way he'd consistently done earlier in the season. The tape doesn't lie: The Burner slowed down in a major way down the stretch.
The numbers back this up: In his final six games including the playoffs, Turner averaged 3.6 yards per carry and broke only two runs longer than 16 yards (and none longer than 27). He was stuffed several times from an opponent's 1, and was replaced occasionally by Jason Snelling in short-yardage situations. I don't recall reading anything regarding an injury, though it's certainly possible; still, the worry I have is that Turner just turned 29 and has touched it 382 and 346 times in two of his past three seasons. You know whom that reminds me of a little bit? Larry Johnson.
Michael Turner and Larry Johnson, Age 26-28 comparison
Before his first high-usage season, Turner had 228 carries in four seasons (with the Chargers). Before his first high-usage season, Johnson had 140 carries in two seasons. If anything, that would seem to mean Turner has less tread left on his tires than an equivalent-aged LJ. True, it was a foot injury that ended Johnson's season in '07, and "conduct detrimental to the team" that submarined him in '08, but anyone who remembers those years recalls that the guy had lost more than a step. That doesn't definitively mean Turner's best days are behind him. But given the way his season ended, it gives me pause. This is also still a player who doesn't catch the ball or stay on the field on third downs. I'm surprised to admit: I consider Turner someone to keep away from this summer.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers (Round 2, Pick 3). The Daily Show was disastrous for nearly the first three months of the '10 season. He took a clear backseat in September to DeAngelo Williams, then just as D-Willy suffered a season-ending injury, Stewart himself missed most of three games with a severe concussion. To make matters worse, the immortal Mike Goodson thrived in Stewart's absence, exceeding 100 yards rushing in back-to-back games when neither Stewart nor Williams had done so the entire year to that point.
Then, Stew Beef got serious. From Weeks 12 to 16, Stewart had 96 carries for 531 yards, a 5.5 per-carry average. And he looked great. There was no Jeff Otah at right tackle and Travelle Wharton suffered a season-ending turf toe injury at left guard, plus the Carolina passing game was just about the league's worst. But Stewart crushed opposing tacklers, looked elusive and powerful, and gave the Panthers every reason to believe he could handle the full-time gig if D-Willy leaves via free agency. Stewart injured a foot in Week 16 and struggled Week 17 versus the Falcons, but I'd seen enough.
Given how badly Carolina needs help at a multitude of other positions (including quarterback) and given that it has a new coaching staff in place (helmed by Ron Rivera) that accordingly has a longer leash than the departed John Fox, I can't imagine the Panthers tying up huge dollars in Williams when they have Stewart and Goodson on the roster for short money. And if Stewart is back as the lead dog without Williams, his talent makes him a borderline No. 1 fantasy rusher. Clearly, he's had injury problems dating back to college, so there's risk here. But I think I've baked that risk into my ranking of Stewart as fantasy's No. 11 rusher. I think he'll border on 16 or 17 carries per contest for an offense that's just trying to hang around in games.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts (Round 4, Pick 1). Others claimed Wayne was ready to fall off a cliff last season. I didn't see it. I ranked him a very safe third among wide receivers, behind only Andre Johnson and (gulp) Randy Moss, and that wound up being an acceptable call: Wayne finished ninth among fantasy wideouts, and only three of the players who finished ahead of him, Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Calvin Johnson, arguably deserved a higher pre-'10 rank than Wayne. But you'd have to be blind not to acknowledge that some of what Wayne's detractors worried about came true.
The overall numbers were still there. He grabbed a career-high 111 passes, second-best in the NFL, for 1,355 yards, third-best in the league. Only his six touchdowns rankled fantasy owners; that number tied for his lowest output in the past five seasons. But the knee injury we heard much about toward the end of '09 seemed to prevent him from getting open as much down the field in '10. The numbers say Wayne actually made more big plays in 2010 than 2009, but his yards-after-catch average declined to 3.9, his lowest in four seasons. And that's to say nothing of the fact that his yards-per-reception average was only 12.2, the lowest mark of his 10-year career. As the season wound down, we saw Wayne basically disappear at the hands of Rashean Mathis (a guy he usually torches), an ankle-hobbled Nnamdi Asomugha, Alterraun Verner and Darrelle Revis. And strangely, in a year when Dallas Clark and Austin Collie were unavailable much of the time, Wayne saw his targets inside an opponent's 10 go way down: He had a league-high 15 such looks in '09, but only seven in '10. I'm not saying he's bad. So far I've ranked him No. 9 among wideouts. He'll still be a major weapon. But this is the year I'm on board with a slight decline.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams (Round 4, Pick 2). There's a temptation to boil down Jackson's fantasy disappointments the past couple years to a lack of touchdowns. He's scored only 10 times the last two seasons combined, and that's rightly been blamed on how mostly horrendous the St. Louis offense has been. But for as staunch an S-Jax defender as I've been the past few seasons, I think there's a second reason you can consider him a relative disappointment, despite the fact that he's finished a respectable 10th and 13th in fantasy points among rushers, and that's receiving yards. Remember back in '06, when Jackson was doing his best Marshall Faulk impersonation? He caught a whopping 90 passes for 806 yards, totals that tied him for seventh among all NFL players in receptions and 35th in receiving yards. But look at his pass-catching numbers since then:
2007: 38 catches for 271 yards
2008: 40 catches for 379 yards
2009: 51 catches for 322 yards
2010: 46 catches for 383 yards
That's pretty good. But it's not transcendent, and it's not better than the receiving production of players like Frank Gore, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and others. It's an advantage I think I've always perceived Jackson has had. But in actuality, he's a good-not-great producer catching the football.
I won't be surprised to see Jackson's touchdown total rise from the six he accumulated this year, simply by dint of the Rams getting better and Sam Bradford's continued growth. But we have to weigh the superlatives and the demerits here, and I'm starting to worry the demerits are catching up. Jackson toughed his way through the full 16-game schedule in '10, but it would be incorrect to say he was healthy. Against the Redskins in Week 3 he was wishboned and suffered a nasty groin injury which he played through, and later in the year he suffered a broken left ring finger which required surgery. He is one tough hombre, but he's taken an awful lot of hits the past five seasons. In fact, here's a list of the NFL's leaders in running back touches since 2006:
Running back "touch" leaders, 2006-2010
I mean, doesn't that scream "Uh-oh!" to you? It speaks to Jackson's toughness, for sure, but it also screams "Uh-oh!" Right now he's 17th on my running back list. It's gotten to the point where his risk of breaking down is just too high. It may not seem fair to penalize him for being so durable, while Gore has 256 fewer touches precisely because he's broken down. But I guess that's what I'm doing.
Jahvid Best, RB, Lions (Round 3, Pick 5). I was pretty high on Best before his rookie year: I had him rated 22nd among running backs, a strong flex and eminently ownable in all leagues. For a few weeks, he made that rank look smart. He scored four touchdowns in two games, rattled off 232 total yards against the Eagles in Week 2, and was the talk of fantasy football. Unfortunately, he also suffered turf toe, a condition he'd battle the rest of '10. In fact, both of his big toes were injured the rest of the year, robbing Best of his trademark quickness. He was completely unusable in fantasy leagues, and did nothing at all to make my relatively lofty opinion of him look smart.
But I'm going back to the well. What I saw from Best in the preseason and those first couple healthy games was the kind of elusiveness and acceleration that perhaps six or seven current NFL running backs have. Really, I don't think Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles has much, speed- and quickness-wise, over Best. In fact, I think Charles is a very good comparative. They're essentially the same size, they both rely on not taking many big hits, and can each hit home runs on almost any play. The best news of all for Best appears to be that to this point, the Lions have no interest in making their backfield a platoon. Yes, Maurice Morris started during the '10 season's final six weeks or so, but that was because of Best's health. Reports out of Motown indicate Morris and Kevin Smith will battle to be the backup.
So a vote for Best is, frankly, a vote for health. And I can see how lots of folks would say that's not a very smart vote, because Best has been beset by injuries throughout his college and pro careers. In addition to his toe problems, he's had surgeries on his elbow, shoulder and hip, plus missed significant time with a concussion. I think many experts will make the argument that Best's body isn't made to hold up to an NFL-style pounding, and really, I don't have a good rebuttal. He's been brittle. But you know what? I'm still taking the chance. I'm staking a bunch on Best this year. I think he stays healthy. I think he becomes the next big-play artist to take the league by storm. And I think if I draft him in the third round to be my No. 2 fantasy back, I'll wind up one happy camper.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Browns (Round 4, Pick 4). You have to look awfully hard to find fault with Hillis in '10. I mean, he was undrafted in pretty much all fantasy leagues, an afterthought in the Brady Quinn deal and a fullback-sized backup behind draft darling Jerome Harrison. Thirteen touchdowns and 1,654 total yards later, Hillis finished the year as fantasy's No. 4 running back, one notch ahead of Chris Johnson. Precisely because he was such an unexpected source of week-to-week points, Hillis became beloved by his owners. He was probably the steal of the year.
But he wore down. There's no question about it. The numbers back it up: Through 11 games, Hillis averaged 4.6 yards per carry and scored 13 TDs, and in the five games thereafter he averaged 3.8 YPC and didn't score once. This is a huge, physical player who in his first two years touched the ball 99 times combined, and in '10, he touched it 331 times. You can certainly blame the rib injury that bothered him at season's end, but really, he lost some life in those legs even before the Week 16 Ed Reed hit that hurt those ribs. It's just really, really difficult for such a contact-seeker to stay fresh all year. There's every reason to suspect that Hillis may be the lead dog in a platoon next season, especially since the Browns just happen to have a likely pairing candidate on their roster already.
Montario Hardesty was a second-round pick last year, a 225-pound mauler who, when healthy, is probably more elusive than the 250-pound Hillis. Each man is a good fit for Cleveland's physical offensive line, and in a platoon each would keep the other fresh. Now, Hardesty missed all of '10 with a torn ACL and came out of the University of Tennessee with a history of knee problems (having had three knee surgeries before his NFL career began). It would be foolish for me to promise that Hardesty will definitely recover, though early reports out of Cleveland are that he looks good enough to participate in all OTAs (if there are OTAs). But it's not foolish to proclaim that other things being equal, if both men can stay healthy, the Browns would probably prefer to take at least 100 of those touches Hillis got last year, and give them to Hardesty. And that's a reason not to be lulled into considering Hillis a first- or even a second-round fantasy pick.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Chiefs (Round 4, Pick 6). Bowe finally delivered on his freakish athletic ability last year with a 15-TD season that almost saw him claim the No. 1 spot among fantasy wideouts. (Only Brandon Lloyd delivered a higher season fantasy point total.) He also delivered career highs in receiving yards and per-catch average, and overcame a devastating Week 5 drop in Indianapolis to at least display surer hands than he'd done in his previous three NFL seasons. But Bowe is only 10th on my wide receiver list for '11 right now.
The reason? It's his quarterback. Matt Cassel was shockingly good through November last year, but fell apart thereafter:
Matt Cassell, 2010 performance
And when you take a look at Kansas City's '10 schedule, you begin to understand why. For three months, the Chiefs played an unbelievably generous and cushy skein of pass defenses which included an eight-game span (@HOU, JAC, BUF, @OAK, @DEN, ARI, @SEA, DEN) in which all but one defense was in the bottom eight in TD passes allowed. For me, this isn't a case of Cassel getting tired or hurt (though he did miss Week 14 with appendicitis), but rather a case of better defenses beginning to catch up to him.
Certainly, the fact that Bowe became such a fantasy stud with very little opposite him at wide receiver and a rookie tight end hanging out over the middle indicates that he's got talent to burn. We already knew that. But we also saw what it looks like when Cassel goes cold: From Week 13 forward, Bowe had 14 catches in five games, and left his hopeful fantasy owners in the dust when it mattered most. I think based on ability and opportunity, he deserves to be a top-10 fantasy receiver. But my worry is that Cassel will lack the consistency to put Bowe any higher than that. I wouldn't spend more than a fourth-rounder on Bowe right now, and that's probably not going to be enough to get him.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.
5hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon