Reviewing 2010's missed calls
Professionally, I had a pretty good 2010. Among my good calls for '10 were my poster boy Jamaal Charles, Mike Wallace, Johnny Knox, Steve Johnson and Chris Ivory, plus I recommended you draft Adrian Peterson No. 1 overall when conventional wisdom said Chris Johnson. But I'm not here to pat my own back.
Indeed, I'm here to do quite the opposite: relive some of my most painful recommendations leading into the '10 season, ones that absolutely did not pan out. To paraphrase Ol' Blue Eyes: Regrets? I have a few. And not too few to mention.
Why do this? Well, besides the masochistic "fun" of trying to figure out what the heck I was thinking, I hope we can learn a few lessons. There will eventually be NFL football in 2011, and we all will finally get down to drafting our teams. If I can pick apart the dunderheaded assertions I made last year, maybe I can avoid making them again this year. So let's get out the shovels and exhume a few rotten, smelly corpses, shall we?
Beanie Wells is ready to break out.
Here's what I wrote last Aug. 18:
"Wells made it through (his rookie) season unscathed, which obviously is no guarantee that he can't get hurt, but I don't view him as an above-average injury risk."
Goody for me. However, Beanie's right knee begged to differ. He tore a meniscus in Arizona's final preseason game and needed arthroscopic surgery; when he returned, the knee continued to swell and Wells also had an allergic reaction to an injection in November. The contrast between his first- and second-year numbers illustrates the damage the injury did.
Beanie Wells, 2009 versus 2010
Last season, Wells took exactly one of his 116 carries for more than 16 yards and rarely broke tackles. All this would be borderline forgivable because of his injury, except Wells also spent much of the season making mental mistakes, including poor pass protection and blitz pickup. And it's not fair for me or anyone else to be surprised Wells got hurt: In his final two seasons at Ohio St., he suffered a left ankle sprain, a right wrist sprain, a thumb fracture, a right foot sprain, turf toe, a hamstring strain and a concussion. To Beanie's credit, he missed only three games out of 26 in those years, but it's no longer wise to ignore his reputation for being brittle.
Nor do the Cardinals seem convinced they can count on Wells to be their full-time rusher, as they drafted Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams early in the second round of April's draft. Team officials can say they were merely "taking the best available player," but it's difficult not to read Williams' presence in the desert as a shot across Beanie's bow.
2011 Forecast: A frustrating platoon looks to be in the offing. Williams has every-down size and speed and better hands than Beanie. I don't imagine the Cardinals have completely given up on Wells, but if I had to pick one guy to draft right now, it'd be Williams. And remember, Tim Hightower is also still in the mix.
Lesson Learned: One season of NFL health shouldn't erase concerns that a player is injury prone, especially a running back. I rated Wells 15th among fantasy rushers before last season and he finished 57th. This is perhaps a reason to cast a continued skeptical eye on a guy such as Jahvid Best, who's undeniably talented but has rarely stayed healthy in his football career.
Dwayne Bowe will just never get it.
I insisted on leaving Bowe out of my top 20 fantasy receivers last year, after putting him at No. 10 for 2009. I wasn't getting burned again, darn it, and I wasn't buying the puff pieces coming out of Kansas City about how Bowe finally was acting like a professional. After all, this is a player who reported to training camp overweight in '09, led the NFL in drops, didn't catch a TD after Week 7 and earned a four-week suspension for using a banned substance.
Bowe finished '10 as fantasy's No. 2 wideout while lapping the field in TD receptions with 15. He also tied all receivers for the most scores caught from inside an opponent's 10-yard line. In short, in his fourth pro season, Bowe finally lived up to his potential as a crazy leaper and a bully in the open field. It took longer than it does for most high draft picks these days, but the light most definitely went on.
Dwayne Bowe 2010
Points based on ESPN standard scoring.
Now, I wasn't the only fantasy football writer to be "down" on Bowe last summer. But in retrospect I was crushingly slow to admit how wrong my opinion was. See the accompanying chart for a look at where I ranked Bowe on a weekly basis during last season, along with the fantasy points he subsequently scored each week.
When Bowe started terribly, I presumably felt smug. When he went wild in October and November, I held back my praise. Only by Week 12 was I truly a believer, then it was too late: Bowe had just 14 catches in his final five regular-season games, at least in part because Matt Cassel's magic went away. True, Bowe was massively disappointing in the fantasy playoffs, but a heck of a lot of teams made the fantasy playoffs because of his tremendous year.
2011 Forecast: I'm not particularly worried about the Chiefs drafting Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin in the first round of April's draft; Baldwin jumps to the NFL with many of the same "character" concerns of formerly dogged Bowe. No, it's Cassel who concerns me. I see what the QB's performances looked like when he finally started facing legit defenses later in the year, and I can't picture Bowe duplicating his insane '10. Plus, this is the NFL's run-heaviest attack. I have Bowe rated a respectable 13th among receivers right now.
Lesson Learned: Don't be such a cynic, Harris. Sure, we could line all the birdcages in North America with newsprint dedicated to how this or that knuckleheaded player is ready to "turn a corner" and "straighten up and fly right." But that doesn't mean they're all wrong. And consider the source: Chiefs coach Todd Haley throws around praise like manhole covers, so when it's someone like him who says a player finally "gets it," maybe invest in a little more belief.
Donald Brown has a great shot to take over the Colts No. 1 gig and run with it.
I was half right. I've never been a big Joseph Addai proponent; despite that he scored 13 TDs in '09, I advised not to consider him a fantasy starter for '10. He's a steady player near the goal line and a rock-solid pass-blocker, but that's it. He has no explosiveness to his game and is a big injury risk. Considering the Colts used a first-round draft pick on Brown two years ago, and considering Addai was entering the final year of his rookie contract, I figured Brown would get every chance to win the top job outright.
He did. He just played worse than anyone could've imagined:
Donald Brown, 2010
He missed three games with a bad hamstring, but the larger concern was his lack of decisiveness as a runner. Time and again, Brown tried a spin move that didn't work at the line of scrimmage and rarely hit the hole hard. He also continues to struggle in pass protection (hence Peyton Manning's legendary in-game "Dammit Donald" a couple years ago), and when Addai missed much of the season with a shoulder problem, the Colts felt they had to use such luminaries as Javarris James and Dominic Rhodes. In Indy's home playoff loss to the Jets, Brown didn't play a single snap.
What happened? This kid got a first-round grade from plenty of teams coming out of UConn, and indeed when the Cardinals drafted Wells two seasons ago, it was reported they had Brown rated ahead of Beanie and would've taken him if Indy hadn't. What's strange about Brown's effort last year is it's the exact opposite of what the NFL cognoscenti expected of him. In part, here's what Scouts Inc. said about him as a collegiate:
"Patient, lets blockers get into position and can bounce runs outside when defense is too quick to collapse inside. Excellent instincts and senses backside defenders closing in on him. ... Shows good lateral mobility when looking for a seam between the tackles and can cut back against the grain. ... (H)as adequate height and he's built well but he lacks elite size and breakaway speed."
In other words, while Brown wasn't going to be a game-breaker, you could rely on him to be a solid, grind-it-out back who usually gave you consistent strong runs. Except last year he appeared to be the exact opposite. He found a lot of defensive contact and tried -- often ineffectually -- to spin away from it.
2011 Forecast: My opinion is that Brown's best chance with the Colts has come and gone. True, the Indy running back depth chart is in flux: Addai might be a free agent, rookie Delone Carter is a fourth-round short-yardage specialist and everyone else (James, Rhodes, Mike Hart) is at least as shaky as Brown. I suppose I wouldn't begrudge spending a (very) late-round pick on Brown in the hopes that he's young enough to figure it out. But I'm not holding my breath.
Lesson Learned: I'll write at greater length about this later in the summer, but it's a mistake to assume that a first-round pick will automatically get playing time simply because he was a first-round pick and that he'll do anything with that playing time even if it comes. Brown's play was borderline terrible in his rookie year, and assuming he was going to make a jump in Year 2 turned out to be flawed logic indeed. Those ready to believe in C.J. Spiller this year should perhaps heed those words.
Worry not! The Bengals running game will keep producing.
In '09, Cincinnati featured a top-10 rushing attack. It was fourth in rush attempts and ninth in rush yardage. After running on 45 percent of their plays in '08, the Bengals ran on 52 percent in '09, and their young offensive line looked stacked. Carson Palmer was on the decline and the Bengals seemed to know it and looked (to me) prepared to make Cedric Benson a true fantasy star, with the proviso that if Benson couldn't do it, Bernard Scott would step into the void and produce. All this led me to rank Benson as my No. 10 running back for the '10 season and to put Scott squarely on my sleeper list (though I did rate him only No. 53 among running backs).
The full and true story of the Bengals 2010 season has yet to be written, but it certainly didn't include a dominant running game. My theory is that the apple cart got tipped when Terrell Owens came to town and started playing better than expected. Palmer tried partying like it was 2005, and Cincy threw on a gaudy 58 percent of its plays. That O-line turned out to be sufficiently young but not particularly great (though left tackle Andrew Whitworth is still a favorite). And frankly, it turns out Benson and Scott just aren't as good as I hoped.
Benson, of course, is another guy with that first-round pedigree, but he's really only ever played like it once in his six pro seasons. Take a look at his per-carry average:
Cedric Benson, 2005-2010
At some point, your career 3.7 yards per carry is your own responsibility, y'know? He's not the breakaway runner the Bears envisioned they were getting back in the '05 draft, and now he's coming off back-to-back seasons of 300-plus carries. Sure, he did manage to finish 16th among fantasy rushers last year, but anyone who drafted him to be a borderline No. 1 fantasy back was disappointed.
Meanwhile, while I continue to be intrigued by what I see from Scott when he gets carries, there can be no question that the Bengals remain thoroughly unconvinced. While he's turned into an above-average kick returner, Scott only got 61 carries and 11 receptions from scrimmage all season. I suspect Cincy doesn't like Scott as a pass-blocker and doesn't think he'd hold up to between-the-tackles pounding because he does have every-down size and speed. Anyway, he couldn't beat out Brian Leonard for third-down duties last year, and that speaks volumes.
2011 Forecast: The only rusher Cincy drafted this April was Baylor's Jay Finley in the seventh round, leading observers to believe the team will try to re-sign Benson, who's an unrestricted free agent. But this is a guy who took exactly two of his 321 carries for more than 20 yards last year. I won't be shocked if the Bengals go heavier on the run if indeed they start Andy Dalton Week 1. I will be shocked if Benson makes it through the season as a no-brainer fantasy starter.
Lesson Learned: A Bengal never changes its stripes? In retrospect, I was flat wrong when I kept writing that Cincy would stay "committed to the run" because of their '09 play-calling. In the six seasons in which Palmer was mostly under center for them, the Bengals ran on 45, 46, 45, 42, 52 and 42 percent of their offensive snaps. One of these things is not like the other, right? In the future I'll be a little more skeptical about an offense that's supposedly changed course, and this year that may include the Patriots. They were last season's No. 7 run-heaviest offense, but were 21st in '09 and 19th in '07 (Tom Brady missed '08). BenJarvus Green-Ellis gets no love from me this year.
Don't bother investing in that Buccaneers passing game.
Last August, my final preseason player ranks included Josh Freeman at No. 28 among fantasy quarterbacks and Mike Williams at No. 57 among fantasy wideouts. In his rookie season of '09, Freeman got eight starts and proved he had the raw physical skills and charisma to be an NFL starter, but the harsh truth was that he threw 18 interceptions in 10 games and had a 54.6 completion percentage, doing nothing to alleviate accuracy concerns that dogged him as a pro prospect. Meanwhile, Antonio Bryant had left Tampa, and only Kellen Winslow appeared a viable target for Freeman. Sure, Williams had shined during minicamp and training camp, and by August it had become clear he was the Bucs' No. 1 receiver. But how the heck much was that going to be worth?
Turns out it was worth a whole lot. Williams produced the best fantasy season by a rookie receiver since Randy Moss, and Freeman's accuracy underwent an astonishing transformation:
Josh Freeman, 2009-2010
Mike Williams, 2010
Now, it's not fair to flagellate myself over not seeing Williams' awesome season coming, and I'm proud that after watching the Buccaneers' first five games last year and seeing how polished Williams looked I started ranking him as a fantasy starter. But in retrospect, I'm mighty displeased with how I treated Freeman.
Not only was I slow to recognize how well he was playing and what a fantasy asset he could be (I didn't rank him as a top-10 fantasy QB until Week 15, and he finished the year as fantasy's No. 7 signal-caller), but I ignored my own instincts before the season even started. I watched every snap he took as a rookie, and while the results were often mixed, I saw something. Looking back at my notes, I regularly wrote comments such as "sloppy footwork, but good decision-making" or "made throws only a handful of guys can make," and I regularly regaled my ESPN cohorts at lunch with stories about how good I thought Freeman might eventually be. Yet when it came time to rank him for '10, I put Freeman behind low-upside players such as Jason Campbell, Alex Smith, Derek Anderson and Matt Hasselbeck.
2011 Forecast: I make Freeman my No. 10 fantasy QB for '11, with the upside to be even better than that. Last season, he finished second in rush yards by a quarterback but didn't have a single rushing TD, which was almost certainly bad luck. Even if his TD/INT ratio regresses a bit, I think Freeman makes up for it with points on the hoof. As for Williams, opposing defenses will key on him, and perhaps double-digit TDs isn't repeatable. Provided his occasional off-field behavior problems don't persist, there's no reason to think he can't be a fantasy starter again this year.
Lesson Learned: No, we can't nail every breakout payer. But when a young guy such as Freeman pops off the screen, try to believe, even when the results aren't there yet. Certainly, there's good reason to put a player such as Freeman circa '10 ahead of the "usual suspect" scrubs, if only for the possibility of a breakout. Sam Bradford won't be as disrespected in advance of this season as Freeman was headed into '10, but he fits a similar mold. And you know what else? Freeman's rapid progression gives me hope for Jake Locker, whose biggest bugaboo is accuracy. I expect the Titans to sign a bridge QB for the first few months of this season, but I give Locker a chance to be Freeman-esque by 2012.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy, and follow him on Twitter at @writerboyESPN.