Commentary

32 Q: Is Jason Campbell a breakout player?

Updated: August 24, 2008, 4:56 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Is Jason Campbell a breakout candidate?

Breakout candidate might not be the appropriate phrase. Might I suggest sleeper?

Admittedly, that might be splitting hairs. But I'm all about sticking to the technical definitions, and I think of breakout bets being names you know who might provide early-round value for a midround selection. Sleepers, by comparison, are lesser-known, late-round gambles with a shot at providing unexpectedly decent value.

Jason Campbell very much fits that latter description.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
Kirby Lee/US PresswireJason Campbell will try to adjust to a new offense under Jim Zorn.

First off, let's get the thought of any quarterback controversy out of the way. There isn't one. Todd Collins might have rallied these Redskins to four consecutive wins and a playoff berth after stepping in for an injured Campbell in Week 14 last season, throwing for 888 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, but consider the circumstances. Collins got the call ahead of veteran Mark Brunell primarily because he had worked in former offensive coordinator Al Saunders' offense in their Kansas City days. Now Saunders is gone, and Collins is struggling to pick up head coach/offensive coordinator Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. Things can sure change in an offseason!

Now, how that pertains to Campbell: He worked in a somewhat similar system in his senior year (2004) at Auburn, where quarterback guru Al Borges helped coach him to an impressive 69.6 percent completion percentage, 207.7 passing yards per game and 172.9 passer rating. Not that college statistics translate directly to the NFL, but if Campbell adapts as nicely to Zorn's system and is as extraordinarily accurate as he was at Auburn, his fantasy numbers are going to take off. Sure enough, Campbell's performance in his first two preseason games was solid; he completed 12 of 15 passes (80.0 percent) for 132 yards (8.8 yards per attempt), one touchdown and no interceptions.

By the way, keep in mind Zorn's roots. He comes over from the Seahawks, where he was their quarterbacks coach each of the past seven seasons, helping Matt Hasselbeck post an average of 3,418 passing yards and 24 passing touchdowns. Not that Campbell equals Hasselbeck, but it won't be impossible for Zorn to season him into a "lite" version.

Of course, it's not all on Campbell for the "Zorn offense" to take flight. In Zorn's West Coast system, Campbell will be asked to throw a healthy dose of short tosses, and his greatest challenge will be to master his ability to hit his receivers in stride. That puts some of the emphasis on his receivers, too, and looking at the Redskins' receiving corps, what they lack in elite talent is more than made up in quality of depth.

Santana Moss, the team's top receiver, is coming off a terribly disappointing season. He committed 10 regular-season drops, many of them costly, and deserved much of the blame for Collins' second interception in the team's wild-card loss last season, when he completely gave up on the throw. A barrage of injuries could be to blame for some of Moss' failures, but he'll need to bring more commitment to the field, and do a better job hauling in his passes, to help Campbell be successful. Ultimately Moss is a decent No. 2 receiver on a team that lacks a true No. 1 option, and he's not one without risk. If there's anyone on the team I'd call a threat to put the passing game in "bust" territory, here's your man.

Antwaan Randle El will probably start the season on the outside due to injuries to the team's rookies, but his best role is as a slot receiver on this team. He erased the memory of a poor first season in Washington with a respectable 51-catch, 728-yard performance in 2007, and will need to remain similarly productive to help Campbell's cause this year.

Speaking of those rookies, the team's top pick, Devin Thomas, has battled hamstring problems that cost him the first two preseason contests. In his debut on Saturday, he committed two drops and a penalty, not the greatest performance. Thomas, whose high draft status was largely the product of one standout college campaign, is a high-upside talent but might be less NFL-ready than fellow rookie Malcolm Kelly, picked 17 spots later. Kelly might have had a chance to start at split end for the Redskins in Week 1, but Aug. 4 surgery to remove loose particles from his left knee has cost him much of the preseason. Nevertheless, both will be worked into the mix, with Kelly a potential second-half sleeper who greatly helps Campbell's chances in the long term.

Among the depth receivers around, who on occasion can step up with helpful games facing mismatches: James Thrash, who burned the Eagles for two scores in a starting role in Week 10; Billy McMullen, the team's receptions leader thus far in the preseason; and Maurice Mann, who showed decent chemistry with prospective backup Colt Brennan in the preseason opener. None is a standout, but they help fill things out.

And let's not forget Campbell's favorite target, tight end Chris Cooley. Of Campbell's 22 career passing touchdowns, 10 went to Cooley. Cooley has also caught nearly a quarter of Campbell's career completions. Moss is the only other Washington receiver even close to Cooley's number of catches on Campbell passes, and no Washington receiver has even half of Cooley's touchdowns working with Campbell. If the team's third second-round pick from this recent draft, Fred Davis, adapts nicely to a blocking role, Cooley will be set free to catch passes regularly. It's hard to imagine his numbers improving, but it's not impossible. At worst, they'll remain constant.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of starting running back Clinton Portis in Zorn's system. Portis is a quality blocker and pass-catcher, two critical traits of a back in the West Coast offense. He caught a career-high 47 passes in 2007, and if he can rival that total this season, Campbell will have a bevy of passing options to choose from.

Can we expect a 3,500-yard, 25-touchdown type season from Campbell? Though unlikely, it can't be entirely ruled out if he adapts quickly to what is his seventh offensive system in eight years. If you're the type to sit back and wait on lesser-priced quarterbacks in your draft, Campbell is a fine choice to pair with another matchups-capable type.

I don't know whether I'd call that any more than a sleeper, but he's a fine sleeper selection at that. All the pieces are here for him to flip that proverbial switch, and take off statistically.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.