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Eye on quarterbacks

12/2/2011

Five In Depth

1. The sanity of Cam Newton. When ESPN asks me to rank players these days, I'm listing Cam Newton in my top five QBs every single week. Believe me, I'm more surprised than you are. This summer I acknowledged that Newton might be a fantasy factor, but I contended that it would be entirely because of his legs. I listed him 21st among QBs, and worried that Jimmy Clausen might steal time from him as the season progressed. Needless to say, that worry has proven foundation-free. Newton began his NFL passing career with consecutive 400-yard games, leading to paroxysms of debate about whether A) he's a throwing savant who could always read pro defenses as if by breathing, and didn't need any fancy collegiate learnin'; or B) today's NFL is destined to be the pass-heaviest in recorded history.

A side note about item B): For a few months this fall I was a regular on "Numbers Never Lie" on ESPN2, and I recall a protracted debate during which the other panelists fell over themselves to declare that the NFL as we'd previously known it was dead, that running the ball was dead, that pass defenders were hamstrung by the rules, that we would see a quadrillion aerial yards -- I'm paraphrasing -- before the end of the '11 season. I, ever the curmudgeon, declared that after two weeks of play, maybe we were all being a bit premature. Well, here we are, not quite three-quarters of the way into the season. December's cold and winds are coming, which will almost surely calm down the throwing a bit. Here's how the past few years have looked in terms of attempts per team per game:

Well, just like the rest of the league, Cam's prodigious hurling has calmed down. Since those first two games, Newton has thrown for 300 yards once in nine outings, and hasn't done it since Week 4. In those past nine starts, he's averaging 249 yards passing per game, which in that span ranks him 11th among NFL signal-callers. Certainly, that's way better than I expected back in August. But just as certainly, it's not elite, and in that same span, Newton has nine TD passes and 10 INTs. Yes, that's nine TD passes in nine games. That, ladies and gentlemen, stinks.

But of course, it's Newton's 10 rushing TDs that have overshadowed everything else, and continue to make him a must-start. He's only failed to score a rushing TD in three of 11 games this year, and he averages 42 rush yards per game; tack those yards onto the respectable passing yards, add the rushing scores and you've got a very strong fantasy player. The question of Newton's fantasy value going forward seems likely to be tied to the repeatability of his rushing season. I made quite a bit of prognosticating hay this summer with a piece discussing the likelihood that Michael Vick wouldn't repeat his immense rush-TD season from '10. That proved accurate. I'm going to have to do a similar analysis for behemoth rushing QBs like Newton and Tim Tebow next summer. For now, though, suffice it to say if you have a picture in your mind of Newton as an elite passer, you're incorrect.

2. How not to overreact to Dallas Cowboys receivers. Miles Austin doesn't sound likely to play this week against the Arizona Cardinals. That once again opens a debate about Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson. The three other ESPN.com rankers placed Robinson ahead of Bryant in their ranks, and two of the rankers had at least five spots in between the two WRs. To that I say: Wow. I know the production has been there for Robinson. He's been fantastic. And I know that it's not news to anyone that part of the reason Robinson gets open is because opposing defenses focus on stopping the scarier, beastlier Bryant. If defenses keep doing that and Tony Romo keeps throwing it accordingly, why won't Robinson keep routinely outperforming Dez?

This logic gets you into trouble. I saw it applied last week to Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings. I was the only ranker to keep Jennings ahead of Nelson last week, and lo and behold, on Thanksgiving, Jennings had five grabs for 74 yards and a TD, and Nelson had four grabs for 26 yards (to be fair, Jennings had five targets and Nelson had six). I know it's tempting to bend yourself into a pretzel to find logic that puts the guy who's produced better lately higher in your ranks than the marquee guy who hasn't put it all together yet, but in my opinion, talent often wins out. The moment you decide Nelson is the better threat, there's a pretty good chance opposing defenses come to the same conclusion, and stop rigging coverage to stop the No. 1.

Here are the numbers for the Cowboys wide receivers in the three games since Austin has been hurt:

Does Robinson come out ahead here? Absolutely. Is the margin massive? I would argue no, especially not if, for example, the Cardinals' defense decides, "Hey, maybe we should give Robinson some extra attention in the red zone, and put Patrick Peterson on Dez" (three of Robinson's five scores the past three weeks have come from inside an opponent's 7-yard line). I've always respected Robinson's talent (he was on my list of 10 Super-Deep Sleepers for '10 when he was with the St. Louis Rams ... oops). But I maintain that Bryant is just a different kind of cat, and if I'm choosing between the two, I'm still taking him.

3. Just how bad is this going to be for Andre Johnson? When Matt Leinart was Matt Schaub's replacement, I still had hope. At least Leinart is a veteran, he'd played with a big-time receiving talent before (Larry Fitzgerald, in Arizona) and he'd been absorbing the Texans' offensive system for a year-plus. I was still willing to consider Andre Johnson an every-week must-start. But now Leinart is out for the season with a broken collarbone, and rookie T.J. Yates will be under center going forward (and the alternatives, Kellen Clemens and Jake Delhomme, don't look any more promising). Can fantasy owners still use AJ?

Of course, any answer is contingent. Last week, Johnson had three targets and two catches for 22 yards; both of his catches came from Yates. Anyone who can proclaim they know exactly what Yates will give the Texans is goofy. This was already the NFL's most run-oriented offense with Schaub under center, so certainly Arian Foster and Ben Tate will be given a chance every week to see if they can simply grind out wins. But against the Atlanta Falcons' stout rush defense this week, that's much easier said than done.

I went back and looked at the Houston Texans-Jacksonville Jaguars game footage from Week 12 and made notes about all 15 of Yates' throws, to try and divine what might happen if he actually has to throw it to win a game:

• His first throw near the end of the first half was a simple dump to Owen Daniels that was complete, but was a wobbler that didn't inspire confidence. His second toss was better, an on-time 10-yard stop to Jacoby Jones with the Jags playing back (there was only about a minute left in the half) for an easy completion. Thereafter he fumbled a snap, picked it up and fired wildly out of bounds, then had a check-down to Daniels (who rumbled for 24 yards), and had an intentional grounding call.

• Yates began the first drive of the second half with two incompletions, both on short passes into traffic that had little chance of being caught. On a play-action third-and-4 later in the third quarter, he felt a defender's hand on him, and flung the ball into the seats, content to punt with a 10-point lead.

• Late in the third quarter he had a defender bearing down on him in his own end zone and successfully flung a short fall-away pass to Daniels, a pass he'd probably be better off not trying again in the future. With two minutes left in the third, he finally hit Andre Johnson in traffic, as Johnson settled in a zone with three defenders around him. It was another play-action play (the Texans ran play-action a ton), and the ball was delivered with accuracy and zip 14 yards down the field. Johnson caught his only other pass on a short out at the end of the third.

• Yates would throw it only three times in the fourth quarter, and all were inconsequential. The first was an ill-advised third-down pass that was knocked down by a Jags defender, and the other two were short screens to Foster.

In other words: We didn't learn much. Yates made one throw that I'd consider "major league," that in-traffic zip to Johnson; he had no other downfield tosses. That's almost certainly because Leinart was supposed to be in there, and Gary Kubiak was simply nursing Yates through the game. I predict we're going to see more challenging throws called for Yates versus the Falcons, but based on last week's workload, the projected results are guesswork. If you have strong alternatives, I don't hate sitting Johnson for a week, especially since he's apparently been limited by a sore knee in practice. Otherwise, you probably have to roll with him as a middling No. 2 WR, and hope for the best.

4. Get down the field, young man. A favored way of evaluating pass-catchers for me this summer was looking at average yards at the catch. How far down the field a given receiver is when he catches the ball translates -- even better than yards per catch or yards per target -- into how explosive a player he's likely to be for fantasy squads. By way of a refresher, here were the '10 leaders (among qualifiers) in this category:

Certainly, some of the biggest names in NFL pass-receiving circles appear here, including five of fantasy's top 10 WRs last year (Lloyd, Bowe, Jennings, Wallace and Johnson). So what do the numbers look like so far in '11?

Six of fantasy's top 10 WRs appear here (Smith, Cruz, Wallace, Fitzgerald, V. Jackson and Green), but let's look at some of the "lesser" names. Knox has erupted in Devin Hester's absence the past two weeks (7 catches, 242 yards and 2 TDs), but the Chicago Bears maintain that when Hester gets completely healthy, for some reason he'll head back into the starting lineup; one can only hope that if Mike Martz moves on next year, the new coordinator will recognize that Knox is very obviously his best aerial playmaker. Hartline gets no credit opposite Brandon Marshall and hasn't had a game with more than four receptions all year, but perhaps deserves a reevaluation at some point after Tony Sparano is gone, and maybe once the Miami Dolphins have a top-notch QB prospect. Boldin is a shock to me; for a guy known for his lack of speed, he's taken advantage of Joe Flacco's big arm (and survived Flacco's maddening inconsistency), though since he averages only 4.2 yards after the catch, his lack of explosiveness does bite him eventually. Titus Young and Victor Cruz are fascinating inclusions here, considering when their respective receiving corps are healthy, they each run mostly out of the slot. And how about Antonio Brown? Don't chalk up Brown's breakout season to mere dinks and dunks. He hasn't made a ton of big plays yet (only two plays of 25-plus yards, compared to 10 for his teammate Wallace), but quickness is part of his game. I won't be at all surprised to see him break some big ones over the season's final five games.

5. Can anyone say what's wrong with Philip Rivers? I thought I'd give Rivers the "T.J. Yates" treatment, too, and dissect every throw from the San Diego Chargers' Week 12 loss to the Denver Broncos. I won't be able to break down every single throw here because of space considerations (Rivers tossed it 36 times), but rest assured I took notes on every pass. Here's how I grouped them:

• I counted two completions (Rivers had 19 on the day) on which the throw was inaccurate, but the pass-catcher made a play. The second of these was a killer to Vincent Jackson; it was a short crossing route where Jackson basically had to stop and reach behind to make the grab. If he catches it in stride, he might take it to the house, and from his expression after the play, you could see he knew it.

• I saw three targets to Antonio Gates that were wildly overthrown. Even a vintage, mid-career Gates wouldn't have caught them.

• I counted two deep throws (one to Jackson, one to Vincent Brown) on which the receiver was one-on-one and Rivers seemed to be attempting a "back-shoulder" throw toward the sideline, but the wideout never stopped running. It may have been more miscommunication than bad accuracy.

• I saw three balls that were inaccurately thrown enough that they probably should've been intercepted, but weren't. Literally all three of these were aimed at the rookie Brown, however, so there's always some question about whether he was in the right place at the right time. But on one of them he made a sparkling "defensive" play to break up the would-be pick.

• Twice Rivers was rushed and attempted to check down but threw inaccurately (once to Brown, once to Mike Tolbert).

• Once he had a pass batted down at the line and twice he was hit as he threw, causing the ball to pop up forward as an incomplete pass.

• Twice he threw the ball away rather than take a sack.

• Rivers took a deep shot to Brown that was a pretty good throw into double coverage and a more polished receiver might've grabbed it; Brown elevated and got one hand on it but couldn't bring it in.

• Patrick Clayton just flat-out dropped an accurate throw.

• Six of the completions I counted were purely of the "check-down" variety, on which Rivers went through his progressions and wound up flinging it to a safety valve for a short gain.

• Now the good throws. He recognized a blown coverage and dumped one off to Randy McMichael, who ran for a long gain. He hit Brown on a zippy out-cut and Jackson on an in-cut with good accuracy. He put a nice throw on Curtis Brinkley in the flat that a better RB might've taken into the end zone. In overtime, he hit his back foot and zinged a pretty nice throw to Brown over the middle. He zipped a short one to Crayton. His best deep pass of the day was courageous, where he stood in and took a hit to let Brown get open, but Brown was wide open. He threw a jump ball to Gates that Gates boxed out and caught (the Chargers should do more of this). Then there were what I thought were Rivers' three best throws, all to Gates, all over the middle, zipping little lasers that skimmed through linebackers and safeties and got on Gates in a hurry (one of which went for a TD).

In all? I saw some hints of the guy we expected to see all season, but overall the accuracy was fairly, and surprisingly, awful. When I watched all these passes back-to-back-to-back, I grew used to Rivers squirming in the pocket and firing wildly when he had to go more than 10 yards down the field, but I also saw a guy who understands where his safety valves are and can create yardage simply by being a smart dude. But it all added up to a meager 188 yards, and he should've been picked off a couple of times. The matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars this week should be a decent one on paper, considering Jacksonville is without its two starting corners. I understand if you don't have an elite option at QB, and want to use Rivers. But from what I saw on this game tape, salvation is not close.

Five In Brief

6. Playing the Indianapolis Colts doesn't overjoy me more than starting a New England Patriots RB scares me. I see that my ranking brethren feel downright giddy at the notion of using BenJarvus Green-Ellis this week, ranking him inside their top 15 RBs. I can't get behind BJGE or any Patriots RB as anything more than a flex, and that's where I have the Law Firm ranked this week. I understand the others' logic: Indy is awful, the Pats should be ahead, and last year they tended to use Green-Ellis as their closer. That's sound. But if I have a playoff spot on the line, I can't stomach the notion of relying on Bill Belichick (or Mike Shanahan) to do the expected with his rushers. Green-Ellis has 10 and 16 fantasy points the past two weeks. And before that, he'd scored 12 fantasy points in his previous four games combined. With a sane usage pattern, I'd be all aboard. But if I'm playing a win-and-get-in game? I'm hesitating.

7. I'd use Willis McGahee before BJGE, but even he's scary. The Minnesota Vikings' front seven is significantly tougher than the one McGahee tore up in Week 12, when the Broncos upset the Chargers. And like the Law Firm, What-You-Talkin'-'Bout-Willis provokes tummy pangs of worry if I'm in a must-win this week. As a flex? Sure, I'm OK. But when you're coming off a game in which the quarterback ran it 22 times (yes, Tebow had 22 rushing attempts versus San Diego last week), and when McGahee hasn't scored a red zone TD since Tebow's ascension to the starting job, well, I'm thinking "flex." I acknowledge that McGahee has shown more life in his legs than he'd done the past two seasons in Baltimore, and has made himself fantasy-relevant. But the Vikes held Michael Turner to six fantasy points (19 carries, 60 yards) on the road last week. And Turner doesn't have to worry about Tebow.

8. DeAngelo Williams returns. My fellow ESPN rankers all have Jonathan Stewart ranked ahead of D-Willy, but that's so Week 8. In the three games since the Carolina Panthers' bye, Williams has had 28 carries on first down, while Stewart has had eight. Meanwhile, Stewart has caught 13 passes, while Williams has caught one. D'oh. Guess what's changed here? While nobody outside Carolina was watching, D-Willy has taken back the early-down work. Heck, in that three-game span, only one Panthers RB has gotten a carry inside an opponent's 10, and it was Williams last week, who converted a 2-yard TD. (Cam Newton, of course, has five carries inside an opponent's 20 in his past three contests, and has scored on three of them. Vulture.) Week 13's matchup against a woeful Buccaneers run defense makes both Williams and Stewart possible flex plays. But if I'm picking one, it's the guy who's getting the early-down work. Stewart might be better in a PPR league, but the numbers say Williams is the better play in standard-scoring leagues.

9. Greg Little is relevant. He had four drops last week and has a whopping 12 overall in his rookie season, but Little is the best pass target Colt McCoy has in Cleveland, and he should probably be owned in more than just 10.5 percent of fantasy leagues. Little was targeted 13 times last week, which was tied for second most in the NFL. He's up to 27 targets in the past three weeks, which is tied for sixth in that span, and look at the names ahead of him on that list: Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Victor Cruz, Brandon Lloyd and Larry Fitzgerald. Is Little on par athletically with those guys? No, he's a different kind of player, more of a physical, run-after-catch possession receiver than a flyer or leaper. But when a guy is getting that kind of enormous workload as a rookie, it's a sign that A) his team trusts him; and/or B) his team doesn't have a whole lot of other options. And you know what? I'll take either explanation and run to the bank. I'm not saying the guy is a must-start, especially not for fantasy teams that are cruising with impressive WR depth into the playoffs. But I do think he's ownable in all leagues, and is a No. 3 wideout in PPR leagues.

10. Carson Palmer is Carson Palmer. I got questioned quite a bit about why I haven't liked Palmer more over the past couple of weeks, ranking him 14th and now 17th in Weeks 12 and 13. When you watch the game tape, you understand why. I acknowledge that Palmer has a bit more consistent zip on his fastball than I saw in '10, though I also think he's emboldened to take chances he sometimes shouldn't. But his receiving corps is shaky, and his O-line is starting to show holes. With Denarius Moore missing last week with a foot injury and questionable for Week 13, and with Jacoby Ford not likely to return soon, the Raiders are down to a motley crew that consists of Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens and Darrius Heyward-Bey, which is an athletic trainer's dream but a QB's nightmare. You might be tempted to say that "chemistry" between the QB and WRs is the problem here, and maybe proclaim that if Palmer had more practice reps with these guys, maybe you'd see fewer passes that look so wild and inaccurate. But these backup Raiders receivers just don't run good routes. I went back and watched tape of Moore versus the Chargers a couple of weeks ago, and Palmer hit him in stride time and time again, because even though he's a rookie, Moore goes where he's supposed to go. DHB, for all his freakish upside, just can't get that through his thick skull. Add in eight sacks of Palmer the past two weeks, and I think this is a fantasy situation to avoid. The Dolphins are playing very well on defense, and have allowed below-average fantasy points to QBs in four straight games.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.