Is Mark Sanchez holding back his receivers' fantasy value?
I was sitting around in a studio this week waiting for a TV segment to start taping (yes, I am currently big-timing you), and I was talking with Michael Smith, who knows a thing or three about the NFL. And he maintained that he absolutely can envision Plaxico Burress scoring double-digit touchdowns for the Jets in 2011. It's not like it would be unheard of; after all, Burress scored 10 times in '06 and 12 times in '07 while playing for the Giants.
Still, even setting aside Burress' rather unique conundrum of returning to pro football after two years in prison, I had to take issue with Michael's statement. Any Jets wideout scoring double-digit TDs -- whether it's Burress or Santonio Holmes or Derrick Mason -- just seems unlikely given what we've seen after two years of Mark Sanchez.
Make no mistake: I don't think New York offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is an arch-conservative play-caller by nature. Heck, in '08, I remember Brett Favre slinging it around pretty good. Here's the run/pass mix for each year Schottenheimer has been the coordinator:
Jets offensive mix under Brian Schottenheimer
While it was clear that in '09, Sanchez's rookie year, the team tried to take the air out of the football and ease in the kid QB, that wasn't the case last season. Sanchez finished ninth in the NFL in pass attempts, with 15 more than Tom Brady. And lest you believe Sanchez wasn't allowed to go down the field as much as his position mates, Sanchez also finished ninth in the NFL in pass attempts that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, and second in attempts that went more than 40 yards. So the next time your buddy says, "Aw, the Jets don't throw it enough for that passing game to be worth anything," you know better.
But the truth is: That Jets passing attack hasn't been a great fantasy factor with Sanchez at the helm, and if it's not the system that's holding them back, it must be Sanchez himself. Last year, with the reins off, Sanchez completed an unacceptable 54.8 percent of his throws, which was actually up a percentage point from his rookie year but still placed him a dismal 29th in the NFL. And we've found our problem. The Sanchize can't put the ball where he wants it:
Mark Sanchez pass completion, 2010
Source: Stats Inc
We heard a lot of talk this summer about Jake Locker, and how NFL teams were scared off by his lack of accuracy. We've heard experts weigh in on whether a QB can learn accuracy, and we've seen some pretty stark numbers to indicate that guys who tended toward inaccuracy in college rarely became accurate as pros. Well, Sanchez completed 65.8 percent of his passes in his lone season as a starter for USC, so he doesn't exactly fall into the Locker category (Locker completed 55.4 percent of his throws his senior year at Washington). We've seen Sanchez be accurate. But he can't go on being this poor a thrower in the NFL and give any of his receivers much of a fighting chance for fantasy.
So do NFL QBs ever jump up from Sanchez-level accuracy problems in their first two years, and later become good enough players to throw more than the 17 TDs Sanchez did last season? John Elway, Drew Bledsoe, Bernie Kosar, Jim Everett, Neil Lomax, Vinnie Testaverde and Rich Gannon are all guys from the past 30 years who posted early-career seasons with worse completion percentages than Sanchez has done his first two NFL seasons, then eventually went on to post 60-percent-plus seasons later in their careers. So it's not impossible. Of course, that list of bad-early-career-percentages also includes many more guys -- like Ryan Leaf, Heath Shuler and Akili Smith and dozens of others -- who never improved.
It would be foolish for me to dismiss the possibility Sanchez could turn a corner this year. It sometimes happens, though historically the odds are somewhat against him. And it's also foolish to unilaterally say that teams whose QBs complete fewer than 60 percent of their throws can't produce fantasy-worthy wideouts, especially considering fantasy's No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in 2010 -- Brandon Lloyd and Dwayne Bowe -- fit that exact category. Had Sanchez completed about 20 more passes with the same number of attempts last year, he'd have roughly matched the completion percentages of Kyle Orton and Matt Cassel. Nevertheless, you have to look back a ways to find a receiver who had a special statistical year catching passes from a 54.8-completion-rate QB. Joey Galloway in '06, catching from Bruce Gradkowski? Burress himself in '05, catching from Eli Manning? Chris Chambers in '05, catching from Gus Frerotte? My point is, these are relatively rare birds.
So yes, while I do think the Jets will throw it enough for Holmes, Burress and Mason to theoretically have good fantasy seasons, and while I rate Holmes as a top-20 fantasy option, I do think these receivers are at least in part held hostage by Sanchez. Without an improvement that sees him climb at least near the 58 percent completion mark, these wideouts' margin for error will be very slim in fantasy leagues.
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.