Players In Fantasy Football Purgatory

Once there was production and promise. Now there’s pressure and – in some cases – a little panic.

Welcome to fantasy purgatory, inhabited by a roster of underachievers, star-crossed performers and one-season wonders. For any number of reasons, the populace here is laboring in limbo on the road to irrelevance at the outer limits of obscurity. These wayward players are in dire need of a GPS device – or even a simple compass – because they’re all on the verge of falling off the fantasy map. Following are profiles of 10 of these lost souls – representing each of the four major fantasy offensive positions – and their respective prospects are for playing their way back onto fantasy draft boards in 2012:

Matt Cassel

Four years ago, this seventh-round draft pick and former USC backup quarterback came out of nowhere, stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the season opener and guided the defending 2008 defending AFC champion Patriots to an 11-5 record. He was a fantasy (and real-life) revelation, throwing for 3,693 yards and 21 TDs and nearly propelling the Pats into the postseason.

A year later, when New England again became Brady’s bunch, Cassel was dealt to the Chiefs and was handed the starting reins in K.C. After a so-so first season, Cassel dazzled anew in 2010, hitting career highs in passing yards (3,116) and TD tosses (27) while only throwing seven interceptions for the AFC West-champion Chiefs. It all added up to 276 fantasy points and a 15th-place rank among all QBs.

A year later, though, the magic was gone, and Cassel threw for only 1,713 yards 10 TDs and nine interceptions in nine games before a broken right throwing hand shelved him for the remainder of the season. Injuries also sidelined two of his top offensive running mates (RB Jamaal Charles and TE Tony Moeaki) for most – or all – of the season. The end result was a non-playoff, 8-8 finish for the Chiefs and a No. 31 ranking among fantasy QBs for Cassel with 136 points.

Now, with Charles and Moeaki back on the field, the arrowhead is pointing skyward once again for Kansas City and the up-and-down QB. Cassel will be playing for his fourth offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) in four years in K.C., but only journeyman Brady Quinn and second-year man Ricky Stanzi are behind him on the depth chart, so it’s Cassel’s show.

Fantasy Forecast: If he doesn’t miss more than one or two games, and No. 1 wideout Dwayne Bowe’s holdout doesn’t extend into the regular season, expect a bounce-back season for Cassel. Look for him to re-establish himself as a solid, low-end fantasy backup in nearly all leagues and formats.

Kevin Kolb

In a headline-grabbing post-lockout trade last July, the Cardinals sent defensive back Domonique Rogers-Cromartie and a second-round pick to the Eagles so they could anoint Donovan McNabb’s and Michael Vick’s former backup their starting QB. The Cards had been among the teams coveting Kolb since he threw for 718 yards and accounted for five total TDs in two relief appearances for McNabb in 2009.

The 2011 campaign, however, proved to be a struggle for the QB, who was limited to nine starts due to turf toe and concussion issues. He finished with only 1,955 passing yards, nine TDs and eight picks to finish 30th among fantasy quarterbacks with 140 points. Definitely not the starting material fantasy owners were banking on.

Fast-forward to the present, and the outlook isn’t much rosier for Kolb. The QB suffered a rib injury on the third series of the Cards’ preseason opener on Aug. 5, providing an early edge to third-year man John Skelton in the open competition for Arizona’s starting gig.

Fantasy Forecast: Expect both QBs to start games for the Cardinals once again this season, rendering both fantasy non-factors.

Vince Young

The former No. 3 overall draft pick of the Titans only six years ago now is with his third team (the Bills) in the past three seasons. That’s because VY’s rookie season (2,199 passing yards, 552 rushing, 189 total TDs), in which he ranked 12th among fantasy quarterbacks with 255 points, has turned out to be his best season. A year ago, after proclaiming Philly the ill-fated “Dream Team” in the preseason, Young had a trio of starts in relief of the banged-up Vick. But he tossed more than twice as many interceptions as TDs (9-4) and led the squad to only one win in the three outings. When it came time to decide on a backup in the offseason, coach Andy Reid went with Mike Kafka and Young shuffled off to Buffalo, where he is now battling journeyman Tyler Thigpen for the No. 2 job behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. There’s a good chance the loser of the duel is left off the Bills’ opening-day roster.

Fantasy Forecast: Young beats out Thigpen but only makes a few late-game, mop-up appearances in back of the solid Fitzpatrick.

Felix Jones

Here’s a running back who’s been overhyped from the outset. Jones, the 22nd-overall pick in 2008 by the Dallas Cowboys, ran for an 11-yard TD on his first NFL carry. Jones only has scored eight more TDs since. That’s hard to fathom considering the athletic Jones seems to be a perennial fixture on annual preseason player-to-watch and breakout-player lists. But a closer examination of his stats, starting with the TD numbers above, reveals that the promotion has far outweighed the production. In fact, Jones not only has missed the equivalent of a whole season (16 games) over his four-year pro career, but he’s only started 16 games total for Dallas.

When he’s on the field, Jones is not a high-volume back by any means, having eclipsed 20 or more rushing attempts in a game only twice in his pro career. In 2011, Jones was limited to 12 games with hamstring and ankle problems, and wound up surrendering his starting position to rookie DeMarco Murray. Jones finished the year with 776 total yards and a TD – down from 1,250 and two scores the season before.

Fantasy Forecast: With Murray back in his starting spot after missing the final three games of last season with a broken ankle, Jones’ upside is very limited. In the end, expect similar stats to last year’s and yet another season where Jones falls short of  owners’ expectations.

Knowshon Moreno

Quick, name the only rookie running back to finish among his position’s top 20 in fantasy points over the past three seasons. It’s Moreno, the 12th overall pick in 2009, who finished 17th among backs that season with his 170 fantasy points (1,160 total yards, nine TDs). Since then, though, it’s been all downhill for the Bronco, who has seen his rushing-yardage totals fall (947 to 779 to 179) in each of his three NFL seasons. At the same time, the injuries have mounted, capped by last year’s season-ending torn ACL in Week 10. In all, Moreno has started 24 of a possible 48 games in his NFL career and has missed 11 entirely.

That in mind, the Broncos drafted a running back (San Diego State’s versatile Ronnie Hillman)n in the third round this year. In the meantime, Willis McGahee still is entrenched as the starter, while Moreno is battling for his roster life in the Mile High City this preseason.

Fantasy Forecast: Moreno has a solid preseason, but his lack of special-teams participation dooms him in Denver and he’s put on waivers during the final cut. Moreno, though, quickly finds a home with another RB-needy team (San Diego? Oakland?) and has limited production as a pass-catching, third-down back.

Sidney Rice

The ghosts of 2009 are haunting this Seahawk wideout. Three years ago, Rice had one of the most productive breakout seasons in recent memory, following 31- and 15-catch years his first two campaigns with 83 grabs, 1,312 yards and eight TDs during the Vikings’ Brett Favre-led run to the NFC title game. In all, it was worth 179 fantasy points, ranking eighth among all receivers in ’09.

Since then, though, it’s been a tale of woe. Over the past 19 months, Rice has undergone hip surgery, surgery on both shoulders, dealt with a pair of concussions and has been hampered by knee and foot sprains. As a result, he’s missed 17 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons and has caught a combined 49 passes for 764 yards and four TDs – roughly half of his ’09 totals.

In 2011, he finished with 32 catches in his first season with the Seahawks, but 15 of those grabs and 211 of his 484 yards came in two games. That’s earned Rice an unreliable tag, and it’s one he’s trying to shake entering 2012 as part of Seattle’s jumbled collection of receivers – a cast that includes, among others, veterans Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards and youngsters Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate. Still somewhat limited by offseason shoulder surgery, Rice clearly has some to work to do to separate himself from the pack.

Fantasy Forecast: Rice plays in 14 games, but has a negligible fantasy impact as new starting QB Matt Flynn spreads the wealth among a deep corps of targets.

Eddie Royal

This fifth-year wideout is getting a fresh start in San Diego after spending his first four seasons in Broncos blue and orange. Royal’s rookie season was one to remember with 91 receptions, 1,089 total yards and five TDs in 2008 (20th among WRs with 139 fantasy points), but his following three seasons in Denver were largely forgettable. He did compile 115 catches over that span but only managed one 100-yard receiving game. Royal only logged eight starts in 2011 and finished with a career-low 19 catches for 155 yards and a TD.

In the offseason, it was no surprise when he and the Broncos decided to part ways, and he wound up with the Chargers, a division foe against which he enjoyed some of his finest moments as a Bronco. In OTAs, he was the talk of San Diego, drawing praise from coach Norv Turner and his new teammates but a groin injury early in training camp kept him out of the preseason opener.
With top target Vincent Jackson having departed San Diego for Tampa Bay, Royal is expected to work out of the slot this season and complement fellow wideouts Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Robert Meacham.

Fantasy Forecast: The jump from Tim Tebow to Philip Rivers proves to be a boon for Royal and his stats as he enjoys his best season since his rookie campaign.

Steve Smith

While his Carolina namesake still is going strong entering his 12th season with the Panthers, Smith is with his third team is as many years, trying again to recapture his 2009 magic. Such is NFL life following microfracture knee surgery. Smith underwent the procedure on his left knee after the 2010 season and his road back has featured twists, turns and detours aplenty. Smith's latest stop is St. Louis, where he's trying to catch on with the Rams following last season's stint with the Eagles.

Two years and one knee procedure prior, Smith was a PPR giant among Giants with an NFC-leading 107 receptions for 1,220 yards and seven TDs in a Pro Bowl season in the Big Apple. But in the two seasons since, he's had 58 catches for 653 yards and four TDs, including only 11 for 124 yards and a TD in nine games last season with Philly. In the offseason, Smith signed a 1-year, incentive-laden deal with the Rams. His first step will be trying to make the roster on a receiver-needy team stocked with candidates.

Fantasy Forecast: His knee much stronger than last season, Smith makes the cut with the Rams and enjoys a solid but unspectacular season, making a fantasy impact in deeper leagues.

John Carlson

A second-round pick by the Seahawks in 2008, the Notre Dame product made an immediate fantasy splash as a rookie, finishing seventh among all tight ends, hauling in 55 passes for 627 yards and five TDs to finish with 93 fantasy points. Carlson even was slightly better in '09 with 574 yards and seven scores (99 points), and he looked as if he had established himself as a low-end fantasy starter. But then came 2010 and a drop to 31 catches, 318 yards and a single TD. Then, this past season, things went from bad to worse for Carlson, who suffered a torn labrum in an exhibition contest, and missed the entire regular season.

With his contract up, Seattle decided to go in a different direction, and that worked out well for Carlson, who opened some eyes and elicited some audible gasps from league observers by landing a 5-year, $25 million deal from the Vikings. Minnesota plans to pair Carlson with second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, also from Notre Dame, in Patriotesque, two-tight end sets. It's been a slow start to the preseason, though, for Carlson who suffered a sprained MCL early in camp.

Fantasy Forecast: Carlson and Rudolph do see action in dual-tight end formations, but Gronkowski-Hernandez they aren’t, and neither proves to be fantasy roster-worthy aside from the deepest of leagues.

Marcedes Lewis

There are no knee injuries to overcome, new teams to adjust to or age issues to deal with. No, at age 28, the Jaguars' tight end is in his prime. He's entering his seventh season in Jacksonville, and he's been a picture of health, missing only two starts in the past five seasons. Yet, there still are questions, and it’s up to Lewis to provide some on-field answers.

In 2010, it appeared Lewis had fully arrived as a fantasy force, notching 58 receptions for 700 yards and 10 TDs to finish fourth at his position with 130 fantasy points. But those numbers took a precipitous dip last season as Lewis tallied 39 catches, 460 yards, and – most shockingly – no TDs. Much of the drop-off can be attributed to the struggles of rookie QB Blaine Gabbert, but just how does a 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end fail to record a single scoring reception? It truly was baffling, and to Lewis' fantasy owners, there certainly were other adjectives being applied.

Now, though, Gabbert is in his second season, and the Jags have more weapons at receiver (first-round pick Justin Blackmon and free-agent Laurent Robinson) to open up the middle of the field. The team also has a new head coach in Mike Mularkey, a former tight end.

Fantasy Forecast: All the above factors work in Lewis' favor, and he bounces back – but still not all the way to his 2010 standards. He finishes with 50-some catches with five or six resulting in TDs.