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FANTASY FOOTBALL WEEKLY FEATURES

Waiver Wire Warriors - Evaluating Your Armory
Dennis Leonard
September 14, 2005

Hello and welcome to Waiver Wire Warriors (the article formerly known as ‘The Trash Can Report’). If you followed the column last year, you’re familiar with what I do. If you’re a first time reader, allow me to set the stage. This article is about value. More specifically, players and team defenses that I believe possess under or unrecognized value from one perspective or another. Upside. Sleepers. Handcuffs. Depth. Trends. Opportunity. These are the commodities I deal in.

I’ll never tell you to start your studs. In fact, I make a point of not recommending players in the top echelon of their respective positions (typically the top 10 to12 quarter backs, kickers, tight ends, and team defenses, and the top 20 or so wide receivers and running backs); there is already copious commentary on those players. Instead, I research the players who might actually be available on your waiver wire. I can’t guarantee every pick will be a “hit,” but you can at least count on me to serve up some meaty factual support for my thinking.

So, with Week 1 done and over most teams are staring at their rosters wondering what improvements to make, if any. There have already been some post-draft injuries and Week 3 byes aren’t far off. However, with only one week of football under our belts, there is too little data to begin spotting trends. Therefore, at this point, we’re going to have to look at Week 1’s results against the backdrop of preseason and/or last year’s data. Let’s get started.

Gus Frerotte – MIA QB: I’m not really sold on Gus Frerotte, but his numbers from Week 1 coupled with his opportunity as the Dolphins’ starting QB are hard to ignore. Plus, the Dolphins did man-handle the Broncos in Week 1 like dime store luggage. So for medium-to-large leagues Frerotte might be a good fit for a team lacking QB depth. Alternatively, if your team is stacked with two top 12 QBs – and assuming you have a speculative upside roster spot to spare – you might consider adding Frerotte as a #3 QB, then trading one of your startable QBs to upgrade at another position. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here are the facts that suggest Frerotte might be worth a roster spot:

  • He was pretty accurate behind what is generally considered a lesser offensive line, connecting on 24 of his 36 passes, resulting in a 66.7% completion percentage. That was good enough to tie him with Culpepper for the 7 th best completion ratio of any QB in Week 1;
  • He was pretty active near the goal line, tossing five passes in the red zone;
  • He did complete two TD passes. Only Collins and Bledsoe threw for more in Week 1;
  • Frerotte somehow put up the fifth most passing yards in Week 1 with 275;
  • Only 1 interception. Eleven QBs threw more;
  • Only 1 fumble lost. Nine QBs coughed up the ball more;
  • Posted a 96.4 QB rating, which was 9 th best in Week 1, which was better than Collins, McNair, Bulger, Griese, McNabb, Green, Hasselbeck, Favre, Plummer, and Culpepper; and
  • Frerotte wasn’t sacked, not even once. The only other starters who can boast that stat are Brady, Dilfer, Roethlisberger, and Big Manning.

There is a very good chance Week 1 represents Frerotte’s top-end potential. Then again, he hasn’t really seen any starting action since back in 2000 when he played 10 games for the Broncos. So it’s at least possible the 12-year veteran has a trick or two left up his sleeve. With a respectable defense, Ronnie Brown improving the running game, and Marty Booker and Chris Chambers chomping at the bit for a QB who can throw a decent football, Frerotte may continue to surprise as the cast around him won’t require him to everything in order to succeed. Like I said, his Week 1 stats are undeniably attractive. So those willing to gamble long odds should have all the evidence they need to take a flyer on him.

Trent Dilfer – CLE QB: Dilfer is no stud, however, I think its fair to say he’s also a little underrated. While I’d rather eat a bucket of congealed oven grease than rely on Dilfer as my every-week starter, his Week 1 performance demonstrates that Dilfer may warrant a roster spot in medium and large leagues due to his potential to produce. Consider the following:

  • Dilfer went 26 of 43 accumulating 278 passing yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs in Week 1. While that isn’t a whole lot to crow about, consider he matched the fantasy production of more highly touted starters like Vick and Plummer. Except Vick and Plummer aren’t on waivers and Dilfer probably is;
  • Dilfer’s respectable 60.5% completion ratio from Week 1 was higher than Warner, Big Manning, Green, Hasselbeck, Leftwich, Harrington, McNabb, Vick, Brees, Plummer, or Colllins’;
  • Like Gus Frerotte, Dilfer was only one of four QBs in Week 1 who didn’t get stuck for a sack. So it is worth noting that Dilfer appears to be receiving at least adequate protection from what was considered to be a train wreck of an offensive line just last year;
  • The Browns only rushed the ball 18 times in Week 1, and 11.11% of those attempts came from Dilfer himself. If this one-week statistic is the beginning of a trend, the Browns could be morphing into a pass-first team this year, which would add to Dilfer’s potential value;
  • Further supporting the Browns’ “pass-first” potential is the fact that Dilfer threw 43 passes in Week 1, which was the 6 th most of any NFL QB. Stated differently, the Browns passed the ball 43 times relative to the 16 times someone (other than Dilfer) ran the ball. That’s nearly a 3:1 pass-to-run ratio; and
  • Lastly, Dilfer actually has some receiving weapons at his disposal. Between Antonio Bryant, potential stud rookie Braylon Edwards, and the underrated Dennis Northcutt, Dilfer has targets. And I’m not sure who this fourth-year wide receiver Frisman Jackson is but he was a man on fire in Week 1; caught 8 of the 9 passes thrown his way for 128 yards and 1 TD. While Frisman is probably a one-week wonder who himself is not worth adding (except in the deepest of leagues, perhaps), Frisman Jackson’s production could ingratiate himself to both the coaches, as well as Dilfer. At the very least Jackson could provide more value and depth to an already deep Browns receiving corps, which can only help Dilfer’s chances to produce.

Chester Taylor – BAL RB: As a Jamal Lewis owner I’m glad I also drafted Taylor, because Taylor is absolutely worth a roster spot. For example: if the Colts’ defense was so tough on Lewis, such that he average only 3 yards per carry in Week 1 (48 yards on 16 carries), why is it that Taylor averaged 6.75 yards per carry (27 yards on 4 carries), which was the 4 th highest yards per carry of any running back in Week 1? Furthermore, Taylor contributed another 22 yards on two receptions; Lewis just 4 yards on 1 reception. Personally, I think Lewis is still shaking off some rust off and won’t be up to snuff until Week 4, which is what the Ravens have said all along. Plus, the Ravens’ offensive line should get their act together by then such that whoever is running behind them gets some more support. But Taylor may have become too productive to keep off the field by then.

The bottom line is that the Lewis owner in your league should have Taylor on their roster; he should be viewed as a “must-have handcuff.” So if you are that Lewis owner, go get Taylor now, if you don’t own him already. However, even if you don’t own Lewis, Taylor offers a couple of different flavors of upside.

First, Lewis and Taylor are both in contract years, which could help land Taylor a starting job next year - perhaps with the Ravens, perhaps elsewhere. That gives Taylor potential value in keeper and dynasty leagues.

Second, Taylor sports some fairly impressive stats of his own, which suggest he would be productive if given an opportunity to start. That gives him tremendous upside as a high-value injury-replacement player if Lewis were reinjured. For example:

  • Taylor had a spectacular preseason leading all rushers with 270 yards on just 39 attempts, plus he scored once;
  • He established 6.9 yards per carry during the 2005 preseason, which was the 6 th highest average out of the running backs who carried the ball 7 times or more;
  • He has seen his yards per carry increase during each of the last three regular seasons, from 3.7 to 4.4 to 4.5;
  • He as added additional receptions and receiving yards in each of the last three regular seasons, going 14 for 129 yards in 2002, 20 for 132 yards in 2003, and 30 for 184 yards in 2004; and
  • Taylor has only lost 3 fumbles in the 326 combined times he has touched the ball over the last three years.

Third, Taylor has trade value if you can get to him before Lewis’ owner.

Fourth, even if Lewis does stay healthy it is going to be hard for the Ravens to ignore Taylor’s obvious talent. The team should be leaning on its running game and defense as much as possible, so it is conceivable that Taylor and Lewis could both end up being productive similar to how Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson are this year, or perhaps Jesse Chatman and Landanian Tomlinson were last year. Thus, Taylor is also decent “emergency” running back depth because you know if you are forced to plug him into your line up that he is going to get enough touches in every game such that he’ll produce at least something for you.

Ladell Betts – WAS RB: Betts makes the most sense for two kinds of teams: (1) those owning Clinton Portis; and (2) those receiving individual points in the return game, as Betts is also a kick off return specialist.

The surprising note on Betts is that the Redskins gave him 12 carries in Week 1. That is a fairly substantial number of carries for a non-featured back. However, with Patrick Ramsey injured and demoted, and the Mark Brunell under center once again (despite a horrible effort in 2004) a combined running game may be the Redskins most potent offensive weapon. While Betts isn’t going to be confused with Brian Westbrook (another return specialist turned running back) if he keeps getting double digit carries and exceeding 3.4 yards per carry, like he did in Week 1, that production on regular offense plus his kick returns mean he’ll have an opportunity to contribute. Granted, there isn’t much upside to Betts unless Portis gets hurt. However, not every recommendation needs to be about swinging for the fences. Stable, mediocre production from unlikely sources can be of useful, too.

Bobby Engram – SEA WR: I’m a big Bobby Engram fan. Chances are he went undrafted in most medium-to-small leagues (12 or fewer teams). But if he’s still on waivers (and he probably is, considering he’s only owned in 7% of all Fanball leagues) he probably won’t be for long. If you are looking to add a #4 or #5 wide receiver to your roster that will perform like a strong #3, Engram is perfect. And if you get points for receptions then you should be jumping on Engram faster than a hobo on a handout. Engram’s Week 1 performance was decent: 79 receiving yards, no TDs. And he’s the clear #2 receiver for the offense-orientated Seahawks who’ll get into more shoot outs than Benicio Del Toro in Way Of The Gun.* But looking beyond the surface reveals a lot more potential value than most people give Engram credit for. Take a gander at the following:

  • Engram had a 67.9% reception ratio last year (targeted 53 times, catching 36 passes), which was the best of any regular Seahawk’s target (anything over 60% is super);
  • Of the 17 passes he did not catch, only 2 were considered “dropped” passes;
  • Engram has an excellent rapport with QB Matt Hasselbeck, who looks for Engram on clutch third-down plays. This is evidenced by the fact that an amazing 25 of Engram’s 36 receptions in 2004 were for first downs. In fact, his 47.2% first down-to-pass target ratio was the 15 th best in the NFL last year out of all receivers, tight ends, and running backs combined;
  • He had a strong pre-season hauling in 8 receptions for 109 yards and a TD, which came in only three games;
  • Engram continued flaunting his sure-hands in Week 1 snagging 8 of the 9 passes thrown his way (10, depending on whose stats you look at);
  • That means Engram was thrown to more than much bigger names, like Joe Horn, Nate Burleson, Michael Clayton, Isaac Bruce, and Andre Johnson;
  • In leagues that do NOT award points for receptions he was about the 35 th most productive receiver in Week 1, which still makes him worth a decent #3 WR. However, in leagues that DO award points for receptions, Engram was roughly the 21 st most productive due to the sheer volume of passes he caught, and that’s where his is really the most valuable;
  • Engram is a very solid route runner who, lacking top-notch speed, makes up for it by getting good separation; and
  • If you are already thinking “playoffs,” it is worth noting that the Seahawks do battle with the 49ers, Titans, and Colts in Weeks 14 through 16, respectively.

Bobby Engram is going to be involved in every game, predominantly as a possession receiver. He’ll get a few TDs here and there, but he’s going to bring home the bacon mostly on yardage and receptions, assuming you get points for those. Engram used to return punts, for those who get individual points in the return game, but newly-acquired Peter Warrick looks to handle those duties going forward. However, Warrick is notoriously injury prone, so any set backs with his perpetually banged-up shin could put Engram back to work in that regard. All in all, Bobby Engram should be a very dependable. And at this rate, he could easily see 130+ passes thrown his way this season. Coupled with his highly underappreciated receiving skills, that spells fantasy production. I’m backing this pick with some skin, as I’ve added Engram in my local league.

Kevin Curtis – STL WR: This third-year Rams’ wide receiver got some good press during preseason, so he may or may not have been drafted in your league. However, he is only owned in 2% of Fanball leagues, so chances are he’s available on most waiver wires. That Curtis is both a third-year receiver (receivers tend to “break out” during their third year) *and* he plays for the pass-happy Rams’ (the Rams had the 5 th most passing attempts in 2004, with 580, and started the 2005 season by tying for the most passes throw in week 1, at 56) are reasons enough to pay at least a little attention to Curtis as an upside bench receiver. But wait: there’s more!

For example, Curtis had a much stronger Week 1 than many realized:

  • Tied for the 4 th most passes thrown to any wide receiver in Week 1, with 14;
  • Caught 7 passes for 63 yards; and
  • Was surprisingly targeted 3 times in the red zone. Only two receivers saw more red-zone action in Week 1, namely Holt and McCardell.

In addition, Curtis had some pretty decent sophomore season highlights:

  • 58.2% reception ratio (32 receptions on 55 passes);
  • Only dropped 3 passes all season;
  • Finished the last three games very strong, producing 99 yards versus the Jets, 107 yards versus the Seahawks, and 128 yards plus a TD versus the Falcons.

As a general rule, you want to own quarter backs and wide receivers on pass-first teams that also have bad defenses, and the Rams certainly fit that mold. And while Curtis is the Rams #3 receiver, he’ll still see more action than many #2 receivers in the NFL. Plus, while you never want to see any player get hurt, it is worth noting that if either Holt or Bruce miss any time, Kevin Curtis would likely be starting for one of the most productive passing teams around. Further consider that the Rams face one of the easiest NFL schedules for wide receivers, so if Curtis can pick up where he left off last year and improve even a little, he won’t even need an injury ahead of him to be worth a roster spot.

For those in need of immediate receiver help in Week 2, it is worth noting Curtis and the Rams face the Cardinals this week. Given that both teams have oodles of passing weapons, as well as serious questions on defense (the Rams lost to my lowly 49ers in Week 1, whereas the Cards allowed the Giants to score 28 points on regular offense and 14 more on special teams), the game could easily result in a high-scoring affair.

Shawn McDonald – STL WR: What, you thought there were only three Rams’ wide receivers worth owning? Not quite. If you missed out on Curtis – likely because you are in a very large league – McDonald is also worth a look for many of the same reasons. In fact he, like Curtis, is also in his third year. Here’s what’s different:

  • McDonald actually had a better Week 1 than Curtis, catching 7 of the 10 passes for 73 receiving yards and adding another 7 on the ground;
  • McDonald was also active in the red-zone, as he was targeted there twice;
  • McDonald returns punts, if you receive individual points in the return game;
  • He was actually targeted more times last year (69) than Curtis (55);
  • He dropped fewer pass last year (2) than Curtis (3), despite the fact that he had more passed throw to him;
  • Posted a respectable 53.6% reception ratio; and
  • Scored 3 TDs to Curtis’ 2 last year.

Cleary, to consider adding the Rams’ #4 receiver, you’ve got to be in a world of hurt at that position, have a deep bench, or be in a big league. But if you’re dredging the murky chasms of the waiver wire for some upside and McDonald is there, he’s worth a shot. Especially for those of you who’ll get points from his return work.

Patrick Crayton – DAL WR: Man, this guy hustles. Crayton caught 6 of the 7 passes thrown his was in Week 1 for 89 yards and a TD. And he returns punts. Parcels is impressed by him, too. It’s too early to rely on Crayton as a starter, but he’s got a ton of upside because he makes things happen with pretty much every opportunity he gets. If he ever gets an up-tick in opportunities that could translate into some reliable fantasy production. However, the addition of Peerless Price to Dallas’ rook of receivers means there is another mouth to feed. But if Price couldn’t even keep his job in the receiver-starved Falcons’ offense, he his work cut out for him if he expects to supplant a play-maker like Crayton in the mind of Bill Parcels. If you can afford the roster spot, Crayton is worth a long-term investment. Recall that Terry Glenn had trouble staying healthy last year and if that were to happen again Crayon’s role would likely increase dramatically. And even if Crayton maintains his current role, Week 1 is proof that he can still be productive from time to time as an injury/bye week replacement kind of player within his current role.

Daniel Wilcox – BAL TE: If you are in one of those crazy tight end-mandatory leagues that requires you to have two tight ends on your roster, it can sometimes be tough to find a second tight end worth owning. The 4 th year Wilcox came out of no where as the second most targeted tight end in Week 1. He was thrown to 10 times and caught 8 of those passes for 78 yards and a touch down. Most people focused on Todd Heap in their draft, so I doubt anyone even knew who Wilcox was. I sure didn’t. That Wilcox is currently owned in less than 1% of all Fanball leagues sort of supports that notion.

Last year Wilcox went 25 of 35 in the passing game, sporting a perky 71.43% reception ratio. Considering that Heap only caught 61.36% of the passes thrown to him, and that he has had a real tough time staying healthy, the Ravens may have a nice little weapon in Wilcox. While Week 1 is easily the high point of Wilcox’ career to date, he did end last year with a respectable 6 catch 72 yard performance versus the burly Miami defense. We’ll see if Wilcox can carry that production into 2005 with any consistency. However, if Week 1’s disaster with the Colts was any indication, Anthony Wright and the Ravens’ passing game could use some help in the short and intermediate passing game, as the Ravens’ offensive line looked discombobulated and unable to give their QB much time in the pocket.

Big picture: Wilcox has some speculative upside, but he’s a long-shot to be productive over the entirety of the season. His value will obviously sky rocket if Todd Heap gets hurt (again). But until then Wilcox is basically an investment in tight end depth that could appreciate in value as the season progresses. However, if Week 1 is any indication, his potential upside is very high. Because every time he’s been given an opportunity, he’s produced. And good coaches find ways to get those kinds of players involved.

Rian Lindell – BUF K: Lindell is one of my guys from last year. He helped sew up a Super Bowl spot in my Huddle league and I’ve been a big fan ever since. From Week 9 through Week 17 he had the 4 th most field goal kicking opportunities (18) connecting on 16 of them. He also tacked on another 16 extra points, which was good enough to make him a top 5 kicker during the second half of last season in virtually every scoring format. So how does he start off the 2005 season? He nails five field goals and an extra point to lead all kickers. You da man, Rian. While I don’t normally recommend the top player at any position, Lindell was so far off most people’s radar screen going into Week 1 that he is bound to be on waivers in most leagues.

The Bills offense is going to move the chains frequently enough to get into scoring range. A lot. But between the unproven Losman, and opposing defenses focusing on stopping McGahee in the red zone, the Bills may not become a touch down machine this year. That should translate into field goal opportunities for Lindell in 2005. And even when McGahee and Losman do find pay dirt, Lindell will still contribute extra points. If Week 1 is any indication, the Bills are content to win games with tough defense, a strong run game, and the leg of their kicker. Yeah, I know it’s hard to get excited about kickers. But Lindell looks poised for a big year and I’m proud to own him in both my leagues.

Guys I Thought About Covering In More Detail But Opted Not To

Brian Griese – TB QB: I’ve been riding shotgun on the Brian Griese bandwagon since last year. I’d say I’m not alone, as he’s owned in 58% of Fanball leagues. That may put him outside of this article’s reach for now, as he was tied for the 11 th most productive QB in Week 1. However, if you are in one of the 42% of leagues where he is available, add him. Check his 2004 stats: he was the most accurate QB last year. And since he didn’t play in every game, his year-end stats are understated. While Griese isn’t a super star, he’ll perform consistently within the Buc’s system and makes for an excellent back up and borderline starter.

Drew Bledsoe – DAL QB: Much to my surprise, Bledsoe played like a top-5 QB in Week 1. Thus, you shouldn’t need my help identifying his potential fantasy value. (That he was only one of two QBs to throw more than 2 TDs last week kinda elevated his profile a little). While I have my doubts that he’ll retain his elite fantasy status for much longer, he has nevertheless proven he is worthy of a roster spot.

Willie Parker – PIT RB: Please. The cat was out of the bag on this guy a few weeks ago. If you’re only getting around to noticing him now, chances are he’s already gone. However, if he’s on waivers by all means grab him. Then grab a mirror and stick it under you league mates’ noses to see if they’re still breathing.

Bryant Johnson – ARI WR: Johnson was targeted 11 times in Week 1, but only caught 2 passes. We’ll see which of those two numbers is the mirage next week, but anytime a receiver is seeing double digit receiving opportunities I’m going to keep an eye on him.

Robert Ferguson – GB WR: Much to the dismay of those who drafted him, Javon Walker is already lost for the 2005 season to injury. Naturally, that means someone is going to step into a starting receiver spot in Green Bay, and that someone is Ferguson. But you – and your league mates - probably already knew that.

Arnaz Battle – SF WR: Ah, my 49ers are finally showing signs of life on offense. However, the box score says it all for both Battle and Lloyd. They work well with Rattay and are going to see their fair share of opportunities in a weak division. Assuming they weren’t drafted outright, they’re not going to last long on waivers and are worth of a roster spot in medium to large leagues. However, Battle weaseled his way into the top 20 wide receivers last week in my local, so I’m not going to perform a protracted analysis on him. ‘Atta boy, Arnaz.

Greg Lewis – PHI WR: Went 5 for 9 in a bad game for the Eagles. So I’m very curious to see what Lewis’ involvement will be like in a game where the passing game is clicking. Even if triple digit yardage isn’t there for Lewis, in leagues that award points for receptions, he may have some value worth tracking.

Eric Parker – SD WR: Hmmm. Targeted 10 times, including twice in the red-zone. Only caught 5 of those passes, though, and seems to have lost some of his punt return duties to Sproles. Eh, to iffy to recommend until we see how involved he is once tight end Antonio Gates returns. But we’ll keep an eye out.

Team Defenses In General: I’m going to pass on evaluating team defenses until next week. There simply isn’t enough data to reliably recommend anyone. Though, for what its worth, I’m personally targeting Chicago or Dallas’ defense in my own leagues they looked strong in Week 1 and have fairly weak opponents in Week 2.

Well, that’s it for now. As the season progresses I’ll begin to focus more on match ups, team defenses, and trends that we can exploit mercilessly for our own private gain. This week was more about identifying a few players that might be worth an investment, just to if they develop in the near-term. Good luck in Week 2. Game on!

* Non-football note: Way Of The Gun is a deliciously violent film starring Benicio Del Toro, back when he was still cool. If solid plot development, cunning criminals, and well-scripted gun play sound like a decent way to burn an hour or two, I highly recommend this rental, which came out in 2000, and also features Juliette Lewis, Taye Diggs, Ryan Phillippe, and James Caan. Granted, the R-rating means it isn’t for the whole family. But the opening scene alone is priceless.