Few things are certain in the NFL these days. Yet every summer at this time we all convince ourselves that we have it all figured out. We pore over statistics and spend hours researching, tirelessly torturing our brains to concoct the perfect cheat sheet. Finally, we convince ourselves that we have achieved the impossible. We have correctly pegged this years draft. This confidence is fleeting though, because injuries and other circumstances turn the world we thought we knew upside down and inside out. The NFL rarely goes to form outside of Peyton Manning.
For as the season unfolds, there are always season altering injuries to top draft picks and sleepers alike. Teams are better than we thought, and some worse. The coaching staff is not using a player the way you thought they would. The running back you drafted fumbled 3 times in one game and gets benched. And so it goes. The landscape is much different by week 4 than it was during your draft. As always, there are some critical player choices that you are about to make that will determine the outcome of your season. I have identified a few situations and players that I consider to be potential power plays in your draft.
Ladell Betts - Betts came out of relative obscurity last year and put up big numbers subbing for the injured Clinton Portis. The team thought enough of his efforts to lock him up with a contract extension last December, before he could test his services on the open market.
Smart move. Portis has had a string of injuries and surgeries over the last couple of years. And his health status is still a bit of a mystery this pre-season. In any case, either in an attempt to keep Portis healthy, or especially if those attempts fail, Betts is going to get his this year. Gibbs has already stated that he is going RBBC. The fantasy community is strangely quiet on a guy that had the kind of season he had last year, playing behind a guy that seemingly can’t stay healthy.
My gut feeling is that there is at least a good chance that Portis won’t make it through the season, and even if he does, in PPR leagues Betts is undervalued. People seem to get hung up on the fact that Portis is the more talented player. But that matters little if you can’t take the field on Sunday. And I think the Redskins are going to be committed to making that happen. Betts is an absolute must handcuff if there ever was one and a big time target for theft for non-Portis owners. I may be in the minority, but I think there is a very good chance Betts will outscore Portis this season. Considering Betts is the healthier of the two, I’ll put my chips there if I am looking for the big score.
Marion Barber - Barber is being drafted quite a bit earlier than Betts, and as a matter of fact, usually before the “starting” running back, Julius Jones. Jones has shown nothing to suggest that he will ever be anything special. His YPC numbers are less than Barber. He is not as good a receiver as Barber. He is smaller than Barber. But I have seen nothing in the preseason to suggest his role will change much from last season. But until we tee it up on week one, we are all really guessing what Jones and Barber’s roles will be. But the fantasy community is anointing Barber as more valuable than Jones.
I think it is very risky to assume Barber’s numbers will be significantly better than Jones, or that Barber will take over as the starter. That being said, if either of these player has more upside than the other it has to be Barber. But temper your expectations. These guys are probably going to end up with similar numbers despite the fact that we are all ready to anoint Barber “the next big thing.” None of us can say with any certainly how the new coaching staff views the situation, and theirs is the only vote that counts.
There are two very distinct camps on the Barber / Jones situation. Each is convinced their guy is the sleeper of the year. My guess is they are both going to be wrong.
Both Betts and Barber have earned larger roles in their offense regardless the health of their counterparts, and are low risk/high upside back-ups that could play large in deciding fantasy leagues this season. The price is rising for Betts and Barber, and dropping for Jones and Portis, drawing these players closer to each other on the average cheat sheet. All bets may end up being a push in the end.
Chester Taylor - The Vikings, and fantasy players were excited with their new free agent toy last season. And aside from a late season swoon under the weight of his first full season as the primary ball carrier, and a rib injury, Taylor matched the expectations of both the Vikings and the fantasy crowd. And now comes Adrian Peterson. Poor Chester just can’t catch a break. Stuck for years behind Jamal Lewis in Baltimore, then finally a feature role, but it was short lived. Peterson is a superior athlete, and in many people’s estimation, a can’t miss prospect in the NFL. That may all be true. In preseason action he has looked pretty good, and his ADP is on the rise. Meanwhile Taylor is hanging around until the 7th round or later in some drafts. I don’t want to rain on the Peterson parade, but the fact is the Vikings are probably not going to let Taylor gather dust on the sidelines.
Peterson’s running style played well in college, but he will have the big boys gunning for him this year. You have to know his injury risk is high with the way he runs. I didn’t buy into the Chester Taylor hype last preseason, this season I am not buying into the anti-hype. The excitement over Peterson and his long touchdown run in an exhibition game has pushed Taylor off the fantasy radar just a bit much. While you are moving Peterson up your draft board, keep Taylor in mind. Rookie running backs in the NFL tend to hit the wall late in the season, and in an ironic twist, Chester Taylor could be called on to carry a bigger load down the stretch. And he will likely be fresh enough to get the job done.
The Vikings have an RB friendly schedule, and don’t figure to be able to get much done in the passing game. There may be plenty to go around for both of these backs when it is all said and done. I suspect they will put up similar numbers this season in PPR leagues, yet Taylor is available much later Peterson in most drafts. Peterson has the upside here, but Taylor is probably undervalued and a top ten running back if thrust into starters role for any time.
Cadillac Williams - When you draft a running back that was a huge flop last season, the worst kind, the first round bust, it takes pretty big stones. Especially if you got burned on him last season. But the fact is that he should take the majority of his teams carries, seems to have little risk of touchdown vulturing. And he plays on an team that has a pretty sweet looking schedule. And he is drafted 4th round and beyond in some drafts.
Cadillac is a very risky proposition. There is at least a good chance that the running back we saw tear up the league out of the gate in 2005 was an illusion. He has done much of nothing after a fast start in his first month in the league. Health. Quarterback play. Offensive line issues. Caddy supporters have plenty of ammunition.
If you draft Cadillac, you are passing on or missing out on guys like Marshawn Lynch, or Adrian Peterson, or Deuce McAllister. That is the level of risk the fantasy community has placed on Williams. Lumped with unproven rookies and an aging back with a superstar breathing down his neck for carries. All three of those guys figure to be in RBBC, Cadillac is the only one likely to get 300+ carries. The choice made between this level of running back is likely a critical one. Williams probably has the highest ceiling of the bunch if you can stomach the risk.
Patrick Crayton - This one isn’t too difficult. There has never been a season in which Owens and Glenn have both played a 16 game season. And while both are seemingly in good physical condition, they are both well into their 30s. I like Crayton’s odds of starting at least 4 games this season, and possibly more. Owens is a time bomb, and with a new coaching regime there is no telling what could happen with the Cowboys locker-room this season. With T.O., you just never know. Crayton should be among the better 3rd wide receivers in the league even should Owens remain lucid and Glenn remain healthy. He catches just about every pass thrown his way which is one thing Owens has never mastered.
Crayton is also in a contract year, so every opportunity he gets will be an audition for the big payday. None of this may be compelling enough to interest you in Crayton. But when I am looking for an upside player near the end of the draft, I feel good about drafting a guy that I am sure can get the job done if given the opportunity. I am fully confident in Mr Crayton. And even more importantly, I just have a “gut feeling” about Crayton this season, which has no basis in factual information or statistical probability. I usually listen to my gut, especially when the price is so right.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh - This is an interesting power play. I think there will be little difference between Housh and Chad Johnson’s numbers, yet CJ is an early second rounder and T.J goes as late third rounder sometimes. When you factor in Houshmandzadeh’s week to week consistency, I contend that Housh is the better draft choice. The “power play” is that you are getting similar numbers for a cheaper price. It is really just a value play, but for guys going RB/RB with the first two picks it is the opportunity to get a WR1 for a WR2 price. Be careful here though, in leagues that start 3WRs sometimes Housh goes early in the third round if the WR run starts early. You obviously can’t pass on CJ and be assured of getting Housh, so this strategy does have some teeth if you are hell bent on getting one or the other. Housh’s consistency could trump CJ’s big days.
Vernon Davis - Everybody in fantasy football over the last few years knows Antonio Gates is the king of the hill for the tight end position. Last season we saw glimpses of the next contender, Vernon Davis. He is raw. He is young. But he has the size and speed to cause serious match up problems with opposing defenses like no tight end before. Assuming he progresses this season, and his quarterback does likewise, Davis could make the immediate leap to the rarified air of Mr. Gates. The tight end position is fairly deep, but there is a serious drop off after Heap, Shockey, and Cooley. With Gonzalez likely doomed to spending most of his time blocking for Larry Johnson’s 400 carries, he suddenly doesn’t look like an exciting option any more. L.J. Smith is injured and looking like a dangerous draft pick, as is Crumpler for his own reasons. So while the tight end pool looks fairly deep, it is almost completely devoid of upside. Except for Davis. Unfortunately the fantasy community has already put all this under the microscope, and there are many drafts where Davis is the second tight end selected, about 3 rounds after Gates.
Davis could make or break lots of fantasy teams this season. If you are looking to put a big stack of chips on the tight end position, this is probably the only guy capable of challenging Gates this season or in the near future.
Vince Young - Vince Young had his offensive skill players disappear over the off-season. I guess after the Titans front office saw how Young single handedly drove the team down the stretch last year, they figured he could put on this show with any supporting cast. After a putrid first performance in his exhibition game, the fantasy community is giving Young a thumbs down in the rankings and cheat sheets. Dropping like a stone. He is being drafted around the 9th round or later in some 12 team drafts. Folks, that is just too cheap no matter how ugly his team looks.
I’m not sure how he is going to do it, considering the “skill” players he has at his disposal. But if there is one thing Vince Young has done over the last few seasons, it is to convince me to never bet against him. I can’t really qualify this pick. And I understand why people are steering clear of Young. The schedule is tougher. His team is seemingly a lot weaker. The Madden curse. Smells like disaster. That’s what logic says. I have to bet against a streak here. Either I bet against the Madden curse, or I bet against Vince Young, a guy that has won at every level. And let me remind you, nobody thought much of his supporting cast last season, but the guy willed them to success in his first season. Great players like Young can elevate the play of those around them. Don’t discount it. Until proven otherwise, I am not jumping off the bandwagon no matter how grim it looks.
Young’s downside is really limited with his running ability, and his upside is huge 10-12 QB’s into the draft. Pinning your whole season on Young is risky, but I view him as a possible top 5 quarterback in leagues where passing TD’s are 4 points. All that being said, those taking the plunge with Young would be advised to get a backup pretty quickly after drafting him. I think Young breaks the Madden curse this season………..but I definitely want an escape hatch just in case!