Thursday, August 28, 2014

National Friday League: the QBs we'll see

The Quarterbacks We'll Face
This is a very simple way to make a prediction about how the season will go for a team: look at the schedule and make a list of the probably QBs you'll be seeing. Obviously there is much more to a team than a quarterback, but if you're going into a season with a huge disadvantage at quarterback in the majority of the games, then you'd better have a good defense. And you can't know for sure what QB you'll face, but you can guess that if it's not the guy listed here, it's somebody worse. Looking at probably opposing QBs is the reason I was slightly optimistic going into 2012 and completely, unrelentingly pessimistic going into 2013. So let's look at the 2014 schedule.

1: Shaun Hill (away)
2: Tom Brady (home)
3. Drew Brees (away)
4. Matt Ryan (home)
5. Aaron Rodgers (away)
6. Matthew Stafford (home)
7. EJ Manuel (away)
8. Josh McCown (Mike Glennon?) (away)
9. Robert Griffin III (home)
10. Jay Cutler (away)
11. Aaron Rodgers (home)
12. Cam Newton (home)
13. Geno Smith (Michael Vick?) (home)
14. Matthew Stafford (away)
15. Ryan Tannehill (away)
16. Jay Cutler (home)

Partly because we've got a tough division for passers, the schedule looks a little rough (though I don't fear Jay Cutler at home or Matthew Stafford anywhere). I count only five potentially bad to below average QBs (Hill, Manuel, McCown, Smith, and Tannehill). But the defensive approach is going to be different this year, so while you could usually count on QBs like Brady or Rodgers just dicing the open spaces in the Tampa 2, I don't know precisely how the Vikes will defend against these QBs.

Looking at this list, let's just say I'm cautiously pessimistic about the season.

Cordarrelle Patterson
I've been repeatedly pessimistic about Patterson throughout the off-season because 1) his success last season was based on very few very big plays (several of them as a runner or returner) and 2) he did not show the ability last season to actually play wide receiver, running routes and getting downfield. To the extent that preseason means anything, Patterson is a player I've really been impressed with. In the preseason he's run a variety of pass routes, and he's caught balls in the mid-range area and downfield. In order to be a good player in 2014, he needed to improve on his receiver skills, and it appears he's done that.

Percy Harvin is a similar player: a unique player with the ball in his hands, dominant on kick returns, rushing attempts, and short passes and screens where he could get the ball and make plays. But Harvin has never really developed into an actual wide receiver either: I've always called him a glorified third down back (he's Darren Sproles with a different position title). Maybe that's the fault of the quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, and overall weak offenses he's had. But Patterson should have better quarterbacks than Harvin had post-Favre, and he already has an offensive coordinator that will require him to run downfield routes, and the offense may not require using their best pass-catching talent in the way Harvin was used.

Matt Cassel
Starting Matt Cassel for week one is the safe, low-risk move. If the opening slate of tough competitors beat the hell out of Matt Cassel, that doesn't mean the same as if they beat the hell out of Teddy Bridgewater. If Cassel starts and sucks, they can go to Bridgewater at any point this season; if Bridgewater starts and sucks, there's really nowhere to go. If it doesn't help Bridgewater's long-term prospects, it will do nothing to jeopardize those prospects: plenty of great QBs start out in that backup spot.

If Matt Cassel starts the year and stinks, it does not matter at all. It will not affect anybody. There are few expectations for the Vikes to compete this season. Mike Zimmer's job isn't in trouble if Cassel stinks: starting Cassel practically announces you're prepping for the future and using a stopgap/bridge until that time comes. And if Cassel plays well, the Vikes win some games, and they have the look of a successful season, then they ride it as far as it goes and Bridgewater starts in 2015.

Anthony Barr
Watching the preseason, it's clear that Anthony Barr is slotted to be a full-time starter who will be used in multiple ways. In the last game I tried to key in on #55, and when the first-team defense was out there, he was out there practically the whole time. Sometimes he rushed the passer from the edge. Sometimes he dropped into coverage. Sometimes he showed blitz. He didn't excel in a notable way, but he also didn't look lost, and it looks like the coaching staff is preparing him for a big role this year.

Sharrif Floyd
August is always a time for players to explain why they'll be better this year than they were last year. For Sharrif Floyd, that explanation is that he's lost 30 pounds and feels healthier for it. That could help increase his playing time: he does say "I feel like I can last a lot longer in the games." That could put him on the field for a higher percentage of snaps (he'll need to) and could improve productivity late in games. And Floyd doesn't seem like Pat Williams, who combined incredible athleticism, quickness, and strength with a simply enormous body: Floyd probably will be better playing smaller.

Floyd was something of a disappointment in 2013. Looking at the Snap Counts at Football Outsiders, the snap percentage leaders in 2013 for DTs was Kevin Williams (61.5%), Floyd (39.3%), Letroy Guion (33.2%), and Fred Evans (30.0%). I'm surprised to see he played that much (in my subjective memory it certainly seemed like Guion made more plays, but the stats say Guion wasn't much different than Floyd--so much for subjective memory). But it seems clear he was drafted to be Kevin Williams' successor in 2014, so now it's time to find out if he can be a disruptive force from the inside.

Also, that Football Outsiders Snap Count feature is amazing. Filtering by team and defensive unit is particularly illuminating (did you know Chad Greenway played 98.7% of defensive snaps last year, and for the hell of it got 19.7% of special teams snaps?).

Defense!
I'm really excited to see what the defense is like this year. I've become almost as bored as I am frustrated by that Tampa 2. More aggressiveness at defending passes over the short middle, and more flexibility with the pass rush from the front seven, would be a welcome change.

Fantasy Box: You are trying to win your league, not the draft
As some of you prepare for your fantasy drafts, this is the most important reminder I can give you: you are trying to win your league, not the draft. Don't worry overmuch about ADP or rankings or even getting laughed at. Draft the players you think will be good when you think you can get them.

For a snake draft, one of my fundamental principles is that there is no such thing as a reach. If you really like a player more than anybody else available, and you don't think that player will be available by the time you pick again, then you should take that player. This is especially true if you pick at or near the beginning or end of a round, and there is a long wait. You take the players you think will be good when you have the chance to take them.

For an auction, many experts will tell you to be flexible and find deals and "value" and let the draft come to you. Bugger that. Experts often talk as if all the players in a positional tier are the same player and will produce the same numbers. This is not true. You have to use your judgment and analysis of the player and situation to determine which players in the tier will perform great and which players in the tier will disappoint.If you have to "overpay" (there's no such thing,* but whatever) for a player you really think will be good, that is better than getting a bargain on a player that you don't think will be as good. As a wise man once said,
I target players, not bargains. If I'm wrong about players, the season won't go well, but I'd rather go into the season with the players I really expect to be good, not the players I happened to be able to get because the auction price was good. I don't mean you should set your heart on one player and pay whatever price he goes for, but you should set your heart on a handful of players, try to get the ones you can get at the best prices, but be willing to pay what the auction market requires to get a few of them.

*If you increase the bid by more than one increment, you could overpay. If you misplay the bidding in a one-on-one bidding war--if your opponent has $20 left and you make the next bid $19 instead of $20, you pay $21 instead of $20--you can overpay. But basically in order to get a player you have to be willing to pay more for him than anybody else in your draft is willing to pay, and if somebody else in the draft is bidding, then to get him you're not overpaying.

Targeting a Quarterback

Running QBs
The first thing to do when deciding on your QB is to look at your league's rules and scoring. You can identify advantages if you see areas in lineups and scoring where certain positions or types of players become advantageous. In my auction league, the scoring heavily favors QBs capable of rushing: 1 point per 40 pass yards and 3 points per pass TD, but 1 point per 10 rush yards and 6 points per rush TD. This gives rushing QBs a huge advantage in scoring. Even on their bad games, if they add 30-40 rush yards to their total, they end up with a reasonable fantasy week, and in their monster games they can crush a traditional dropback passer.

When considering the value of a rushing QB, I try to translate their rushing yards and rushing TDs into passing yards and passing TDs, via fantasy points. Consider a league that awards (a Yahoo! standard) 1 point per 25 pass yards and 4 points per pass TD, and the standard 1 point per 10 rush yards and 6 points per rush TD. If you translate the QB's rushing numbers into passing numbers and add them to that QB's passing numbers, you end up with something like this:

Cam Newton: 5,719 yards, 33 TDs
Russell Wilson: 5,513 yards, 27.5 TDs
Colin Kaepernick: 5,293 yards, 27

I have a feeling if these QBs actually threw for over 5,000 yards and in the neighborhood of 30 TDs, they'd be ranked much higher by a lot of people. They're outperforming QBs like Matt RyanMatthew Stafford or Tony Romo, but with much higher upside (since you can easily envision passing numbers and/or rushing TDs going up for some of these guys). I'm not saying you should target every running QB, but QBs who put up solid passing numbers and great rushing numbers are remarkable fantasy assets.

Low Pass Attempts
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is worth targeting QBs who were successful fantasy scorers despite their team throwing the ball very little.

The basic logic of Regression Toward the Mean is simple: when something one season is to the far extreme, it is likely to move away from that far extreme the following season (either closer to average, or sometimes in the opposite direction). I remember Chase Stuart at Football Perspective warning about high-scoring fantasy QBs whose success was partly based on high attempts, and to look for guys who were good despite low attempts. So it is worth looking at QBs who were successful, efficient passers--and solid fantasy scorers--despite very few pass attempts. It is not hard to imagine a small change in circumstance--the defense becoming slightly weaker, the running game becoming slightly less effective--leading to a jump in pass attempts the next year.

In 2013, the teams with the lowest number of pass attempts featured our three QBs featured above: San Francisco (417), Seattle (420), and Carolina (473) (it's definitely worth noting that these QBs' abilities to run the ball means some of the teams' passing attempts turned into rushing attempts, of course). I expect those teams to have more pass attempts this year. So who to target?

I expect Cam Newton to stay about the same as a fantasy producer. I'm not worried about his WRs because his WRs weren't that good the last two years and he was still a high fantasy scorer. But he's also not really developed at all as a passer (Bill Barnwell shows this clearly). His rushing numbers should keep him productive, but I don't see any reason to expect a big jump in passing numbers.

Russell Wilson has been the most efficient passer of this trio (63.6 completion percentage, 8.1 yards per attempt, 100.6 rating), so he seems to be the player who would most benefit from a climb in pass attempts. Again, I can envision a combination of a declining running game and good but slightly less dominant defense--and the team trusting him more to open things up in his third year--leading to a great increase in his fantasy scoring. Plus he only had one rushing TD with 539--if he rushes for 500 yards again, he will score more TDs. I'd happily target him.

But Colin Kaepernick has amazed me every time I've watched him play. His combination of skills may be unmatched in the NFL right now. And of these three QBs, he has by far the best supporting cast of pass catchers: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, and Vernon Davis are a pretty amazing, diverse supporting cast. If the 49er defense takes a step back, Kaepernick stays healthy, and the 49ers trust him more with the offense in his fourth season, he could be the top fantasy scoring QB this season.

I'm in three very different fantasy football leagues, and in each one I drafted Colin Kaepernick to be my starting QB. One was a 12 team auction league that heavily favors running QBs (I also got Russell Wilson because I view them pretty equally and Wilson's late draft price was right), one was a PPR Dynasty draft where I wanted a young QB, and the other was a standard snake draft where I really played the "Wait on QB" strategy, not taking one until other people had started taking their backups. If I'm wrong about Kaepernick, my wrongness has a fair chance to torpedo my entire fantasy year (although not really: in one league I'd just plug in Wilson, in the dynasty league I seem slated to suck anyway and I'm playing for 2015, and in the other league, there are always free agent QBs to plug in).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2013 Minnesota Vikings reserves to watch out for in 2014: Jarius Wright

Note: This is the third post in a short series looking at Vikings reserves who potentially could play a bigger role with the team in 2014. The first two posts looked at safety Robert Blanton and cornerback Marcus Sherels.This post concentrates on the offense, and wide receiver Jarius Wright.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall I've expected bigger things from Wright before. In March of 2013, I wrote that Wright was a prime candidate to step up his game during the 2013 season.

It was not a prophetic post. Despite appearing in all 16 games for the Vikings (in his rookie 2012 season he dressed for only seven), Wright caught only four more passes (26 compared to 22) than he did in 2012.

Why didn't Wright have the breakout season I envisioned? The Vikings quarterback situation may have had something to do with it.As bad as he was many times in 2012, Christian Ponder was the only QB Wright played with until the Joe Webb playoff game against the Packers. Ponder established a bit of a connection with Wright. In 2013, the Vikings QB merry-go-round - starting with Ponder, then replacing him with Matt Cassel, then replacing Cassel with Josh Freeman, then going back to Ponder, then going back to Cassel again - made it tough for any wide receiver to establish a rapport with a QB. That could have stunted Wright's growth and production because he was a reserve who didn't get a lot of snaps and was playing with a different QB every other week.

The other factor in Wright's failing to break out is that the competition for playing time at wide receiver with the Vikings was a lot stiffer than it had been in 2012. Remember, Wright was inactive for the first nine games of that season. He only started suiting up when Percy Harvin got injured and stopped playing. With Harvin out, Wright was fighting for snaps with Michael Jenkins, a less-than-100-per cent Jerome Simpson and Stephen Burton. In 2013, with Harvin traded to Seattle, Wright was fighting for snaps with Greg Jennings, a healthy Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson.

I'm doubting myself more than usual as I write this post. Is Wright really going to be a more important player for this team this season? He hasn't really shown any signs this preseason that he will be. He hasn't caught a lot of passes, and he hasn't played a lot, either. And when he has, it's been with the backups. It's fair to say Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith have flashed more than Wright has. This makes a guy think that maybe Wright isn't Norv Turner's kind of receiver for whatever reason. I've also heard Turner doesn't run a lot of four WR sets, and because Wright is stuck behind Jennings and Patterson on the depth, and seems to be stuck behind Simpson on the depth chart, well ...

After the Chiefs game, head coach Mike Zimmer was asked why Wright wasn't playing that much. Here is what he said:

"Jarius will get a lot of time this week. We've got a good idea what he can do from practice. With us trying to get the offense installed and get guys in the right place, unfortunately we haven't had enough reps in some of the personnel groups he's been in." 

Hmm.

Anyway, here's why I think Wright will play a bigger role with the Vikings than he did his first two seasons - he's shown an ability to eat up big chunks of yardage when he catches the ball. His 16.7 yards-per-catch average last season was tops on the team. Ten of his 26 catches were for 20 yards or more and 33 of his 48 career catches have resulted in first downs. Meanwhile, he's got an offensive coordinator in Turner who likes to push the ball down the field. Wright's skill set seems to match up with what Turner likes to do even if Wright's size (listed at 5'10 and 180 pounds - although I think he's shorter than that) isn't ideal.

I think the Vikings offense is going to be much better this year than it was in Wright's first two seasons with the club. I think they are going to throw the ball more than they did and they will be more successful doing so. That should mean more opportunities for all the Vikes WRs. There's also the matter of Simpson possibly being suspended for the first three games of this season. If that happens, Wright should take his place as the Vikes #3 WR and he'll play more than he ever has. Given that opportunity, I think he'll play well enough that the Vikes will let him stay in that role, and that could mean he'll put up numbers similar to what Simpson did in 2013 (approximately 50 catches and 700 yards or so, but he'll catch more TD passes than Simpson.) That would represent a career-best season for Wright.

The Vikings will take that. So will Jarius Wright.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Vikings cut some guys, and Matt Cassel is our starter (for now)

The Vikings got to the unpleasant business of cutting players on Monday, letting 13 guys go.

The Vikes still have to cut one more player before the Tuesday deadline, but the only surprise here is Derek Cox, who was a starter in Jacksonville and San Diego and who has a pro pedigree these other guys do not have. Cox also played 29 snaps Saturday night against the Chiefs while the other guys who were cut played very little or not at all. I figured Cox would stick around for at least one more week. Mike Zimmer thought otherwise, and so far has elected to keep corners Kendall James and Julian Posey (neither guy played against the Chiefs) instead.

One final thought about safety Mistral Raymond, a nice fellow who never seemed to be able to stay healthy and didn't do much when he was. He is now the seventh player from Minnesota's 10-man 2011 draft class who is no longer on the team. The three that are still around are tight end Kyle Rudolph, offensive guard Brandon Fusco and quarterback Christian Ponder. Of those three, Rudolph just signed a big contract extension and should be a Viking for a while, Fusco is looking for a big contract extension and will probably get it, and Ponder will be joining Raymond as a member of the ex-Viking alumni the moment the 2014 season ends - if not sooner.

Matt Cassel - do you believe?

I do not believe, but what I believe doesn't matter. Mike Zimmer has named Matt Cassel as the Vikings starting QB.

I won't deny Cassel has looked fine during the preseason. But he's still a placeholder QB. What I'm wondering is how badly Cassel will have to play for Ted Bridgewater gets thrown in there this season, and if Cassel gets hurt, do the Vikes put Bridgewater in then? There has been a theory put out by ESPN's Ben Goessling that the Vikings might turn to Ponder if Cassel were to get hurt or implode if they don't think Bridgewater is ready to play.

Thursday's final preseason game might provide some clues into what the Vikings are thinking regarding this issue. If Bridgewater only plays, say, a quarter and Ponder plays three, that could be a sign they don't want to risk getting Bridgewater injured and that they are confident he can handle the job if Cassel gets hurt or sucks so hard he has to be replaced.

But that's just my theory.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trailing clouds of preseason: Vikings-Chiefs

Vikings 30 Chiefs 12

Does winning matter at all in the preseason?

Most NFL coaches and players will say that it doesn't. Second, third and fourth stringers are playing a lot, and teams don't show opponents their full offensive and defensive game plans. Results aren't supposed to be top of mind.

But what if you're playing really badly? Take Kansas City, for example. A week ago the Chiefs lost to Carolina 28-16. They followed that up by getting smoked by the Vikings. I watched Saturday's game online and so I got the Kansas City feed with the Chiefs commentators calling the game. Late in the fourth quarter the Chiefs sideline guy interviewed Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali and asked him about the team's performance in the game. Hali uttered some cliches and talked about how the Chiefs defense was still "working on things", but the pained look on Hali's face, his body language and his tone of voice revealed something else to me - he thinks the Chiefs are in trouble.

For a team with a rookie head coach and a new offensive and defensive system, and a team coming off a 5-10-1 season, I think winning does matter in the preseason. It sounds like the Viking players have been buying what Mike Zimmer has been selling from day one. But it can't hurt his credibility to be 3-0 in the preseason. And it can't hurt the confidence of almost every member of the Vikings roster to see the team have a little success even during exhibition games. I'm sure they believe in themselves just a little bit more than they did four weeks ago.

In 1992 during Dennis Green's rookie year as an NFL head coach, the Vikings went 4-0 in the preseason, and Green's Vikings then jumped out to a 5-1 start and won the division with a record of 11-5. I'm not saying Zimmer's 2014 Vikings are going to do the same thing. But I do think a strong preseason could help the Vikings overachieve, particularly early in the season when the schedule is very tough.

Should we be concerned about Matt Cassel's play against the Chiefs?

Yes and no. This is the worst Cassel has looked (9-for-17, 152 yards 1 TD and 1 INT). The long TD pass to Cordarrelle Patterson was sublime. The interception he forced to a covered Jerome Simpson was not. The Vikings receivers and O-line didn't help him much, but if the Vikings are going to roll with Cassel as the starting QB (and they are) then we have to accept Cassel for what he is - an average QB who is capable of having some very good games and just as capable of having several stinkers. Performances like Saturday against Kansas City shouldn't surprise us. And there will be more of them.

Is the Vikings defensive line as good as it looked against the Chiefs?

Pacifist Viking once wrote that Vikes fans should focus on the line of scrimmage when they watch their favourite team play because they'd learn a lot about how their interior lines are doing in games.

I still haven't trained myself to watch games that way, but if I did I suspect I'd be pleasantly surprised by the play of defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen so far. I just seem to be noticing them a lot - for good reasons - this preseason. Sharrif Floyd looks like an improved player, as Darren Page points out in this recent post at Vikings Territory. Everson Griffen was a terror Saturday night against Kansas City and Brian Robison wasn't too shabby either. Fred Evans also had a big game getting into the Kansas City backfield early and often. Evans can do this sort of damage, he just never does it consistently. Still, he's great depth to have inside. Third round draft pick Scott Crichton hasn't shown much at defensive end so far, but you can't win them all, and the Vikes do have Corey Wootton to spell Griffen and Robison. I'm pretty pumped about this unit.

Should we be concerned about Matt Kalil?

Yes. Pro Football Focus went over this in the following post. What bothered me in the Chiefs game is that Kalil is an offensive tackle who is supposed to win with his quickness and athletic ability rather than his brute strength. Yet he was beaten by Hali with quickness throughout the game. If Kalil can't get his act together as a pass blocker this season, the Vikes offense won't be as good as it could be. I might as well admit it, I'm officially worried about Matt Kalil.

Friday, August 22, 2014

2013 Minnesota Vikings reserves to watch out for in 2014: Marcus Sherels

Note: This will be the second post in a short series looking at Vikings reserves who potentially could play a bigger role with the team in 2014. The first post looked at Robert Blanton. Next up is cornerback Marcus Sherels.

Remember in the 2012 regular season season finale against the Packers when Antoine Winfield left the game late in the first half with a broken hand and the Vikings were forced to play Sherels in the nickel role? Remember how Green Bay repeatedly picked on Sherels, throwing wide receiver screen after wide receiver screen, realizing Sherels couldn't fight off the blocks at the line of scrimmage and prevent long gains? If you watched Sherels that day there is no way you could have imagined he'd develop into useful NFL cornerback.

However, as Sherels enters his fifth season with the Vikings, I suspect that is what he's becoming. We got glimpses of it last year when he was pressed into service because of injuries, off-the-field issues and ineffectiveness in the Vikings secondary. To my untrained eyes, Sherels played reasonably well when called upon. He recorded six passes defensed in 2013 (he had four combined his first three seasons) and even intercepted a pass - something last year's starting corners, Josh Robinson and Chris Cook, did not do.

I'm no football scout (but you knew that already), but Sherels looked like a more confident guy on the field in 2013, and his play, in my opinion, reflected that confidence. He was no longer a liability when the Vikings played him in the secondary. He actually looked like an asset.

While keeping up with training camp comings and goings, it seems like Sherels is building on what he did last season. His name has been mentioned several times in training camp writeups - intercepting passes, tipping them ,etc., etc.

Will that carry over into games? I don't know, but I did notice last Saturday that Sherels got a fair number of snaps with the Vikes first-team defense against the Arizona Cardinals. Sherels didn't do anything noteworthy with those snaps, but the fact head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards played Sherels that much with the first-team defense suggests they are considering giving Sherels a larger role with the defense than he had in previous seasons.

And let's face it, the Vikings aren't oozing with talent at the cornerback position. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are going to play a lot. After that? Who knows? Sherels is duking it out for playing time with Josh Robinson, Derek Cox and Jabari Price. Of those three players, Robinson was horrible last year and he's currently on Zimmer's shit list, Cox is coming off just as bad a year as Robinson in San Diego. Price is a 7th round draft pick.

So it's possible Sherels wins the Vikings 3rd or 4th cornerback job by default. Or, maybe Sherels wins it on merit - because he's improved so much in two seasons that the Vikes need him.

Either way, I think we'll be seeing Sherels on the field more for defensive purposes than we did in 2013.        

Thursday, August 21, 2014

National Friday League

Alright, no more flakiness! No more missed weeks! No more fantasy-exclusive posts! I've lost some of the patience for the offseason nonsense, which is one reason I go into a two month fantasy-exclusive mode from mid-June to mid-August. But I started listening to the Grantland NFL Podcast where people discussed things like how good or bad teams will be and how many games they'll win, and I thought, "How refreshing!" I'm ready to spend the next 20+ weeks writing massive Viking/Football posts.

Haaaaave you met Ted?
Of course: it's Ted. Ted! It was always going to be Ted who would lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl win. Ted is our destiny. Now that I realize that, I'm surprised I ever worried and I will have no anxiety during any Viking game going forward.

Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater
If you want to argue that Matt Cassel should start the season for the Vikings, I think you've got a fair case. I've heard good, convincing arguments. But no cherry picked examples, please. If you want to argue that Teddy Bridgewater himself, and his development into a star NFL quarterback, is better served by spending his rookie season as a backup, pleeeeease do not cite Aaron Rodgers starting his career as a backup, unless you're ready to hear me cite Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and any number of star NFL quarterbacks who started out as rookies and had rocket-fast developments into winning, successful quarterback.

It depends on the player and the situation. We don't have a counter-history where Aaron Rodgers started from day one (if we find a wormhole to a parallel universe, this won't be the first thing I check for). We also don't have a counter-history where Russell Wilson started for a terrible team with a terrible offensive line, running game, and defense, and was mauled into being a terrible player, ruining his career. We don't know. Different players and different situations call for different approaches.

Now if you believe (as I do not) that the Vikings have a championship window that extends through Adrian Peterson's prime, then you should probably want the Vikes to get Bridgewater playing as soon as possible, because I don't think Matt Cassel is taking us to that promised land in the next 2-3 years. But if you believe (as I do) that if Bridgewater is good, the championship window is something like 15 years long and that running back isn't that important, then Bridgewater's development may or may not be best served by starting week one as a rookie.

Personally, Matt Cassel looks ready to run this offense. I feel comfortable with him. Please don't call him reliable or dependable or anything like that: he'll be maddeningly inconsistent, as he has been throughout his career. So if you're arguing a rookie QB will be too up-and-down, Matt Cassel is not your answer. But he looks solid, and I think it's fair for him to start the season.

But Teddy Bridgewater looks magical. His passes have a zip to them that Cassel's just do not (even on short passes, Cassel lofts the ball a bit, while Bridgewater can keep it tighter). He's shown mobility, a quick release, poise, and sharp, darting passes that make me believe we've found our special quarterback. Matt Cassel is fine, but I'm excited to see Bridgewater play sooner rather than later.

Anthony Barr: hero?
Has Anthony Barr found the perfect place to play? An incredibly gifted athlete and successful pass rusher who lacks long-time experience playing defense, he's playing for Mike Zimmer, whose system hasn't typically relied on one or two dominant pass rushers, but rather moves players around and finds pass rushers all over the front seven. Zimmer will find ways to use Barr in ways that Barr can handle.

The greatest basketball center I ever saw play was Hakeem Olajuwon, who grew up playing soccer and never tried basketball until he was fairly old. He developed the greatest ball skills I've ever seen from a center. And Luke Skywalker is one of the greatest Jedi ever, and he didn't start his training until he was a man grown, while most Jedi trained since they were younglings. If a player has talent and is willing to work, and he has good teachers (Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda), that player should become a star.

This is the Vikings' best group of skill position players since 2009. Are they better?
No. I only asked because I wanted to look. In 2009 the Vikings had Adrian Peterson (1,819 yards from scrimmage) and Chester Taylor (727) at RB, Sidney Rice (1,312), Percy Harvin (925), and Bernard Berrian (618) at WR, and Visanthe Shiancoe (566) at TE.

I think Adrian Peterson is a better RB now, but there's no #2 RB that's in Chester Taylor's league right now (still, Free Jerick McKinnon!). Greg Jennings is more polished than any WR the Vikes had in '09, but this was Rice's wonder year (he was more spectacular than even his numbers show, making incredible downfield plays). Cordarrelle Patterson's talent is probably a match for Percy Harvin's talent, but who is playing #3 WR? I think Kyle Rudolph will be better than Visanthe Shiancoe this year: he looks incredible in the preseason thus far.

The key difference is Norv Turner, whose downfield approach and track record of success (as offensive coordinator) with RBs, TEs, and WRs shows somebody who knows how to get the most from the talent he's got. I'll keep checking in to see how this group of skill position players is performing as a group throughout the year.

Jerry Rice v. Randy Moss
Randy Moss could do things no other receiver can do. He is one of the unique athletes of my lifetime, who did things I've never seen anybody else do and don't expect to see again. He made the most amazing catches I've ever seen.

But Jerry Rice did things that Randy Moss did not do. Jerry Rice may be the best football player of all-time. By virtually any measure, Rice was better than Moss. In career output, in number of great seasons, in peak seasons, in playoffs, Rice was simply a more productive player.

League Leader, Receptions
Rice 2, Moss 0

League Leader, Receiving Yards
Rice 6, Moss 0

League Leader, Receiving Touchdowns
Rice 6, Moss 5

1,000 yard seasons
Rice 14, Moss 10

1,200 yard seasons
Rice 11, Moss 8

1,400 yard seasons
Rice 6, Moss 4

80 reception seasons
Rice 12, Moss 5

100 reception season
Rice 4, Moss 2

10 receiving TD seasons
Rice 9, Moss 9

Career High: Receptions
Rice 122, Moss 111

Career High: Receiving Yards
Rice 1,848, Moss 1,632

Career High: Receiving TDs
Rice 22, Moss 23

Postseason
Rice: 29 games, 151 receptions, 2,245 yards, 22 TDs
Moss: 15 games, 54, receptions, 977 yards, 10 TDs

Career Receptions
Rice 1,549, Moss 982

Career Receiving Yards
Rice 22,895, Moss 15,292

Career Receiving TDs
Rice 197, Moss 156

It's a shame wide receivers are unofficially ineligible for NFL MVP: Rice did help three different quarterbacks win 5 MVP awards (Joe Montana '89 and '90, Steve Young '92 and '94, Rich Gannon [!] '02).

Fantasy Box: My RB System
My approach to a standard league auction (as opposed to the dynasty ppr draft I mucked up from begin to end this week--I'm playing for 2015!) is simple: identify and pay for two elite RBs, try to get a moderately priced running QB, and make due with the WRs that the market brings at a low cost, trusting that I can find and improve WRs throughout the year if it's a problem.

The key to this approach is to identify the correct elite RBs. Spending a ton of money on two RBs is not a guarantee of success: if you pick the wrong two RBs, your season is shot almost immediately. And so I've finally articulated my general approach to RBs into a system. And of course, as a fantasy enthusiast I'm influenced by all sorts of analysis, theories, and expert opinion that I encounter, via podcasts, websites, and magazines. This system doesn't develop in a vacuum, but is influenced by all sorts of other thinkers, including those I disagree with.

The system is essentially a filter: it takes a bunch of contenders for elite RB status and eliminates most from the field. I basically look at indicators of past elite RBs, but as importantly, I look at indicators past RBs considered elite who did not achieve elite production.  Those players who make it through the filter are the pool of potential elites that I will target and draft.

Yellow Flags: These are things about a player that other people may pay attention to, but that I do not. I mean, I'll pay attention to these things, but I'll generally try to just be aware of these things and try not to let them influence me.

Touchdowns: TDs fluctuate wildly from season to season, even for great players. Low or high TD totals from the previous season greatly impact a player's price. I try to ignore TDs, and hope for the best. But note: we're looking for past indicators to predict future success. If you see that Adrian Peterson has played seven seasons without ever scoring fewer than 10 TDs, that's a pretty good indicator that he's a player who will score 10+ TDs!

Injury History: I've occasionally been burned by this, but past injuries often scare fantasy drafters. This is a way to get elite performers at lower prices: I'm not certain that all past injuries are predictive of future injuries, and so I tend to analyze what the player can do. If his injury history is connected to other issues (see below), that matters. But a guy who has only played a few years and has been hurt doesn't worry me.

Expert Consensus: I learned this lesson with C.J. Spiller in 2013. Before I looked at any magazines, listened to any podcasts, or read any websites, I wouldn't have imagined Spiller's 2012 season pushed him into elite status. Nearly every expert disagreed, and I thought, well, what do I know? The consensus was wrong (you'll see why in a moment).

Red Flags: Guess what? By red flag, I mean negative indicators. Players with Red Flags do not make it through the filter.

Overuse: This is a big one, and there are a number of things to look at. I don't have a specific number, but you can see overuse pretty easily. Football Outsiders has the Curse of 370, looking at high usage in the previous single year: I'm wary when a player is coming off a season of 340+ carries. Matthew Berry has been talking about players with 250+ carries in each of the previous three seasons: it's worth looking beyond only one season. I also look at playoff games, something too many fantasy enthusiasts overlook. For example, in the past three seasons Frank Gore has played in eight playoff games: that's an extra half a season of often very hard carries mixed into the past three. Marshawn Lynch added an extra 101 playoff carries over the past two seasons. And how rare is it for a good fantasy RB to play in the Super Bowl and follow up with a good fantasy season the next year? I don't want either of those guys (and I want their backups). Could Ray Rice's (on the field) implosion in 2013 been predicted, considering he had played in two extra games for several seasons, then played four extra games in 2012?

One Good Season: For the expensive players, I'm looking for players who have proven to be productive over multiple seasons. I'm wary of one-year wonders.  Which leads to...

Sophomores: This is my most controversial red flag, to the extent that any of this is controversial. I know that I'm going to miss out on some good players by avoiding second year RBs. But this is about targeting the RBs most likely to be elite, and sophomore RBs are not the most likely to be elite. A lot of RBs who have monster rookie seasons have very disappointing sophomore years (I believe this was first brought to my attention on the ESPN Fantasy Underground podcast, though it may have been the ESPN Fantasy Focus podcast. I still associate this insight with the neighborhood I was running through when I heard it, and I listened to Fantasy Underground that day, but it was a long run and I may have listened to Fantasy Focus too. I'll just give credit to both podcasts for their overall influences, along with the CBSSports.com Fantasy Football podcast and the Footballguys.com podcast). I haven't seen enough of the players to know who is really good and who isn't, so I stay away.

High Yards Per Attempt: This is specific: if a RB has a yards per attempt number that is far above his previous career average or high, or that is a very high, unsustainable number, I'm wary. This is why C.J. Spiller's 2012 season should have been more worrisome: he averaged 6.0 yards per rush and 10.7 yards per reception to get to his 1,703 yards from scrimmage and 8 total TDs. That wasn't an indication of what he'd do with more carries: that was an unrepeatable outlier of a season. Jamaal Charles, on the other hand, has never averaged fewer than 5.0 yards per rush in a season. He's just that good.

Green Flags: After most contenders have been filtered out through the red flags, here are the features I'm actively seeking from the elite RBs I target.

High Reception Totals: I want RBs that can catch the ball, for several reasons. RBs that add receiving yardage and TDs are more likely to have monster seasons (1,900+ scrimmage yards) and monster games (150+ scrimmage yards). RBs that both run and catch are generally pretty consistent scorers. RBs that catch passes are less likely to be taken out of a game if they get down: they're still on the field for all the pass attempts. This is the #1 thing I look for when I'm seeking a RB.

Multiple Productive Seasons: A lot of guys have had one good season: show me two, and I'll believe I'll see a third.

Age: I'm usually looking for RBs in their mid-20s or younger.

This system works for a snake draft as well. While I cannot usually get two elite RBs in a snake (though sometimes my system will tell me a second-rounder is elite), I'm true to this system in the first round of a snake. I'll only draft the RBs that make it through my filter: if the only RBs available are guys with Red Flags, I will probably draft Jimmy Graham or a WR in the first round and try find RBs later.

So here's what you may want to know: what players have Green Flags going into 2014?

LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, and DeMarco Murray. These are the four players that catch passes, have proven their talent over more than one season, and who have a good age. Adrian Peterson didn't make it because he hasn't historically been a reliable pass catcher, but I'd have no problem targeting him because he's so good. I don't really like Forte that much as an elite player, and while Jamaal Charles is the most talented of these players (in my opinion), his 19 TDs last season have inflated his price and I expect him to score around half as many TDs this year. So in my auction I targeted and drafted Murray (every time I've watched him play I've thought "This guy's a stud," and I'm not convinced his injury history means an injury-prone future) and McCoy (elite talent in an elite offensive system, I just see no limits for him).

Next week: why Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are QBs to target.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jerome Simpson and the domino effect

Jerome Simpson was in New York City on Monday appealing a potential three-game suspension the NFL is looking to give him.

That's not good for Simpson. He's playing on another cheap, one-year deal with the Vikings and needs to rack up serious numbers this season to earn a longer (and more lucrative) contract. Given Roger Goodell's "show no mercy" track record with suspensions related to substance abuse issues, there is a pretty good chance Simpson is not going to be successful in appealing the suspension.

Losing Simpson for three games is also not good for the Vikings. Say what you will about Simpson - he caught 48 passes for 726 yards (a career high) last season and was Minnesota's most consistent deep threat. Could the Vikes get by with Jarius Wright as the #3 receiver for three games if Simpson gets suspended? I think they could. But if Wright, Greg Jennings or Cordarrelle Patterson gets dinged up and misses time while Simpson is out, the Vikings will be depending on whomever has made the squad as the #5 WR (currently that's a race between Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith) to play a significant role in a passing game that fans are expecting to be souped up in 2014 now that Norv Turner is calling the plays and Christian Ponder won't get anywhere near the field. Thielen and Smith have yet to catch a regular season pass, so that doesn't sound like a great plan.

I think it's a given Simpson gets suspended for three games, so what should the Vikings do?

One option has to be seeing what WRs get cut after the last preseason game. Is there a team with a veteran WR out there who can come in and do some specific things for the Vikings and help the team even though he'll have a very poor grasp of Turner's offensive system? It might be time for Vikings fans to pay attention to how some non-superstar veteran WRs on teams with deep receiving corps do this weekend. Maybe a few of these guys are potential roster cuts and could be available in two weeks. I'm sure general manager Rick Spielman has a stack of black binders with scouting reports and grades on 2,000 WRs in case Goodell brings down the hammer on Simpson.

Or the Vikings could try to roll with Thielen and Smith. Considering I think a three game suspension for Simpson is a lock, one thing I'd like to see head coach Mike Zimmer do this Saturday is play Thielen and Smith a lot with the starting offense against Kansas City. If they hold up well, maybe you don't really have a problem but an opportunity - that being a chance to utilize some promising young talent. Based on what I've seen out of Thielen and Smith in the preseason, I'd prefer if the Vikings went this route.

But coaches tend to be a conservative lot and trust veterans more than younger guys. And it's my hunch a first-time head coach like Zimmer wouldn't want his receiving corps in his regular season coaching debut to include three second year guys (Patterson, Smith and Thielen), a little-used third year guy (Wright) and Jennings.