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2011 Comeback Pick

By Jared Smola | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

by Jared Smola

 

We have the same debate around the Draft Sharks office every year around this time.  Are we cheating the game by choosing a guy who missed a substantial amount of time the previous season as our Comeback Player?

The answer is usually pretty apparent.  We tend to steer clear of guys who dealt with injury problems and instead go with players who simply underperformed.  It’s just more satisfying when we nail it.

But we’re bucking the trend this season.  Sort of.

Our 2011 Comeback Player only appeared in only 5 games last season.  But not because of injury.  A contract dispute resulted in this guy holding out for the first 10 games of the year.  Even when he returned, though, he wasn’t the same dominant player he’d been in previous seasons.

So even though we feel a bit grimy about it, we’re so jacked about Chargers WR Vincent Jackson’s 2011 fantasy outlook that we’re naming him our Comeback Player.

It’s not like the rest of Fantasy Nation is hot-and-heavy on him.  V-Jax is currently going in the late-2nd or early-3rd-round of 12-team drafts as the 9th WR off the board.  He could prove to be an absolute steal at that price.

Last year’s performance probably has a lot to do with his deflated price tag.  Jackson’s 2010 season was a complete wash.  He was actually suspended for the first 3 games of the season after pleading guilty to DUI in February of 2010 – his 2nd DUI charge since entering the league in 2005.  But that was just the start of his problems.

A restricted free-agent heading into the 2010 season, Jackson was slapped with a 1-year tender worth $3.3 million.  V-Jax balked at that price, and the holdout began. 

Chargers GM A.J. Smith countered by placing Jackson on the Roster Exempt List.  That came with a 3-game suspension, plus a reduction of salary from $3.3 million to just $682,000.

Although trade rumors ran rampant – the Seahawks and Vikings were both reportedly interested in dealing for V-Jax – the holdout lasted all the way until October 29th.  And Jackson only reported then so that he could appear in 6 games and accrue a year of service in order to gain unrestricted free-agent status in 2011.

So after serving his 3-game Roster Exempt List suspension, V-Jax made his 2010 debut in a Week 12 game against the Colts.  He wouldn’t last long though.  Before he could catch a single pass – or even see a target from Philip Rivers – Jackson left with a calf injury.

He sat out the next game but returned for a Week 14 showdown with the Chiefs.  Jackson managed just 2 catches for 29 yards in that one. 

He finally came to life the next week.  V-Jax absolutely torched the 49ers for 112 yards and 3 TDs on 5 catches.  He scored on receptions of 58, 11, and 21 yards.  And his 29.2 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues were the 8th-most by any WR in a single game last year.  Let that serve as a reminder of this guy’s upside.

Jackson finished out his 2010 campaign with a pair of mediocre performances – 4 catches for 54 yards in Week 16 and 3 grabs for 53 yards in the season finale. 

His production last year clearly wasn’t up to snuff.  But we’re more than willing to give him a mulligan.  Whether or not you agree with his decision to hold out, it’s tough to argue with the fact that the missed practice time resulted in a downturn in his numbers when he finally did return.

But 2011 will be a different story.

That’s not to say his contract issues are a thing of the past, though.  An unrestricted free-agent this offseason, Jackson was slapped with the franchise tag back in February.  The 1-year deal will pay him close to $12 million (assuming the new CBA includes the franchise tag – and all indications are that it will).

V-Jax isn’t thrilled.  He still wants a long-term deal.   But this super-talented WR seems ready to gut it out with the Chargers for 1 more year.

And we love what that means for his fantasy outlook.  Guaranteed to hit the open market next offseason, Jackson knows that his future income hinges on how well he plays in 2011.  And considering he’ll be 29 after this season, he’s likely playing for his last big-time contract.  That’s some major motivation.

And when you get a guy like Jackson motivated, look out!

In case you forgot, this guy is an absolute monster.  V-Jax measures in at a whopping 6’5 and 230 pounds.  He can move too.  Jackson recorded an ultra-impressive 4.46 40-time at the Combine back in 2005.  Throw in a 39-inch vertical and top-notch body control, and he becomes borderline unstoppable.

You put the ball anywhere near this guy, and he’s going to come down with the catch.  Over the past 3 seasons, Jackson has dropped just 8 balls on 158 catchable targets.  That 5.06% drop rate ranks 4th-best in the entire NFL.

What makes that stat even more impressive is the fact that Jackson does a lot of his work down the field, where catches are often trickier to make.  His career yards-per-catch average sits at a ridiculous 17.2.  Only 3 active players boast better marks – Devery Henderson (18.6), DeSean Jackson (18.2), and Malcom Floyd (17.3). 

Jackson is a big-play waiting to happen.  Over the past 3 seasons, 37 of his 148 receptions have gone for 20+ yards.  That’s exactly 25% of his catches.  According to Pro Football Focus, only 14 players have racked up 20+ yarders at a better rate than Jackson (among guys with at least 50 receptions since 2008).

Player

Catches

20+

%

Mike Wallace

112

42

37.5%

DeSean Jackson

188

60

31.9%

Malcom Floyd

106

33

31.1%

Brandon Lloyd

111

32

28.8%

Mario Manningham

120

34

28.3%

Greg Jennings

252

71

28.2%

Braylon Edwards

167

47

28.1%

Mike A. Williams

64

18

28.1%

Kevin Boss

113

30

26.5%

Kenny Britt

83

22

26.5%

Hakeem Nicks

126

33

26.2%

Johnny Knox

101

26

25.7%

Mohamed Massaquoi

70

18

25.7%

Miles Austin

174

44

25.3%

Vincent Jackson

148

37

25.0%

Justin Gage

92

23

25.0%

Antonio Bryant

121

29

24.0%

Steve L. Smith

189

45

23.8%

Robert Meachem

106

25

23.6%

Calvin Johnson

222

52

23.4%

   (Data courtesy of Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus)

 

V-Jax is also a TD machine.  28 of his 212 career catches have gone for scores.  That 13.2% career TD rate rivals any other WR in the league.  To put it in perspective, here’s how it stacks up against some of the game’s best:

 Player

TDs

Catches

TD Rate

Hakeem Nicks

17

126

13.5%

Vincent Jackson

28

212

13.2%

Greg Jennings

40

322

12.4%

Calvin Johnson

33

270

12.2%

Larry Fitzgerald

65

613

10.6%

Reggie Wayne

69

787

8.8%

Roddy White

37

430

8.6%

Andre Johnson

50

673

7.4%

 

From a pure efficiency standpoint, Jackson has been one of the best WRs in the NFL since entering the league in 2005.  And after this year, we might be talking about him as one of the best WRs in the NFL – period.

Prior to his lost 2010 season, Jackson had posted back-to-back big-time years.  In 2008, he set career-highs across the board with 59 catches, 1,098 yards, and 7 scores.  He finished 13th among WRs in standard-scoring fantasy leagues.

V-Jax was even better in 2009.  He racked up 1,167 yards and 9 TDs on 68 grabs.  Only 9 WRs scored more fantasy points that year.

But we’re thinking that 2011 could be his best season yet.  On top of the fact that it’s a contract year, Jackson has a lot working for him.

At 28 years old, he’s in the midst of his prime.  Check this out.  Listed below are the top-10 WRs in career receiving yards – along with the age in which they recorded their best statistical season.

Player

Age

Jerry Rice

33

Terrell Owens

28

Isaac Bruce

23

Tim Brown

29

Randy Moss

30

Marvin Harrison

29

James Lofton

28

Cris Carter

30

Henry Ellard

27

Torry Holt

27

AVERAGE

28.4

 

There’s no “magical age” for WRs.  But besides Jerry Rice (a freak of nature) and Isaac Bruce (an early-bloomer), the other 8 guys all posted their best seasons within a couples years of their 28th birthdays.  And wouldn’t ya know it… the average age comes out to 28.4!  Good stuff.

So Jackson is at an ideal age to post a career-year.  And we’ve already established that this guy has the physical skill-set to dominate at the NFL level.

All that’s left is a supporting cast.  And V-Jax definitely has that working for him. 

The Chargers boast one of the best offenses in the game.  Even without Jackson for much of last season, San Diego ranked 1st in total offense and 2nd in passing offense.  They could easily lead the league in both categories in 2011.

More importantly for Jackson, he’ll have one of the best QBs in the game chucking him the rock.  Philip Rivers is already an elite signal-caller and just continues to get better.  He’s tossed for 4,000+ yards and 28+ TDs in 3 straight seasons.  And he actually set career-highs last year with 4,710 yards and a 66% completion rate.  Rivers and Jackson could be ready to absolutely explode together. 

Also working in Jackson’s favor this year is what should be improved offensive line play.  The unit struggled at times last year, allowing 38 sacks and finishing 19th in Football Outsiders’ pass-blocking ratings.  But a full year from Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill, who held out for the first 5 games of 2010, will provide a big boost.  This line has the pure talent to be one of the best in the league.  And that’s important for V-Jax, who needs time to run those downfield routes.

Of course, no discussion about San Diego’s offense is complete without mentioning All-Pro TE Antonio Gates.  One of the most dangerous receiving threats in the game – regardless of position – Gates attracts plenty of defensive attention.  With him roaming the middle of the field, Jackson doesn’t face nearly as many double-teams as his skill-set would dictate.

Now, Gates’ talent could also work against Jackson.  The talented TE demands a good number of targets – targets that could otherwise go Jackson’s way.  In fact, V-Jax has never topped 106 looks in a season. 

But as Gates enters his age-31 season, an inevitable decline is on the horizon.  We’re not saying he’s going to tank this year.  But it’s not hard to imagine a motivated Jackson becoming Rivers’ clear-cut #1 option.

We’re expecting V-Jax to set a new career-high in targets this season.  120 seems plenty doable.  And with the increased opportunities will come increased production. 

We currently have Jackson projected for 70 catches for 1,218 yards and 10 scores.  Those would all be career-highs, but not by a whole lot.  As an ultra-talented WR in his prime playing on a top-notch offense, his ceiling is much, much higher than those projections.

But fantasy football is a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” kind of game.  And that has Jackson coming at a discount.  Take advantage of the opportunity and jump all over him in the late-2nd or early-3rd-round.  All the pieces are in place for V-Jax to enjoy a big-time bounce-back season in 2011.

 

 

Honorable Mention:

Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers

Stewart came damn close to being named our 2011 Comeback Player.  And in all honesty, it was only the NFL lockout that gave Vincent Jackson the nod.

Stewart’s 2011 outlook is still in limbo as we await free-agency.  His workload – and upside – is largely dependent on what happens with pending free-agent DeAngelo Williams.

Williams has held off Stewart for Carolina’s starting job for the past 3 seasons.  And if he returns to Carolina for the 2011 season, we’re likely looking at a true timeshare.  That’d obviously put a damper on Stewart’s upside.

The Panthers have expressed an interest in bringing D-Will back.  And Williams has reciprocated those feelings.  But money is the ultimate motivator.  In the end, we’re expecting Williams to receive a better offer from another organization.  Carolina simply has too many other holes to fill to be able to cough up big bucks to retain Williams.  Especially when they have an ultra-talented back in Stewart locked-up.

Although his workload has been limited in his first 3 NFL seasons, Stewart has flashed elite ability.  His career yards-per-carry average sits at a robust 4.7, and he’s popped in 22 TDs on just 583 carries.

And that’s despite struggling through his worst season as a pro in 2010.  He posted career-lows in rushing yards (770), TDs (2), and yards-per-carry average (4.3).  Stewart also missed 2 games with a concussion – breaking a streak of 40 consecutive appearances. 

It’s not all that surprising that Stewart struggled, though.  Let’s not sugarcoat it – the Panthers were god-awful last year.  They finished dead-last in total offense, scoring offense, and passing offense.  Stewart was seeing 8-man fronts almost every time he touched the ball.  It would have taken a superhuman effort from Stewart to post better numbers than he did.

But don’t let his disappointing 2010 season wipe out what he did in his first 2 years in the big leagues.  Stewart burst onto the scene during his rookie season, racking up 836 yards and 10 scores on just 184 carries.  He scored 10 more TDs in his 2nd year, while setting new career-highs with 221 carries and 1,133 yards.  His 5.1 yards-per-carry average that season was 9th-best among players with at least 100 attempts.

But 2011 could quite easily be his best season yet. 

While the Panthers aren’t going to suddenly morph into the 1999 Rams, this offense should be better this year.  Cam Newton will help.  He’s raw, but possesses the kind of freakish athleticism that defenses need to respect.  His rushing ability will open up running room for Stewart, much like Vince Young’s mobility helped Chris Johnson run for 2,006 yards back in 2009.

More importantly, Carolina’s offensive line figures to be much-improved this season.  The unit struggled in 2010, ranking 27th in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking efficiency ratings. It was the first time since 2006 that they dropped out of the top-20.  The biggest problem was the absence of RT Jeff Otah, one of the best run-blocking OTs in the game.  He missed the entire season with a knee injury.  But he’s a full-go for 2011.  Couple that with the return of the franchise-tagged C Ryan Kalil, and Stewart should have a lot more room to run this year.

On top of that, Stewart will enter training camp 100% healthy.  That’s been a problem for him in his first 3 years.  While it hasn’t caused him to miss any games, he’s dealt with lingering heel and foot problems.  He underwent Achilles surgery after the 2009 season but admitted that he was still experiencing pain last year.  Stewart took part in Carolina’s player-organized workouts over the past few months – something he hasn’t been able to do in past years.  It’s been his healthiest offseason as a pro, setting him up for a big-time bounce-back season.

Of course, as we mentioned before, his fantasy value hinges on what happens with DeAngelo Williams.  But if he leaves as we expect, Stewart is a good bet for 300+ carries.  While Run-loving HC John Fox is gone, the Panthers still figure to pound the ball early and often.  New HC Ron Rivera is a defensive-minded guy who would love to grind clock and win low-scoring, ugly ballgames.

And Stewart has proven to be an absolute beast when given a substantial workload.  17 times has he carried the ball 15+ times.  And in those games, he’s compiled 1,738 yards on a 5.3 yards-per-carry average.  J-Stew also scored at least once in 13 of those 17 contests, racking up 16 TDs in total.  Studly!

If Williams departs, you gotta figure that Stewart will be seeing 15+ carries on a regular basis.

Now, his lack of action in the passing game hurts him in PPR leagues.  Stewart has averaged just 11 catches and 96 receiving yards per year through 3 seasons.  He may see a slight uptick in production in 2011, but Mike Goodson figures to take over as the primary pass-catching back.

In PPR leagues, consider Stewart more of a RB2.  But he’s still a great value considering he’s coming off the board in the 5th-round of those formats.

And in standard-scoring leagues, Stewart’s 1,600-yard, 10-TD upside makes him an absolute steal in the late-4th-round.  He’s a guy who can give you RB1 production at a RB2 price tag.

Other rankings are stale  before the 2nd round.

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