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The Feeding Tank: Fantasy Food For Thought

By Jared Smola 2:48pm EST 2/23/12

by Matt Schauf

Looking for a good investment for your fantasy draft dollar? Check out the rookie WRs.

I’m not specifically advocating this year’s crop. Not even getting into the particular candidates for 2012. The fact is, when you compare price vs. return on 1st-year wideouts over the past 5 years, targeting the group has simply proved a good idea.

From 2007 through 2011, only 17 rookie WRs showed up in the final “standard-scoring” ADP list at FF Calculator. That was just 5% of the 334 WRs overall, meaning fantasy owners don’t trust the new guys. Yet, of those 17, only 2 who were drafted among the top-50 at their position finished the season outside that range. That means those who drafted rookie WRs wound up getting good value.

Let’s start with the relative failures ... because even they weren’t all that bad. Michael Crabtree obviously let down everyone in 2009, ranking 60th (PPR) and 61st (non) in total points. Once he finally decided to show up, though, he delivered the 37th and 38th best per-game averages among WRs. Patient owners wound up getting a decent return on the guy whose ADP ranked 46th among WRs.

Anthony Gonzalez also missed a few games in his rookie campaign (apparently because he’s made of toothpicks and Elmer’s). Fantasy owners probably overrated his draft position and offense anyway. Gonzalez’s ADP was WR46. He finished no better than 60th across formats. Even then, Gonzalez was merely a mid-11th round pick. That’s hardly true bust territory.

And those were the 2 biggest misses. The rest of the group hasn’t carried much downside. Only 6 of the 17 aforementioned rookies finished lower than their ADPs. We’ve already addressed Crabtree and Gonzalez. The others:

-- Dez Bryant was drafted in fantasy-starter range in 2010 (ADP: WR31) but lost 4 games to injury. He still finished 38th (standard) and 42nd (PPR) in fantasy points per game. That’s not too far from expectations, especially considering he played through an ankle sprain.

-- Calvin Johnson missed just 1 game as a 2007 rookie but played much of the season with a back injury. We can’t really know how much it affected him, but it didn’t take a scout to see some impact. He still finished just outside starter range -- 39th (standard), 38th (PPR) -- but couldn’t quite live up to his WR19 ADP.

-- James Jones (51) and Ted Ginn (55) each got drafted outside the position’s top-50 in 2007, so their owners suffered no big loss. Jones checked in at 59th (standard) and 58th (PPR) thanks to a low TD tally, while Ginn was nowhere near useful. Anyone who found himself shocked by Ginn disappointing, though, wasn’t paying attention beforehand.

As you can see, the “bad” wasn’t even all that bad the past 5 years. The good, on the other hand, has been quite good. Most recently, A.J. Green far exceeded draft expectations at the top of the 2011 class. He came off the board as the 36th WR and finished no lower than 17th across scoring formats. Julio Jones dealt with a frustrating hamstring injury but still used a late-season explosion to outperform his WR26 ADP. Greg Little finished right about where his WR52 ADP started things. Meanwhile, Torrey Smith, Doug Baldwin, Denarius Moore, and Titus Young produced well beyond their ADPs.

2010 wasn’t deep, but fantasy owners didn’t expect it to be. Only 2 rookies showed up among the 75 WRs on FF Calculator’s ADP list. Bryant we know about. The other, Tampa Mike Williams, delivered a spot-on Michael Clayton impression. He parlayed a WR47 ADP into a top-12 finish in standard formats (16th in PPR).

The class before that was loaded -- not surprising from an NFL draft with 6 Round 1 WRs. Only Percy Harvin checked in with a higher ADP than Crabtree’s. He finished the season 10 spots ahead of his WR35 draft position. Classmates Austin Collie, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace, and Jeremy Maclin all joined Harvin in fantasy-starter range. Kenny Britt added useful patches, and even Mohamed Massaquoi wasn’t totally irrelevant (unlike the 2 years since).

2008 featured Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson outperforming their ADPs, while undrafted Donnie Avery performed near fringe-starter range. And no wideout graced the 1st-round of the NFL draft that year. Despite the relative underperformers of 2007, Dwayne Bowe led that class as a solid WR2 in 12-team leagues.

That year was the end of the reliable ADP numbers in my research, but it certainly did not mark the beginning of productive rooks. Marques Colston’s bust out came in 2006. The notorious Clayton ruled 2004, with Lee Evans, Roy Williams, Larry Fitzgerald, and Keary Colbert also delivering starter value. 2003 introduced us to Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson, who ranked 5th and 23rd respectively in standard leagues.

Overall, 18 rookie WRs have finished among the PPR top-50 since 2007. Standard formats saw 20 land in that range. That’s 4 per season. And the rates increased over the past 3 years (13 and 15, respectively). From 2009 through 2011, rookies made up just 5% of standard WR ADP lists but 10% of the top-50 scorers.

Nearly all of these players were guys you could have drafted as 3rd, 4th or 5th fantasy WRs -- or even claimed off waivers during the season. The takeaway here is that you shouldn’t be hesitant to fill a bench slot with an unknown just because Deion Branch looks a little more comfy. We’ll go into greater detail on the 2012 crop of newcomers and their outlooks as the NFL draft comes and goes.

 

Haley vs. Roethlisberger in the Steel cage

I’m quite intrigued by this Todd Haley-Ben Roethlisberger relationship, and not only because it’s headed toward an inevitable helmet-less motorcycle joust.

It’s disappointing that the two finally met. I fully anticipated an entire season of QB never having spoken with OC. It could have been a 4-month documentary on sign language, with Haley gesturing unfamiliar plays and then losing it if Roethlisberger ran up the score. Really, though, the initial reports of the two not meeting could be nothing or it could be a bad omen.

This is a potentially volatile mix of strong personalities. We’ve read all the stories of Roethlisberger waltzing around with a sense of entitlement. We’ve seen Mt. Haley rarely dormant. There could be fireworks here.

More importantly, though, the marriage joins a very good QB with a top-shelf coordinator. Haley has not only proved that he can coach up an offense. He has also showed that he’ll tailor the plan to his team’s strength. With Haley as OC in Arizona in 2007 and 2008, the Cardinals attempted the 2nd-most passes each year. They ranked 4th and 3rd in passing TDs and top-7 in scoring those seasons as well. The Chiefs, on the other hand, finished 15th, 1st, and 5th in Haley’s 3 seasons as HC.

There’s no question about what powers Pittsburgh’s offense. Rashard Mendenhall ended his 2011 season with an ACL tear. NFL Network’s Jason La Canfora already says it’ll land him on the PUP list to begin 2012. Even a healthy Mendenhall only went for 3.9 and 4.1 yards per carry the past 2 years. The other big offensive development in 2011 was WR Antonio Brown’s emergence. If they keep Mike Wallace, the Steelers will boast a dangerous top-3 with those guys and Emmanuel Sanders. Frankly, the team could probably lose Wallace and still come out pass-first.

Roethlisberger pig-headedly publicized his displeasure with Bruce Arians’ ouster. That’s cool. Who would want to see their buddy get canned in favor of a whole new offense? If he can get over that, though, Oversized Ben could be in for escalating numbers. In 5 years under Arians, Pittsburgh never ranked higher than 18th in pass attempts. The team finished each of the past 3 seasons at least 9 spots higher in the passing yardage rankings than attempts. It finished each of the past 4 years no better than 12th in scoring.

Through 8 pro seasons, Roethlisberger has reached 20 TD passes just 3 times. Only twice has he surpassed 21 and once topped 26. Assuming the QB doesn’t spend the year stomping his feet and whining, “I don’t want a new offense; I want my offense,” it’s easy to imagine a career-high in TD throws in 2012. If he buys into Haley, Roethlisberger could be a strong value in fantasy drafts.

 

Expect Vick to finish

Speaking of QBs ... we’re in the midst of one of those way-too-early mock drafts around the Shark den (analysis coming next week). At Pick 4.12, I opted for Michael Vick. That’s a far cry from his mid-Round 1 ADP last season. I doubt there’ll be much argument against Vick being a value at that stage, as the 5th QB off the board. I also think he can still prove a steal there.

Last year was the 1st time since 2003 that Vick scored fewer than 2 rushing TDs in a season. The last time he did so, Vick missed the first 11 games and started only the final 4. Even in 2009, when he was a mere decoy on crappy gadget plays for the Eagles, Vick scored 2 TDs among his 24 carries. He ran for 9 in 12 games for Philly in 2010. He has averaged 4.8 rushing scores over 6 years as a full-time starter. And only 1 of those seasons saw him start all 16 games. His TD passing rate was also comparatively low. Vick produced a TD on just 4.3% of his throws, down from 5.6% in 2010 and 5.2% his last year in Atlanta. Only 2005 and 2002 -- his 1st season as starter -- ended with lower rates.

Vick could lose WR DeSean Jackson via free-agency or trade. As an Eagles fan, I’m sick of Jackson’s antics and unpredictable effort. I can’t imagine how tired the coaching staff must be. And the team has enough talent on offense to allow Jackson to walk. Jeremy Maclin put up bigger numbers with Vick in 2010 anyway, and the Eagles rediscovered TE Brent Celek’s hands at times last year. Jackson’s departure would take some of the big-play passing game away, but I doubt it would hurt Philly’s ability to score overall. If Jackson stays, we’ve all seen him and Vick work well together.

We shouldn’t expect a repeat of 2010 from Vick. He dominated the position in fantasy, thanks in no small part to his career-high 9 rushing scores. Vick actually ran for a juicy 1 yard more per carry in 2011, though the 589 yards marked his lowest rushing total as a starter. I’ll gladly cast my lot with an upside QB who posted the position’s 7th-best scoring average in a down 2011.

 

IDP Corner: New blood in the middle

It sounds like the Cowboys are ready to move on from ILBs Bradie James and Keith Brooking. This should surprise absolutely no one. James turned 31 in January and played less than half as many snaps in 2011 as he did in 2010. Brooking just drew his first Social Security check. His biggest contribution on the field is easily his unintentionally hilarious pregame riot.

The official end to the Dallas tenure of those players will be good news for fantasy owners. Sean Lee emerged last year, nudging the vets into a timeshare at the other ILB spot. His torrid start got knocked off track a bit by a dislocated wrist, but Lee should remain a solid LB2 or LB3 in IDP leagues. His new starting mate will probably be more exciting, though.

The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter from UNC in Round 2 last April, knowing that he probably wouldn’t help much as a rookie. That’s because Carter’s senior season ended with a November ACL tear. He did manage to get on the field for a few snaps in the season’s 2nd half but nothing significant. If Carter can win the starting job this summer, however, he’ll be a real boom-bust IDP play.

Here’s a sampling of Carter’s upside: He intercepted 3 passes in college and returned each at least 41 yards -- 2 for TDs. He put up 9.5 sacks over his final 3 seasons as a regular 4-3 LB. He delivered 11 tackles for loss as a 1st-time starter his sophomore year (2008).

James and Brooking didn’t put up big tackle numbers in Big D, but Carter could get enough as a starter to supplement his extracurricular potential. We’ll keep an eye on this situation, as well as some other potential changes inside:

-- With Joe Mays heading toward free-agency in Denver, the Broncos might be ready to let Nate Irving start. The former N.C. State star bounced back from a near-fatal car accident in college but slipped down draft boards because of injury concerns. A shortened offseason buried him on the 2011 depth chart, and then Mays played too well in run D to give the rookie a chance. Irving is tall, big and fast, though. He could bring the all-around game that Mays hasn’t.

-- The Bills’ official switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 base on D might get overstated. The team spent a lot of time running 4-3 looks last year and probably won’t make big changes to its LBs. But it’ll be interesting to see if one change is giving Kelvin Sheppard more snaps. After entering the lineup near mid-season as a rookie, Sheppard was a 2-down guy. He played two-thirds of the team’s defensive snaps just once over the final 6 games. Sheppard saw a decent amount of time in coverage but was better in run defense. We’ll see what new DC Dave Wannstedt and his mustache have planned for the 2nd-year man.

-- Free agency will be fun at a number of positions. Count ILB in that list. London Fletcher, Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and D’Qwell Jackson all could hit the open market in March. Odds are that not all of them will. Whoever does will create interesting situations for both his new and old teams. You can bet I’ll be tracking and reacting.

 

E-mail Matt at Schauf@DraftSharks.com. Follow him and Draft Sharks on Twitter.

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