Below The Radar Long Shot: 2005
The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense
of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check
is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s
a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information.
This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s
potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining
the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines
that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.
Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic,
he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and
help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep
a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This
way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider,
or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast
as you can!
Spotting potential steals flying below the general fantasy radar
is a favorite Gut Check pastime. Yours Truly had some luck with
Mewelde Moore and Reuben Droughns in 2004. In the Gut Check’s
book, Moore qualifies as a sleeper. Most avid fantasy buffs knew
about Mewelde Moore. Fourth round picks generally have the talent
of first day picks but there’s a perceived deficiency in their
game, character, or physical skills. Note the emphasis on “perceived.”
Many draftniks projected Moore as a first round pick at the end
of 2002. The Gut check has mentioned before he believes there’s
a penchant for over analysis when a player is projected higher in
his junior year than his senior year. This was part of the reason
Yours Truly mentioned Moore as a player capable of surprising—ala
Domanick Davis—in his 2004
Reuben Droughns was the quintessential player flying below the
radar in 2004, because the initial gloss of him once being a viable
prospect faded from most fantasy owners’ memories way before
last season. Many didn’t even realize Reuben Droughns history
until the fullback seemingly came out of nowhere to make an impact
for the Broncos. While the Gut Check wasn’t making any Reuben
Droughns predictions prior the season opener, he knew enough about
Droughns to capitalize when the opportunity presented itself.
Everyone loves the appeal of rooting for a long shot. Last year,
The Gut Check’s long shot was RB Quincy Wilson. Although
Wilson eventually wound up on the Bengals’ practice squad
rather than lining up few yards behind Michael Vick, Yours Truly
feels it’s worth keeping tabs on players that still have
the opportunity to develop and eventually surprise. The Gut Check
will devote a column to several of these players Below The Radar
as the 2005 season draws near, but there’s one player Yours
Truly discussed in his
2004 column that is worth devoting greater focus.
Jarrett Payton, the former un-drafted Miami Hurricane is making
an impressive showing as an Amsterdam Admiral, and notwithstanding
a potential Titans’ deal to acquire Travis Henry, earning
a chance to compete for the #2 RB spot in Tennessee.
At this point, The Gut Check isn’t recommending any fantasy
owner to select Payton over more established backups. But if one
wants to increase their chances of getting the jump on the next
player to come out of fantasy obscurity to make his mark similar
to the way Priest Holmes, Jamal Anderson, Kurt Warner, Drew Bennett,
and Reuben Droughns were season-making waiver wire acquisitions,
it helps to learn about as many players as possible. Payton may
never make this list of successful below the radar alumni, but
The Gut Check feels he’s an intriguing player that will
eventually develop into a running back worthy of fantasy consideration.
So what’s to know about Jarrett Payton that makes him a
player worthy of focus? The Gut Check has a lot to say, but before
Yours Truly gets started, one has to be willing to disregard some
conventional fantasy wisdom in order to gain a fairer assessment
of Jarrett Payton. Considering conventional football wisdom disregarded
Holmes, Anderson, Warner, Bennett, and Droughns it should not
be too difficult to at least temporarily suspended judgment until
hearing The Gut Check’s case on an admitted long shot.
First, one has to change the preconceived notion that being the
son of arguably the greatest running back in the NFL, and one
of most revered athletes in American history, is a benefit to
Jarrett Payton’s NFL career. The media keeps writing about
Payton because he’s the potential feel-good story: Son
follows legendary dad into sport to create his own name.
It’s too easy to write off the tailback as a player receiving
more attention than he deserves. And why not, Payton only started
for his college team for a portion of his senior year, didn’t
gain 1000 yards, didn’t get drafted, and isn’t even
the feature back for his team in NFL Europe!
All of these points are true, but how one views these facts to
form an opinion on Payton is a matter of perspective. The obvious
perspective is that Payton doesn’t have the skills to be
a future fantasy contributor. On the other hand, The Gut Check
is willing to suspend judgment at this point, and view Jarrett
Payton as a developing talent at the running back position—a
late bloomer. This is key to the next point.
Most NFL players experience their greatest physical development
during their college careers. The refinement of their overall
game takes place during their pro career. Those prospects already
illustrating refinement in their overall game on their college
squads are most often high, first round picks. Skills such as
blocking, receiving, and reading defenses are points where scouts
expect players to need refinement to their game. Athleticism on
the other hand, is considered a fundamental. Scouts can only evaluate
a player’s athleticism on what they see. Most pro football
players are in the top percentile of athletic skill in comparison
to their college peers. The only case where the NFL may draft
a player that doesn’t show a high level of athleticism is
if there is a rust factor.
Maurice Clarett going to the Broncos at the bottom of round three
is a great example. A prized recruit of a big-time college program,
Clarett arrived in shape and made an instant contribution as a
freshman. By his sophomore year, Clarett was out of college football,
and eventually out of football shape. The film of Clarett in shape
and demonstrating his skills against quality competition was enough
to override his pre-draft physical condition.
In the case of Jarrett Payton, he never had the opportunity to
demonstrate his athleticism. Like Clarett, Payton was a prized
recruit that arrived at a big-time program in shape. Unlike the
former Buckeye, Payton was inactive for most of his college career
almost from the beginning. By the time Payton got the call, he
was out of football shape, and had to shake off the rust while
contributing on the field. From this perspective, it could begin
to make sense why a player with talent and no character or football-related
injury issues would go un-drafted.
To make a stronger case, one has to further emphasize why Payton
is more of a late bloomer than a player lacking special talent.
A successful, prep soccer star, Payton began football as a high
school senior. Nevertheless, his skills made him a highly sought-after
recruit after just one year of high school football. Payton was
known as a powerful back with speed, durability, and the potential
to carry a heavy workload.
An elite college football program such as the University of Miami
doesn’t recruit backs that they don’t believe have
big-time talent when their depth chart has backs named Portis,
McGahee, Gore, and Davenport. Even James Jackson is worthy as
a backup on an NFL squad. Nevertheless, there is a significant
leap in athleticism from high school to a big-time college program.
Payton came to the University of Miami with developing instincts
and athleticism, but several events impeded his progress.
The first was his father’s untimely death. Jarrett Payton
was fortunate to have a close relationship with his father. As
a sad reflection of our society there are many athletes without
any ties to their fathers. Jarrett Payton has stated frequently
to the media that his dad was also his best friend, mentor, and
coach. Transitioning from high school to college is a pivotal
time in one’s life. There’s no prescribed period for
mourning the death of a loved one—especially one so influential
in one’s life. For Jarrett Payton, a teenager entering manhood;
a talent with one-year of organized football arriving at a college
program at the highest level; and a son entering the public eye—a
society that recognized his father as a legend—the impact
of losing his father has to make every thing he was about to do
seem insignificant—at least for a time.
In spring of his freshman year, Payton required 22-stiches in
his foot after cutting it on a piece of coral while snorkeling.
To make matters worse, the wound became infected and required
surgery. Needless to say, it’s understandable if football
wasn’t on the forefront of Jarrett Payton’s mind as
a freshman—Yours Truly would find it hard to believe if
the Hurricane football program expected anything more from him,
Payton’s sophomore year where he was expected to shake
off the rust started with a sprained ankle. With the aforementioned
depth chart of future first day, NFL picks ahead of him and unable
to practice, Payton wisely red-shirted his sophomore year. But,
Payton’s story becomes even more improbable. The summer
of 2001, Payton is riding in a car with Clinton Portis and another
teammate when the driver gets into an accident. Payton and Portis
are hurled into the street, but miraculously escape serious injury.
But Payton’s junior season begins with him experiencing
severe back pain and internal bleeding as a result of the accident—now
his junior year of football is down the drain.
By Jarrett Payton’s fourth year, Willis McGahee is the
starter with a highly promising Frank Gore on his heels. An untested
Payton is the third man at best, on the depth chart. Still, there
were some outside of the UM program that understood it wasn’t
a lack of talent keeping Payton on the bench. One NFL scout in
2002 told Pro Football Weekly’s Alan Nawrocki that
“Miami RB Jarrett Payton could probably start anywhere else
in the country with the exception of a few schools like Penn State
(Larry Johnson) and Ohio State (Clarett), but Miami is so stacked
that he might not ever have a chance.”
The only time Payton contributed in a key moment of a big game
in 2002 was the classic National Championship game versus Maurice
Clarett and Ohio State. In that game, Payton came in cold and
made two key receptions after Willis McGahee tore his ACL. But
many fans only remembered Payton failing to score from the 1-yard
line in double-overtime only to watch OSU secure the title. Good
physical condition and football shape are vastly different.
Jarrett Payton lost out on opportunities to stay in football shape.
His first real chance came in 2003 after Frank Gore went down
with his second ACL tear. Payton started slow, but made noticeable
improvement with each game. As Payton shook off the rust, The
Gut Check saw Payton possessed qualities that excellent backs
possess: the skill to run behind his pads, patience to set up
blocks, and good hands as a receiver. The problem was Payton was
still physically growing into the game. Four years of sitting
on the bench without serious practice reps due to rehabilitation
from injuries leaves most players rusty.
Still, may outside of the UM program were surprised to see Payton
make strides. In most sports it’s a common misperception
that a player out of the public eye is a player that somehow lost
his talent. It’s easy for people to look Miami’s recent
history of backs and make this assessment, but they would be wrong.
''I have been telling you for the past four years, he is a great
talent,'' said UM running backs coach Don Soldinger. ``He just
hasn't had the opportunity. He always had some major problem --
his dad dying, the car accident, his ankle and then his back.
Payton's attitude has never been bad. But he has never been able
to show his wares. You can't hammer it into a person. Somewhere
the kid has to find it within him and say, `I want this.' He has
to take ownership of his destiny.''
The Gut Check believes this was a case of a kid regaining his
confidence in his ability. Skills still in the developmental stages
but paired with excellent football instincts. Payton was once
timed running a sub-4.5 40 prior to his arrival at Miami. The
Gut Check understands this timing is suspect, but it does explain
why Payton didn’t seem like a fast runner when he first
took over for Gore, but steadily got faster with the help of a
speed coach. None of Payton’s injuries were football-related
nor will they impact him in the future. It had to be rust. Otherwise
there wouldn’t be a good reason why Payton could outrun
the second wave of a highly athletic FSU defense for 20+ yard
gains en route to a 131-yard, MVP performance. As a football player,
Jarrett Payton is still 6-7 years away from his athletic prime.
Therefore, it’s not unlikely for an athlete to regain his
form and continue to improve after a layoff like Payton’s.
A couple of nice games still are not sufficient evidence to draft
a player. Yet once Payton was invited to the Titans camp, the
next sign that validates The Gut Check’s late bloomer/rust
argument was once again something that from a standpoint of conventional
wisdom should be negative on the surface. It was the running back’s
lack of flexibility—the Titans evaluated Payton as one of
the stiffest players the Titans’ staff has ever seen—especially
for a tailback.
This may be a counterintuitive argument but considering all the
time Payton spent on the bench or training room, the Gut Check
believes his issue has a promising underside. Flexibility is actually
an athletic skill that can improve tremendously at any age. While
Payton won’t likely be doing human pretzel tricks, he’s
reportedly worked hard on increasing his flexibility with positive
There are a number of established benefits to having a highly
- Increased muscle stamina—muscle fatigue is the
greatest source of athletic injury.
- Increased range of motion—this aids lateral movement.
- Muscle relaxation—along with stamina, this can
increase the ability to make explosive movements.
As Payton improves his physical approach as an athlete, the results
should follow. So far, the early returns as a football player
are good. While splitting time with Kansas City’s Jonathan
Smith, Payton is still among the rushing leaders in NFL Europe
at the time this column was written.
It’s no secret that NFL Europe has not become a developmental
league with a high success rate. In fact, Ed Bouchette of the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May, “Most
teams refused to send any of their decent players to Europe because
they want them working at home during mini-camps, voluntary spring
practices and meetings.” Yet, the running back position
is known was one of the easiest to make a successful transition
from college to pro. Jarrett Payton is not a rookie, but as a
member of the practice squad and coming from NFL Europe, the point
about the adjustment still applies.
Not many running backs have made a successful transition from
NFL Europe. Lawrence Phillips was the most talented, but his head
and heart weren’t in the game. The Gut Check mentions Phillips
because he, Ahmaad Galloway, and Jarrett Payton weren’t
the physical norm as tailbacks in NFL Europe. Paul Kuharsky, staff
writer of The Tennesseean, spoke with Amsterdam Admiral
head coach Bart Andrus (who served as an assistant for the Titans
from 1997-1999) about Payton:
''Jarrett is a big back in this league,'' Andrus said. ''He's
able to start, stop, accelerate, reverse his field, all those
things.'' Payton said he feels like his versatility and vision
have improved. According to Andrus, so has the running back's
understanding of pass protection. Payton has done well picking
up blitzing linebackers or defensive backs as well as helping
out offensive linemen by chipping a defensive end. Andrus has
been with Amsterdam for five years and knows prospects who excel
in Europe don't necessarily come back and win jobs on NFL rosters.
But as he spoke about Payton's chances, he used terminology that
suggests he knows just what buzzwords concern the Titans in the
backfield. Last year's backup, veteran Antowain Smith is gone,
and the primary characteristic the Titans need in his replacement
is reliability. ''Jarrett's going to have some durability, he
will make it through a season playing in the NFL,'' Andrus said.
''His size and his ability to move will definitely work in his
favor. A lot of running backs in this league are smaller, nifty,
scat backs whereas this kid can be a workhorse for somebody.''
This is another positive endorsement and based on the Titan’s
current depth chart at running back, Payton doesn’t have
Portis, McGahee, Gore, or Davenport ahead of him. In fact, the
only established runner is starter Chris Brown—a back with
great talent but hasn’t shown durability as a collegian
or pro. In the span of one week—while this column was written—Brown
re-aggravated a toe injury and fractured his hand.
Although the hand injury should heal before training camp, The
Gut Check is highly concerned about the chronic toe injury. Turf
toe is among the most underrated injuries in terms of claiming
the career of a prominent player. Jack Lambert retired because
of it. Eric Dickerson coped with the injury because he luckily
found a shoe insert that helped him remain effective for several
years. Yet Dickerson always claimed he was never the same after
the injury. Eddie George was at his peak when he suffered his
toe injury, but once it occurred, he hasn’t been the same.
The big toe is central for balance, cutting, and acceleration.
Players with severe knee injuries often lost their career more
for the nerve damage that took away feeling from their toes than
their knee—William Andrews and Robert Edwards are prime
examples. Just watch highlights of Eddie George run prior to 2001
and compare him to 2001 or later—the toe injury is all the
Interestingly enough, Lambert, Dickerson, George, and Brown are
all tall, lankly players. Three of the four were tall for the
running back position and ran upright. The Gut Check isn’t
ready to call Brown’s career over just yet, but he’s
very wary of the third-year runner’s chances to be an effective,
every down starter at least this year and won’t be drafting
him in any league.
This is a big reason why Jarrett Payton has a decent chance of
earning the back up spot and in a situation where he may contribute
more than most would expect. Most of the competition in camp is
slated to be late-round selections or career depth chart players
such as Ray Jackson. Nash and Reyes have demonstrated talent,
but neither are power backs. This offense is still geared towards
a back like Chris Brown, Travis Henry, or even an Eddie George-style
of runner. Jarrett Payton fits this physical profile and running
style more than the others backs on the depth chart.
Payton should be fresh enough to contribute. The NFL Europe season
is relatively short, and Payton is in a platoon system. The two
Amsterdam Admiral backs tend to alternate series. Payton has looked
excellent running the ball up the middle, but the outside running
game has been suspect. Much of this has to do with the poor quality
of line play, because on the interior runs Jarrett Payton has
shown the speed to break away from the second wave of defenders
and score from distances longer than longer than 20 yards. Unless
offensive coordinator Norm Chow radically changes the Tennessee
rushing attack, the Titans don’t attack the perimeter very
often in their running game, either.
With Brown’s injury and the #2 spot undecided, Payton should
see extended action in training camp. While this may facilitate
more discussion for the Titans to make a deal for Travis Henry,
if Brown can’t play it still increase the likelihood of
Jarrett Payton contributing in 2005. Travis Henry also possesses
a tough running style, but unlike Corey Dillon—another tough
runner—Henry’s toughness is based on taking hits and
not dishing them out. Henry has missed time with rib and leg injuries
as a result.
At worst, The Gut Check on Payton is for him to make the roster
and show promise in limited playing time—making him an underrated
waiver wire or late, long shot pick in large dynasty leagues.
At best, Payton seemingly comes out of anonymity to become a viable
fantasy starter with upside in the tradition of other Below The
Radar alums in NFL history. It’s a long shot, but so were