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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 149
Coda
12/25/08

Rookie Scouting Portfolio 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!


2008 is in the books for most leagues and despite the title of this week’s edition, I’m in the mood to look ahead. I don’t have any definitive answers and they will be liable to change as more information becomes available, but there’s my early takes.

The Big Questions for 2009

Will Tom Brady Rebound? I believe with most teams Brady’s likelihood of a successful return would be reflected in what the team did with Matt Cassel. He’s an unrestricted free agent as soon as the curtain falls on the 2008 season and when you Google “Matt Cassel 2009” you can find articles and forum posts titled “Could Matt Cassel [wind up with (insert team here)]?”

If it weren’t for the fact that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in New England history and still theoretically at the top of his game with several years of good football ahead of him, there would be likely be a huge sentiment within the Patriots organizations to keep Cassel. Wouldn’t you think twice about waiting on the return of your starting quarterback if your back up with no college playing time steps into an NFL offense and throws for 3600 yards and 21 scores with only 11 interceptions while completing 63% of his passes in his first season? If rookie could be defined as first-year starter, Cassel would be rookie of the year in a landslide.

I’m sure the every team but the Colts and Patriots would have a potential controversy. You might add the Saints and Cowboys, but Drew Brees already got bumped by Philip Rivers and Jerry Jones is a pretty fair-weathered guy so I’m not adding them.

Cassel made excellent progress as a first-year starter, but there are several things a healthy Tom Brady does better at this stage of their respective careers. One of them is Brady’s accuracy with the deep ball. Another is his ability to move in the pocket and hit the open man. A third is his ability to read a defense.

I would be worried that Brady will be rusty to begin the season because he has missed a full season of honing his timing with receivers, throwing the football, losing a season of the game that would be ingrained in his physical/muscle memory.

Early Verdict: I’m not expecting a 4000-yard season out of Brady, but I think he can exceed Cassel’s 2008 stats in 2009. Brady’s excellence comes from his ability to see the field and make good decisions. As long as the Patriots can field a semblance of a running game, I think Brady will be a top 12 fantasy signal caller. I would anticipate him having some residual issues with the knee or other parts of his body if the knee begins to bother him, especially his back – which Bob Thompson did a good job of illustrating with Matt Hasselbeck.

Does Matt Cassel become a viable fantasy starter in 2009? You just saw the stats he’s had after 14 games and it’s understandable why he’s likely a hot commodity as an unrestricted free agent. But consider the surrounding talent in New England – a great head coach, a veteran offensive line, the best deep threat in the history of the NFL, and a terrific underneath receiver with skills after the catch. How many teams have this combination of talent?

None.

Still there are teams that could provide him elements of the Pats environment that helped him become a highly successful first-year starter.

Detroit: Placing Jon Kitna on IR against his will told us long ago that they’re in the hunt for a new QB. Calvin Johnson has a chance to be a better deep threat than Moss, but beyond Megatron there’s not much else here. Kevin Smith has been playing very well without a dominant offensive line in front of him, but beyond these two players there’s no stability for the offense system unless the same coaching staff remains in place. If the Ford family retains Rod Marinelli, this will be a run-oriented offense that will want to go deep off the play action pass.

Chicago: Kyle Orton has been a steadying influence on this offense and Matt Forte could be the best rookie back in a fine 2008 class. He does everything well and his quiet demeanor disguises a warrior’s attitude. Did you see him dominate the Bear’s last offensive drive in the 4th quarter? One play, he catches a pass in the flat for a pivotal first down. Not much later, he bounces a run to the left side and breezes by A.J. Hawk for a big gain. Then he is met in the backfield by Aaron Kampson on a 3rd down run and runs over the DE to get the first down. Not to mention he scoring the tying TD. The problem is Cassel would have to work with young receivers with little or no experience. At the same time, he’s pretty good in a short passing attack and he’s developing into an effective cold weather player.

New York: If Brett Farve retires, the Jets will be left with Kellen Clemens and a cast of young quarterbacks with intriguing, but not blue chip, futures. The skill talent is pretty good and depending on your view of Eric Mangini, you could say this team appears to be a decent fit.

San Francisco: If Mike Singletary gets the job for 2009 and bumps Mike Martz, Cassel could be the type of guy the Niners would try to build around. The surrounding talent is young, but more experienced than Chicago. The issue will be the offensive coordinator/system San Francisco adopts.

Minnesota: Strong running game? Check. Solid offensive mind? Check. Quality deep threat? Check. Compatible offensive system? Big question mark. It seems to me if Minnesota decides to pursue a quarterback they are going after McNabb, who has worked with Childress and won’t need any development.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs’ Jeff Garcia could stay another year or be at the end of the road. It could go either way and the system – similar to the Vikings – is a question mark.

Carolina: If Jake Delhomme becomes a victim of the philosophy of getting rid of a good player one year early, the Panthers could be a good match with Steve Smith and that two-headed running game.

St. Louis: Marc Bulger is a fine passer when he has time, but he’s frail and gets hit a lot. A recipe for disaster and this team is ripe for an offensive overhaul.

Early Verdict: I’m betting on San Francisco or Detroit. If Cassel winds up in either destination, I think 3600 yards and 20 scores would be a huge year for him. I don’t expect him to retain starter status numbers in 2009. If you do, I think he’ll disappoint.

What Happens to Donovan McNabb? McNabb is at a pivotal point in his career. The Eagles are a competitive team, but they have major holes and play in a tough division. If McNabb and Reid remain in Philly, the Eagles brass will have bought into the idea that the window of contention is still open for the foundation of this team. Personally, I think it could go either way. Brian Westbrook is at the point where it’s 50/50 he’ll continue his peak performance or begin to decline. Brian Dawkins rebounded, but was 2008 a last hurrah of his greatness? The offensive line is decent and McNabb is still capable of greatness.

The lynchpin is wide receiver. The Eagles did make the effort to draft a fine player in DeSean Jackson, but he is not the next Steve Smith – a rugged player capable of making big plays anywhere on the field due to his balance and surprising physical style of play. I really have an issue with the type of receivers the Eagles choose. The most physical player they have is Reggie Brown and he has difficulty getting open and making big plays. They need a go-to guy and DeSean Jackson isn’t that player. He’s capable of coming close, but he will never be a physical presence.

The guy the Eagles need if they keep the current unit intact is Anquan Boldin. Put Boldin on this team and the Eagles will be the beast of the NFC at least for a year or two longer. I think they could extend McNabb and Westbrook’s career if they made this move and keep the Eagles in contention for a few years. The Eagles could draft another runner and use Westbrook in the slot with Boldin in the line up. Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown, and Jason Avant become far more dangerous third, fourth, and fifth receivers if they choose to keep them.

I believe this is part of what McNabb wants to address with the Eagles’ organization at year’s end. If they don’t buy what he’s selling, then I think we’ll be seeing McNabb elsewhere. The problem is Philly won’t want to see him on another NFC team and the best two options – Chicago and Minnesota are teams they would have to face in the playoffs.

But let’s say the Eagles decide to let McNabb walk and he stays in the NFC. The Vikings may be the best match from the standpoint of Brad Childress knowing McNabb better than anyone not named Reid, but it would send the message to Tarvaris Jackson that Minnesota would not longer consider him a franchise player under construction. I believe the smart thing to do would be to let Jackson sit, hope he can gain maturity through the difficult process, and possibly become a spectacular player by observing a great quarterback at work that will reinforce the things Childress has been trying to teach Jackson. McNabb will have two strong runners and a decent big play threat at receiver. His stats will probably take a slight downturn compared to what he’s done this year, but with a full offseason elsewhere the change could be minimal for fantasy owners.

The Bears would be a sentimental pick, but this team isn’t much different than the Eagles in terms of offensive talent. At the same time, the Bears might have a bit more room to acquire talent. I doubt they could afford Anquan Boldin, but T.J. Houshmandzadeh could be a player they could add to the mix and still get McNabb. This could make a big difference. Plus, the NFC North is an easier division and a Chicago team fortified with McNabb could easily win six of the eight match ups.

If the Eagles try to unload McNabb to an AFC team, I see two (unlikely) options: Houston and Tennessee. The Texans still like Matt Schaub, but they could feel he’s a bit too injury prone and the promise of a McNabb to Johnson combination could elevate this team into playoff contention. They probably consider Slaton an up and coming player with Westbrook-like abilities and if they can get ahead early with a more dynamic offense, the defense can be more aggressive and take over ball games with a strong pass rush.

I hope Kerry Collins can prove me wrong, but I have the feeling he’ll be exposed in the playoffs. I doubt Vince Young has done anything to show he’s matured enough as a football player to regain the helm. I know the ownership has his back, but they could decide they are so close to a Super Bowl that blowing some money on McNabb and let Young watch how it’s supposed to be done by a guy he may relate better to than Collins – who was never a threat on the ground.

Early Verdict: I think McNabb stays and the Eagles bring in Boldin or Houshmandzadeh. If this happens, put McNabb in my top-five QBs for 2009 and the same for either of these receivers.

’09 Overvalued

Michael Turner: I hate to say it, but unless he has fewer and 18 carries against the hapless Rams, heís the prime candidate to experience a drop off in 2009 due to heavy workload from 2008.

Thomas Jones: Jones should have 1300-1400 yards and 15-17 scores by the end of the season. The addition of Alan Faneca really helped, but the threat of Brett Favre cannot be overlooked. Jones has had four seasons with at least 1100 yards and this was by far his best year of the bunch. With Leon Washington nipping at his heels and Jones entering his 10th season in 2009, Iím thinking his value will be inflated.

Matt Cassel: New digs will hurt his chances of building upon a good debut. See what I wrote earlier.

Joe Flacco: The fantasy cognoscenti will be crowning him a sleeper for 2008. I like the idea in theory, but does he really have the weapons at receiver to be a consistent fantasy starter? I donít see it.

Antonio Bryant: He has been terrific and deserves serious consideration for Comeback Player of the Year, but the QB carousel run by Jon Gruden scares me into thinking that Bryant could be working with a new signal caller. Plus, did you see Bryant get in the face of Falconsí coach Mike Smith recently? It was that type of behavior that got him shipped out of Dallas. Iím not convinced heís thoroughly learned his lesson.

Ted Ginn Jr.: Heís playing better and heíll have numbers that will qualify him as a break out candidate. He could develop into the next Laveranues Coles, but Iím not convinced he has the route running skills and hands to make that leap as soon as 2009.

Undervalued?

Chad Johnson: Heís too good to suck in consecutive years unless he gets hurt again or his name change was symptomatic of an oncoming emotional breakdown.

Donnie Avery: The rookie caught 49 balls for 644 yards and two scores with a cracked hip. He earned my respect. If he can stay healthy between the off season and September and the Rams get quality quarterback play, heís going to be a sleeper.

Cedric Benson: Iím probably going to regret staying this, but this talented college runner may have found new life in Cincinnati. His yards per carry average is nothing to get excited about, but neither is the passing game that is supposed to complement the rushing attack. If Carson Palmer returns to form, I think Bensonís career could follow the track of highly touted prospects that disappointed early, but redeemed themselves late. Two examples I can think of right away include Garrison Hearst and Thomas Jones. I didnít like his attitude coming out of school, but Iíll keep an open mind that heís capable of maturing as he ages.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Heís better than Brian Westbrook and as a pure runner, easily a top-five back in this league. If Fred Taylor walks, he should get the shot to carry load and detractors will say heís too small not to wear down. Iíll take my chancesÖ

David Garrard: I look for him to rebound from a tough 2008 that included several injuries to his offensive line, Jerry Porter never seeing the field, a month-long threat of Matt Jones getting suspended, and Mike Walkerís knee continuing to act up. Despite all these mishaps, Garrard cracked the top 10 with a strong finish in the final six weeks of the season.

Write ĎEm Off

Ben Roethlisberger: I got your attention, didnít I? As an NFL quarterback he has plenty of life left. As a fantasy starter, Iím not excited about him any longer. Heís battled injury and heís tough as nails, but he holds onto the football way too long for my liking and Iím not convinced heíll be able to kick this habit because it appears pretty ingrained in his approach to the game. Iíll gladly take Big Ben as a starter I can rotate with a more promising QB at the end of a draft, but if some one else snaps him up as a top-10 guy, good luckÖ

Reggie Bush: I was wrong about Bush when I touted him as my top-rated back in the 2006 Rookie Scouting Portfolio (in my defense, Deangelo Williams was my No. 2 RB and I hit on quite a few others). He is simply not running the same way he did at USC. Although his open field runs and reversal of field was on nearly every collegiate highlight, Bush frequently demonstrated the ability to stick his foot in the ground and get downhill as a between the tackles runner. Every analyst in the football-loving Western Hemisphere has speculated that Bush is not running effectively between the tackle because has been trying too hard to make big plays in the NFL. This is the second season in a row heís been placed on IR and as much as I hope he can pick up where he left off with that 5.8 ypc average he had in his last four games, heís no longer appealing to me as an upside player. I wonít be stunned if he improves, but Iím not counting on it any longer.

Ryan Grant: He got 100 more carries and the results show me two things: the opposition was no longer caught by surprise and he wasnít consistent. Iíll take him as a No. 3 RB without hesitation if heís a starter, but that means someone else is probably going to invest in Grant as a starter.

The Jury Is Out

Torry Holt: Maybe this is me re-enacting my hope for Marvin Harrisonís return to prominence, but notice that Holt was targeted 109 times heading into this weekend. Last year, he was targeted 150 and 179 times the year before. This is a player I would love to see the Eagles try to get on the cheap for McNabb (although I know if itís even fiscally possible), because he could be a huge bargain on a team that can protect their QB. Otherwise, his prospects donít look encouraging on the mess called the St. Louis Rams.

My Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Matt Hasselbeck: He was hurt all year and tried to play through it. Heíll be as good as new in 2009 and as long as his receivers stay healthy, heíll be a good fantasy option.

Carson Palmer: Before his season ended, he had two strong games against decent opponents (the Cowboys and Giants). Heíll be fine and whether his receivers are Henry, Cinco, or Houshmandzadeh (pick two), you can count on him to be a starter youíd be wise to take over his AFC North rival, Big Ben Roethlisberger.

Rashard Mendenhall: He talked smack, Ray Lewis laid the smack, and his shoulder blade broke in half. He fumbled a lot in the preseason, but he was just a rookie. If the Steelers field anywhere near the unit they have this year on both sides of the ball, Iíd be afraid for much of the AFC because this guy will come back with a vengeance.