RB Brian Westbrook, PHI
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!
Let’s talk about Brian Westbrook,
the Eagles’ third-year RB. In one sense, this week’s
Gut Check is about a player whose name became more familiar to
fantasy football owners after his 2003 season. In yet another
sense, it’s about the concept of prototypes for running
backs and how fantasy owners should pay attention to the differences
in which NFL personnel men and media experts view them.
Eleven weeks into the 2003 season, Westbrook was a top 15 RB.
He finished the season with over 1000 all-purpose yards and 12
touchdowns scoring 9 touchdowns in 11 games. Most impressive was
Westbrook’s 5.2 yards per carry average and the ability
to score from anywhere on the field. Yet in most circles there
are numbers the experts bring up to temper Westbrook’s potential
for 2004 and beyond:
- 2 - as in the 2-man, running back by committee approach in
- 5-8 (Westbrook’s height)
- 205 (Westbrook’s weight)
These three numbers are the reason why many say Westbrook is
too small to be the Eagle’s feature back. The Gut Check
couldn’t disagree more, and will explain why you should
make the effort to acquire Westbrook. The Gut Check sees Westbrook
as a quality #2 RB, if not #1 RB, on fantasy teams for the next
Let’s begin with the RBBC approach in Philly. Duce Staley?
Shipped across state in 2004. Correll Buckhalter? While it is
true Buckhalter is a bigger back and has shown to be productive
on the field, there are several reasons why fantasy owners should
view him more as an insurance policy rather than a typical RBBC
At the start of the 2003 season, Reid said Buckhalter was at
the top of the depth chart, yet he was used more like the third
man on the totem pole. Meanwhile Westbrook, originally slated
as the primary return man and a third down option, carried the
ball with games on the line. Prior to his mid-season ankle injury,
Westbrook had two game sealing touchdown runs and an eye-popping,
9.1 yards per carry average in the fourth quarter through the
first seven weeks of the season. In fact, Westbrook finished among
the leaders in ypc in the 4th quarter:
|4th Quarter YPC
|| 4th Qtr. YPC
Common sense says most coaches have their best players on the
field in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Of course,
one may argue Westbrook’s carries were at least a third
fewer than Green’s, Portis, and Taylor’s but breaking
it down, Westbrook was the Andy Reid’s guy when the game
was on the line. In 4th quarters where the Eagles were within
7 points of their opponent Westbrook had 16 attempts, 112 yards,
and 2 touchdowns. True, Westbrook’s 7.1 ypc is padded with
a 62 yard TD run but game sealing runs against stacked defenses
don’t do anything but further emphasize the point that Westbrook
is still dangerous when he’s primary defensive target on
Reid’s words may have said Buckhalter, but his actions
and Westbrook’s production clearly tell another story. Keep
in mind Buckhalter is a power back. Prior to his torn ACL in 2002,
Buckhalter wasn’t known as a home run threat. That alone
gives The Gut Check future visions of Buckhalter as a Tyrone Wheatley
to Brian Westbrook’s rendition of Charlie Garner. Buckhalter
will continue to have good games in 2004, but expect for Westbrook
to become the primary back in most situations. In fact, Andy Reid
has already used Westbrook in more advantageous to fantasy owners
than the Raiders used Garner. Westbrook had five rushing and two
receiving scores in the red-zone in 2003.
It is Westbrook’s dimensions (5’8”, 205 lbs.)
that are the most common reason among skeptics to downplay his
potential. We need to recognize when a player’s draft status
is low in the NFL, it doesn’t mean we as should write off
a player’s potential fantasy impact. We just need to do
a better job considering information and paying attention to the
frame of reference to maintain a clear idea of that player’s
Let’s examine two opinions on Westbrook coming out of Villanova.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ vice-president of player personnel
during the Tom Landry era. Brandt, now a special correspondent
for NFL.com, provided analysis during the 2002 draft o the effect
that Westbrook would have been a top ten pick if he were a couple
of inches taller and ten pounds heavier. In addition, The
Sporting News Pro Football Draft Guide 2002 stated: “Minus
the ideal size, he has the entire package.”
These statements describe a player with a lot of talent. On the
other hand, it leads to hasty conclusions in the media that Westbrook’s
potential is limited to that of a special teams ace and/or situational,
3rd down back. Need The Gut Check remind you that Domanick Davis
was labeled at best as a 3rd down back during the 2003 draft—and
in some circles—compared less favorably to Westbrook? Twelve
games into the season Davis has carried the load for the Texans
and could be Houston’s RB of the future. Of course, 130
yards vs. the Titan’s top-ranked rushing defense can be
highly convincing. Several have compared Julius Jones to Westbrook
and the Cowboys shied away from several bigger, higher profile
prospects to make Jones their featured guy. With this in mind,
let’s look further into the frame of reference behind these
statements about Westbrook.
Brandt is a great football man that acquired the likes of Tony
Dorsett, Duane Thomas, and Herschel Walker---all outstanding talents
at the position. The evaluators from The Sporting News Pro
Football Draft Guide—the other source The Gut Check
quoted on Westbrook—have experience as pro scouts and are
a great resource for fantasy football owners. On the same token,
a reporter may take statements from these sources and write off
a player’s chances at being a superstar in the NFL. The
discerning fantasy owner needs to look at the entertaining, sound
bites about a player and examine if there’s more than meets
To fantasy owners and pro football organizations alike, Brandt’s
statement is not an indictment of Westbrook’s ability. What
he’s saying is Westbrook is a special talent that may develop
over the long term, but certain factors exist that will likely
prohibit him from getting an immediate shot to prove himself.
To the reporter, it means unless an injury occurs to someone else,
Westbrook isn’t going to get a chance to make an immediate
impact and not a compelling a story for his general audience.
So why didn’t teams draft Westbrook earlier if he has top
ten talent? A quick reminder we’re talking about 32 mega-million
dollar corporations. The scouts report to personnel men such as
Brandt, and realistically what do most managers do in the corporate
world? That’s correct, they make decisions they can justify—or
as we all know it to be in the real world—covering one’s
Managers aren’t going to invest top ten dollars on an employee
that doesn’t fit all the prerequisites they use to indicate
the highest percentage of success. For an NFL running back we
already know these prerequisites include things such as size,
speed, and success at a big-time college program. Based on the
prerequisites for an RB, Westbrook only has the prototypical speed.
The Gil Brandt’s of the NFL won’t be able to justify
top-10 money for someone who doesn’t fit the recruiting
formula. It’s just a reality of any marketplace. Who gets
the job more often, the Harvard graduate with a 4.0 GPA and a
transcript filled with academic rewards or the state college graduate
with a 3.0 and had to spend his spare time working his way through
school? It doesn’t matter if the state college grad turns
out to be the better employee or if the high school drop-out winds
up chairing a multi-billion dollar corporation: The guy with the
best looking credentials has the best chance of getting an initial
Try to place yourself in Gil Brandt’s shoes when he managed
the Cowboy organization. You’re running a high-risk, high-reward
business that requires huge monetary investments into individual
players. If just a few of these players don’t perform to
expectations, you’ve likely set back the team’s chances
for success for several more years. Meanwhile, dozens of other
proven managers are a phone call away if you keep making bad moves.
Since top ten draft picks make significantly more coin than the
rest of the draft pool, the best way to avoid others second guessing
your decisions is to evaluate these guys just like you would if
you were recruiting candidates for upper management positions
in the corporate world:
- Good School
- High Performance
- Meets the minimum grades on all the tools you use to measure
his skills to perform the job.
- Proven reliability to consistently report to work.
So here you are, Gil Brandt, evaluating a player like Brian Westbrook.
Are you going walk into Tex Schramm’s office and recommend
the company pay a top ten salary to a guy from Villanova with
previous ACL tears, not to mention the fact he’s 5’9”
and 205? If you want to keep your job through draft day, Westbrook
and 1st round probably won’t be coming out of your mouth
during the same sentence.
That makes sense in the NFL, but as a fantasy football owner
there are numerous examples of RBs sharing similar dimensions
to Westbrook’s that made it, and made it big in the NFL.
They all faced questions about being able to carry the load for
an entire season and remain productive. Based on the names we
see below, the Gut Check believes Westbrook will have the same
answer for the critics. Here’s how these players stack up
according to these recruiting prototypes mentioned earlier:
Again, the headings for each table are basic prototypes we’ve
all heard the pundits describe when lauding the “can’t
miss” futures of the Curtis Enis, Blair Thomas, and Sammie
Smith. On the same token these were the very same prerequisites
used to question, downplay and (in Priest Holmes’ case) completely
ignore some of the very players on this table:
Competition: Did the back start at a top tier college program?
Durability: Did the back have an injury history?
Performance: Did the back put up numbers indicative of a prototypical
*Note: Some weights are the
listed weight upon entry to the NFL. Others such as Emmitt Smith’s,
Barry Sanders’, and Charlie Garners’ are playing weights
listed well into their careers after several seasons of weight
training and conditioning.
Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith came from proven college programs
with no injury history, so the first round selections were conceivable.
Even so, Emmitt didn’t have the prototypical size and speed
personnel men look for in a top pick. As a result, the pundits
thought the round of his selection was a questionable decision.
Although Westbrook’s two ACL injuries were freak accidents
away from the football field and he never had a serious injury
in a college game, it casts doubt on his potential durability.
This is why it is important for the discerning fantasy owner to
learn how to make good use of scouting profiles and “read
between the lines.”
In Westbrook’s case we would learn that he actually played
through injuries and performed at a high level. That’s the
kind of toughness that is appealing to both fantasy football owners
and NFL personnel types. Westbrook was the first RB in NCAA history
to have over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same
season. Based on the notion that it takes two years to fully recover
from an ACL tear, this means that while he was putting up stats
that ultimately broke the NCAA all-purpose yardage record, Brian
Westbrook spent half of his college career “recovering”
from his ACL tears (The first sustained in his senior year in
high school, and the second tear occurred during his college career).
Nonetheless, when looking at the prototypes for success it’s
easy to see why an NFL personnel man would rather select a DeShaun
Foster, Clinton Portis, T.J. Duckett, or William Green in the
first two rounds. As a result, the vast majority of the media
will only cover the top prospects said to have a chance to make
an immediate impact.
As fantasy owners, we have to look beyond the obvious to gain
an edge. The best example is Priest Holmes. Looking at the chart
we see the story we all know about him: Holmes had the talent
to be recruited by a big-time college program (Texas), but he
tore his ACL and wound up as second banana to Ricky Williams.
Priest had enough speed, but his size coupled with the three strikes
against him on the chart didn’t even get him drafted. As
a result, Holmes had to fight the perception of having only limited
potential as a feature back. Even upon leaving Baltimore and signing
with Kansas City, Dick Vermeil at first only regarded him as a
change of pace to Tony Richardson!
Bottom line, Holmes was a great bargain to both teams at a low
risk. A wise fantasy owner saw Holmes as such and handcuffed this
future fantasy stud with Richardson after observing his previous
flashes of brilliance in Baltimore. These are the type of late
round draft picks, add-on players in trades, and waiver wire pick-ups
that win leagues.
Does this mean The Gut Check regards Brian Westbrook as the next
Priest Holmes? Possibly. That will ultimately depend on how Andy
Reid decides to use him. The Gut Check realistically sees Westbrook
as a fantasy #2 RB that will perform within the range of Charlie
Garner and Tiki Barber—the kind of back capable of putting
up top 10 stats but will more likely remain in the top 15. He
will likely continue to split some carries with Buckhalter, but
unlike Garner and more like Barber, Westbrook will continue to
see carries inside the five yard line and in crunch time.
But Westbrook also has the potential to be an every down back.
He has a deceptively strong lower body befitting someone that
would weight 220 rather than 205 and this allows him to break
more tackles than one would normally see from a back of his height.
Westbrook runs with a low center of gravity and this actually
keeps him from absorbing as much punishment as some of the bigger
backs that run upright. Skeptics will bring up Westbrook’s
ankle sprains and triceps injury in 2003. These should not scare
you away from him. Barber, Garner, and Marshall Faulk were all
seen as injury prone earlier in their careers. Critic blamed it
on the workload. But all three enjoyed seasons with high workloads
without injury. The Gut Check is more worried about RBs with the
type of speed and cutting ability that isn’t indicative
of their size and as a result their joints, ligaments, and tendons
can’t withstand the force. Edgerrin James, Fred Taylor,
Jamal Lewis, Jamal Anderson, and Bo Jackson are just a few examples
of workhorse backs that missed significant time due to injuries—and
we know some on this list have never been the same.
Reid obviously wouldn’t be using Westbrook as often as
he does inside the red zone or to preserve fourth quarter leads
if he was worried about Westbrook’s durability. Much like
Barry Sanders or Travis Henry, Westbrook’s height and vision
make him very difficult for defenders to spot when running between
the tackles. While he doesn’t have Sanders’ moves
or Henry’s power, Westbrook’s running style lies somewhere
in between. In addition, his receiving skills have always been
well developed and will keep him in the game on every down.
There are several signs Reid is transitioning Westbrook for the
feature role. First, Reid removed him from return duties to keep
him fresh. The Eagles let Staley go to the Steelers and only re-signed
Buckhalter—a restricted free agent that virtually saw no
action in the open market—to a 1-year deal.
But the clear indication of Philadelphia’s confidence in
Westbrook occurred during the 2004 draft. If you watched it, then
you saw the ESPN staff predict the Eagles were trading up in the
first round to select Stephen Jackson. The Gut Check agrees this
appeared to be an obvious choice: Staley gone, Buckhalter signed
one year for depth, and acquire a big back with an all-around
game appearing perfectly suited for Reid’s offense. So what
do they do? They draft tackle Shawn Andrews. Within minutes, Reid
states on the air that he expects Andrews to start right away--possibly
at guard! The running back Philly drafted this year: Bruce Perry,
a seventh round pick likely to make the squad as a return man.
Basically the Eagles did two things that speak volumes about his
plans for Westbrook: beef up the line and get a replacement for
the return game.
It’s not out of the question that we’re looking at
a future #1 RB in fantasy leagues for years to come. The Gut Check
on Brian Westbrook: top 15 RB in 2004; and barring injury, top
10 RB in 2005.