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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 1
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 Philly
  • 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 3-5 seasons.

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 headache.

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
 Rank  Player  Team  4th Qtr. YPC
1 Najeh Davenport GB 7.0 (211/30)
2 Ahman Green GB 6.3 (488/77)
3 Clinton Portis Den 6.2 (371/60)
4 Fred Taylor Jac 5.6 (399/71)
5 Brian Westbrook Phi 5.5 (116/21)

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 the play.

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 potential.

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, 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 the eye.

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 ass!

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 opportunity.

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:

  1. Good School
  2. High Performance
  3. Meets the minimum grades on all the tools you use to measure his skills to perform the job.
  4. 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:

Prototype Resume
 RB Height Weight* Speed Competition Durability Performance
Priest Holmes 5'9" 205 Yes No No No
Tiki Barber 5'10" 205 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Charlie Garner 5'9" 187 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Emmitt Smith 5'9" 200 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Michael Bennett 5'9" 207 Yes Yes No No
Dominic Rhodes 5'9" 203 Yes No Yes Yes
Barry Sanders 5'8" 200 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Thurman Thomas 5'10" 198 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Brian Westbrook 5'8" 205 Yes No No Yes

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 NFL RB?

*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.