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Joseph Hutchins | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Backup Plan
Identifying Bench Players with High Upside

I’ve spent the last several weeks breaking down potential underachievers and also potential up-and-comers, but I’ve only kicked around names so far that even the most casual fantasy GM would know. For this final piece of the preseason, I’d like to train the spotlight on some more obscure or, in some cases, out of favor fantasy assets, those players who will be filling out NFL benches come opening week and who won’t even be on draft day radars for 90 percent of owners. Unless you’re in a really deep league, after all, there’s almost no reason to waste valuable picks on NFL backups, save as insurance policies for the studs you nab in the opening rounds. Nevertheless, completely ignoring guys who aren’t day one starters can be hazardous to one’s fantasy health. Need proof? Here’s a brief list of names I’ve recommended in this exact same column the last two summers: Colin Kaepernick, Randall Cobb, T.Y. Hilton, Nick Foles, Joique Bell, and Keenan Allen. Ever heard of those guys? I promise many of you hadn’t when I wrote about them.

Let’s take a look at backups worth gambling on in the late rounds of your deep league draft or, at the very least, placing on your waiver wire watch list to start the season.


Brandon Weeden (DAL): Every August, I peruse NFL depth charts and dive into preseason box scores, hoping against hope that a handful of names will pop off the screen and make a case for inclusion in this article. And every August, I end up asking myself the same question: How on earth are these guys going to end up mattering to my fantasy team? Invariably, I overcome my inherent pessimism / laziness and dig a little deeper, eventually unearthing a statistical nugget such as the following: 51 different players started a game at the QB position in 2013. Last I checked, there are still only 32 NFL teams. Wanna know how many started at quarterback in the preceding three years? Try 47 in 2012, 56 in 2011, and 62 in 2012. I don’t profess to know everything about football, but I definitely know this: backup QBs ALWAYS end up playing. A lot.

Weeden’s actually played plenty already in his two NFL seasons (it only seems like more), which is one reason he stands out in a crowd of way overpaid clipboard-holders. His was certainly an up-and-(mostly)-down stint in Cleveland, but he did manage to squeeze in 20 full starts during that spell. And contrary to popular belief, they weren’t all atrocious. He has four 300-plus-yard games and seven two-TD games on his resume and he also served as the primary author of the most prolific two-game stretch in NFL receiving history, Josh Gordon’s back-to-back 200-yard outings in Weeks 12 and 13 last season.

Of course, Gordon was about all Weeden had going for him in the Browns’ moribund offense and that’s another solid reason, IMHO, to keep an eye on him. Should Tony Romo’s balky back betray him somewhere along the way, the former Okie State and now Dallas Cowboy would inherit the keys to a very different offense, a pass-happy unit stocked with talent. Substitute Dez Bryant (a former college teammate) for Gordon, add Terrance Williams, Jason Witten, and some very capable pass-snatchers out of the backfield, and you’ve got yourself the perfect setup for a guy transitioning from clipboard duty to the huddle.

Johnny Manziel (CLE), Blake Bortles (JAX), Derek Carr (OAK), or Teddy Bridgewater (MIN): OK, so calling these guys “obscure” would be a bit of a stretch. We’ve got three first-round draft picks, one early second-rounder, $36M in guaranteed money, and one certified Instagram star. Yet, all that’s gonna amount to about zilch when the pads start popping for real next week as no rookie quarterback will open under center for the first time since 2007. That’s in stark contrast to two years ago when an unprecedented five rooks earned the distinction (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and the guy we just talked about). Regardless, the days of the long-term quarterback apprenticeship program (think Aaron Rodgers) are long gone and that means one of these guys, maybe even all of them, will earn their opportunity sooner rather than later.

So who gets first crack at taking live snaps? I have no earthly idea, but I’ll put myself out there by saying I’ve listed them in predicted order of appearance. The clamor for Johnny Football in Cleveland has been deafening since the Browns called his name at pick #22 in April and it hasn’t died down much despite dubious behavior and uneven, albeit highly entertaining, play. He’s even rumored to be part of a two-QB package that could be installed as early as September. Bortles, on the other hand, is probably the most NFL-ready and has only Chad Henne standing in his way, but the Jags have made it clear they’re going the patient route. Carr and Bridgewater have similarly shaky QBs ahead of them and it basically comes down to which Matt you like most (or least), Schaub or Cassel. The former was a locomotive derailment in Houston last season while the latter played well enough to beat some decent teams down the stretch. Gun to my head? Schaub cracks first.

No matter whom you favor, none of these four merits a draft selection unless you’re in a really deep league or dynasty league. Don’t forget this, though: The most popular guy on any team is the backup quarterback and especially if he also happens to double as a splashy high draft pick.

Mark Sanchez

Few backup quarterbacks have the upside of Sanchez.

Mark Sanchez (PHI): The Sanchise knows all about splashy high draft picks, having once been selected No.5 overall back in 2009. He hasn’t always lived up to that billing, of course, but when somebody does a post-mortem on his roller coaster career someday, they won’t be able to deny him this: He’s started 68 total games in the NFL (so far) and even quarterbacked New York in two AFC Championship tilts. Oh, and he wasn’t the reason they lost either game. Say what you want about the Butt Fumbler, but the league has seen so much worse at the position.

Sanchez has now moved on to the City of Brotherly Love where he’ll assume full-time, undisputed backup duties to Nick Foles, a guy I touted last August, as previously mentioned. Does that mean I’ve lost faith in the Eagles’ star signal caller? Hardly. The surest path to live snaps for any backup is poor health or poor performance, however, and Foles has already succumbed to injury in his brief career. Moreover, the brevity of said career suggests we maybe haven’t seen a large enough sample size to know for certain whether he’s the long-term solution. Whatever the case may be, it seems there’s a better than microscopic chance that New York’s former rock star could potentially reprise that role in Philadelphia.

What we know for certain if he does is that he’ll be operating one of the league’s more explosive offenses and working for one of its most beautiful offensive minds. Chip Kelly is familiar with Sanchez’s skill set from even before their Pac-10 days (now Pac-12) when he was recruiting for the University of New Hampshire. I’m inclined to believe this familiarity had plenty to do with the latter signing up to play for the former. It could get interesting if Foles somehow falters.

Running Backs

Dan Herron (IND): The league is experiencing a paradigm shift at the running back position – think fewer carries spread out over more bodies – but you wouldn’t know it by listening to most fantasy pundits. In mock draft after mock draft, scarcity gets mistaken for value as the ground gainers continue to be snapped up early and often, leaving those who blink with speculative scraps and bargain backups. Is that such a bad thing, though? Of the 20 running backs who topped the ADP charts last summer, only 12 ended up closing the season as top-20 point producers. Meanwhile, the eight backs who rounded out the top 20 in total points last season averaged an ADP of about 38 (read: barely draftable in a 10-team league) and that’s not factoring in Zac Stacy (because he didn’t have an ADP last August).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that running backs, on the whole, are about as flaky a fantasy position group as you’re going to find; thus, treating them as its most valuable seems like pretty risky business. I’m not the first to challenge this orthodoxy and I encourage anyone harboring think-outside-the-backfield thoughts to read this piece, wherein our own Jason Mitchell puts it all on the line by purposefully ignoring running backs in the early rounds. It’ll be fun to see how he does, but here’s my guess: quite well provided he’s ”Jason”-on-the-spot come free agent pickup time.

Anyhoo, I’m probably supposed to say something about Herron here, huh? Problem is, I know very little, other than the fact he was largely overshadowed at Ohio St. by Terrelle Pryor and then, cruelly, caught up in the same jersey-selling scandal that cost both players five games in the 2011 season. Oh, and there’s also the fact he’s backing up one of 2013’s biggest failures, Trent Richardson, and one of its most fragile, Ahmad Bradshaw. No promises, of course, but I think we’ll be hearing more from Mr. Herron this season.

Danny Woodhead (SD), Pierre Thomas (NO), Darren Sproles (PHI), or Lance Dunbar (DAL): Why are running backs garnering fewer carries, you ask? Maybe it’s because they’re too busy catching more passes. NFL teams averaged 27.1 rushing attempts per game in 2013, the fewest since (are you ready for this?) 1932. Though the drop-off has been exceedingly gradual, when spread out over more bodies (read: the proliferation of RBBCs), the effect seems more dramatic. Luckily, some backs are trading in ground-based production for aerial production. The four guys mentioned here fairly typify this new “offensive weapon” hybrid, one part running back to five parts wide receiver and every bit as valuable as your traditional ground-pounders.

Woodhead joined forces with Ryan Mathews in San Diego last season to form the league’s second most productive duo (behind Reggie Bush and Joique Bell). Not content, apparently, the Bolts went and added Donald Brown to the mix this past March. Naturally, Woodhead’s value plummets, right? Nope. The little engine from Chadron St. is going to do exactly what he did last year, carry the ball a handful of times each Sunday and catch a whole bunch of passes. It’s Mathews who should be worried. Thomas and Sproles figure to carry the ball even less than Woodhead, most likely, but that doesn’t dent their value much in this writer’s opinion. The former will be part of a three-man committee in the Big Easy, but should hog the majority of passing game targets. And that’s primarily because the guy who used to catch all those running back targets has moved on to Philadelphia. Sproles has never once carried the ball more than 100 times in a season but is clearly someone you can start with confidence. He’s only two years removed from being a top-ten running back and is now playing for Chipper.

Dunbar seems like the only high-risk guy of this group as we really don’t have much to go on so far (just 64 total touches in two seasons). Injuries mostly explain that low touch count, though, so it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys intend to utilize him in 2014 should he stay healthy. They’ve sure been talking him up something fierce so far and he’s got the speed/elusiveness to make an already dangerous offense even more dangerous. It’s just a shame he can’t play defense too.

James White (NE): Saturday is cut-down day across the league and one of the hottest rumors making the rounds this week has the Pats severing ties with its exasperating No.1 running back, Stevan Ridley. The evidence supporting this prediction – he only played 11 snaps during New England’s dress rehearsal game – seems kinda flimsy, but I wouldn’t put anything past Bill Belichick. Even if Ridley survives the purge, he’s probably only a(nother) critical fumble away from the waiver wire and that means doors are potentially opening in Foxboro.

White seems like just the kind of kid who could walk right through them. The fourth-rounder from ‘Sconny was the early star of training camp and even impressed Coach Belichick enough to earn first-team reps along the way. Though he hasn’t been terribly impressive in any of the preseason games, neither has the guy who’s standing in his way, the talented but fumble-fingered Mr. Ridley. If the Pats do jettison Ridley, White suddenly becomes part of a very interesting rotation for a historically high-powered offense. Yes, he’d still leak opportunities to everyone’s favorite New England back, Shane Vereen, another one of those “offensive weapons” we just talked about. However, Vereen isn’t built to withstand a lot of between-the-tackles punishment and that means he would always need to be part of a rotation. We’ll know Saturday whether it’s Ridley or White who’s going to form the other part of that rotation. Since I drafted him late in our FFToday staff league draft, you already know which horse I’m betting on.

Wide Receivers

John Brown (ARZ): Early in training camp, Cardinals GM Steve Keim said the following about Brown, a third-round pick from tiny Pittsburg St. in Kansas: “I haven’t seen a rookie come in and do what he’s done…since Anquan Boldin.” For perspective, here’s what Boldin’s freshman NFL season (2003) ended up looking like: 101 receptions, 1,377 yards, 8 TDs, and 189.7 fantasy points. That’s the most he’s ever scored, by the way, so you can probably imagine why Keim’s comments caught my attention.

Not to be outdone, apparently, Cardinals’ coach, Bruce Arians, followed up a couple days ago by saying the rook could see the field for roughly 60 percent of Arizona’s snaps this year. 60 percent? That sounds about like an average usage rate for a legit No.3 receiver. OK, now you’ve really got my attention, Arizona brain trust. Granted, Arians may or may not have a Pinocchio problem (he also told us Andre Ellington will notch 25-30 touches per game), but even if the diminutive Brown plays closer to 40-50 percent of the time, he’s got a chance to make some serious noise as a rook.

It doesn’t hurt his cause, of course, that opposing defenses will be gearing up to contain the inimitable Larry Fitzgerald and his 2013 sidekick, Michael Floyd. Both of those fine receivers stand about 6’3” and weigh north of 200 pounds. Brown’s all of 5’10” and a buck-80. But he also ran the third fastest 40-yard dash (4.34) at this year’s combine, a hundredth of a second slower than another rookie everyone’s talking about (Brandin Cooks) and precisely as fast as a guy he’s already being compared to (T.Y. Hilton). Hilton appeared in this column two years ago, remember, and that worked out pretty well. Don’t sleep too long on Brown.

Donte Moncrief (IND): Hilton’s rise to stardom in Indy has been startlingly swift and he has those wheels, not to mention a little bit of luck (and Luck), to thank for that. He burst onto the scene in 2012 with 50 grabs, 861 yards, and seven TDs. Then, Reggie Wayne went down with an ACL tear halfway through last season and he was suddenly cast into the role of Andrew Luck’s number one target. That expanded role/responsibility ended up netting the speedy Colt 82 catches, 1,083 yards, and five more scores in 2013. Not bad numbers for a third-round pick in his first couple years of work, eh?

Strangely, Hilton is just the 24th-ranked wide receiver in terms of ADP heading into this season and that’s precisely where he was at this time last year, despite ranking as the 19th-most productive player at the position in between. Aren’t third-year receivers supposed to be breakout candidates? Presumably, folks are lukewarm on the former Florida International star because Wayne is back in the fold and Indy also added Hakeem Nicks in free agency. Nicks isn’t who Hilton’s owners should be worried about, though, if you ask me. Donte Moncrief is.

Drafted in almost the exact same slot as Hilton was two years prior (No. 90 v. No. 92 overall), the former Rebel has been turning heads in training camp with his athleticism and prototypical, Larry Fitzgerald-esque size (6’2”, 220 pounds). He’s already surpassed Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen on the depth chart (OK, not saying a ton) and is an inevitable Nicks injury away from mattering a whole bunch to us. Oh, and lest you think he’s just a younger version of the Giants’ former star because of that imposing physique, you might wanna consider he ran a 4.4 40 at the combine…right after running an “unofficial” 4.35. Big + athletic + fast usually equals success in the NFL.

Jordan Matthews (PHI): A couple weeks back, I hyped Matthews’ Philadelphia teammate, Jeremy Maclin, in my Top 10 Risers piece, cryptically adding that if the latter’s lengthy injury history proved too risky for your liking, you could always sit back and wait for a “soon-to-be Philly stud” later in your draft. Almost as if on cue, the “soon-to-be Philly stud” went out and grabbed nine balls for 104 yards against New England, officially letting the genie out of the preseason hype bottle. I’m not sure how much later you can wait on Matthews now, as the former Commodore has something neither of the aforementioned backups has, an actual ADP (No. 52 WR). Heck, it’s even possible you’d have to overpay for him since everyone now knows who he is and what coach he’s going to be playing for. Still, my advice? Pay that price.

If there’s such a thing as an ideal Chip Kelly receiver, Matthews is closer to it than last year’s surprise sensation, DeSean Jackson. He’s about the same size as the aforementioned Moncrief, sure-handed, and tough. More importantly, he can beat defenders one-on-one, something Eagles receivers are expected to do since they see a steady diet of man-to-man coverage. Factor in Maclin’s propensity for going down (despite my endorsement) and the fact Riley Cooper is more possession guy/run-blocker than dangerous wideout and you can see how Matthews might become even more relevant than folks are starting to think he might be.

Heck, even if you’re not officially on the Matthews hype-wagon, you can’t deny he’s got the NFL receiver gene coursing through his body. Literally. Matthews’ second cousin is none other than the most prolific receiver in the league’s storied history, Jerry Rice. I know that shouldn’t matter, but…

Have a great season, folks!

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