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
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.
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
Bryant (a former college teammate) for Gordon, add Terrance
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Few backup quarterbacks have the upside
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Cooks) and precisely as fast as a guy he’s already being compared
Hilton). Hilton appeared in this column two years ago, remember,
and that worked out pretty well. Don’t sleep too long on Brown.
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,
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
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.
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
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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