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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 133
A Preseason Stat That Matters And Bold Predictions

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!

Bold predictions are intriguing if they have some substance behind them. Last year, I made six bold predictions:
  • Vince Young Will Be Immune To The Madden Curse: Although he didn’t miss more than a few games, he helped his team reach the playoffs, and his completion percentage was a respectable 60%, his interception total increased dramatically and he wasn’t the same dynamic playmaker as he was during the second half of his rookie season.

    Verdict: I was wrong.

  • Steven Jackson Won’t Last The Season: The Rams offensive focal point missed nearly a quarter of the regular fantasy season due to injury. He may have been effective enough to finish as the 15th-rated fantasy RB, but as a consensus top-three fantasy selection, it was a disappointing turn of events for many of his fantasy owners. RB Workload is a telling predictor…

    Verdict: This one is worth claiming I was right.

  • Ricky Williams Has A Last Hurrah Down The Stretch Of 2007: More like a torn pec and lots of ridicule by cynical fantasy owners, but if you grabbed him for your dynasty roster like I told you, you’re smiling now.

    Verdict: Sometimes it’s good to be a little early…

  • Daunte Culpepper Throws For 3500 Yards And 18 Scores: Bold? Yes. True? No.

    Verdict: Dropped the ball here.

  • Sam Hurd Will Be A Productive Fantasy Fill-In Down The Stretch Of 2007: Only if you couldn’t 3 catches for 50 yards in week 16 and 3 catches for 60 yards in week 17.

    Verdict: Some promise, but not a Second Half Wonder.

  • Ben Roethlisberger Will Throw For 4000 Yards And 25 Scores: Big Ben turned in a fine 2007 with 3158 yards and 32 scores. He didn’t match the stat line, but the difference between my predicted yards and his 2007 total is approximately 42 fantasy points. The difference in his 34 total tds (32 passing and 2 rushing) and my predicted 25 tds is approximately 40 points.

    Verdict: In terms of the bottom line I was almost spot-on.

I was two for six with the Ricky Williams prediction having more legs in 2008. To some, my favorable views of Williams, Frank Gore, and Brett Favre qualify as bold predictions for 2008. Still, I want to do some that aren’t as high profile. My first bold predication has a long wind up before its delivery. It begins with this statement:

The surprise RB of 2008 will likely be a rushing leader from the preseason.

If there is a telling statistic from preseason, it’s the fact that rushing leaders from the preseason tend to produce somewhere down the line in the regular season.

2007’s Leaders Making An Impact (And Preseason Rank): Pierre Thomas (3rd), Ahmad Bradshaw (4th), Selvin Young (7th), Adrian Peterson (8th), and Earnest Graham (14th).

2006’s Leaders Making An Impact (And Preseason Rank): Brandon Jacobs (2nd), Wali Lundy (7th), Mike Bell (8th), and Frank Gore (9th). is only showing the last two years of preseason stats, but there are some intriguing possibilities here. Six of these nine players were rookies and six were either late round picks, or undrafted free agents. I’m going to profile the lesser known backs from this list and give you my take on which are the best candidates to consider acquiring from your league’s waiver wire in the coming weeks.

 2008’s Preseason Rushing Leaders
Rk Player Team Pos Att Att/G Yds Avg Yds/G TD Lng 1st 1st% 20+ 40+ FUM
1 Marcus Mason WAS RB 66 13.2 317 4.8 63.4 0 19 16 24.2 0 0 0
2 Justin Forsett SEA RB 46 11.5 248 5.4 62 1 37 11 23.9 2 0 1
3 Rashard Mendenhall PIT RB 54 13.5 222 4.1 55.5 1 21 12 22.2 1 0 3
4 Michael Bennett TB RB 45 11.2 203 4.5 50.8 1 31 16 35.6 2 0 0
5 DeAngelo Williams CAR RB 26 8.7 188 7.2 62.7 3 60T 9 34.6 2 1 1
6 Thomas Clayton SF RB 42 10.5 186 4.4 46.5 1 23 7 16.7 1 0 0
7 Chris Johnson TEN RB 33 8.2 182 5.5 45.5 2 66T 7 21.2 1 1 0
7 Darren McFadden OAK RB 34 8.5 182 5.4 45.5 0 26 6 17.6 3 0 0
9 Danny Ware NYG RB 33 8.2 181 5.5 45.2 0 22 11 33.3 2 0 0
10 Jacob Hester SD FB 44 11 173 3.9 43.2 3 22 11 25 2 0 0
11 Michael Turner ATL RB 18 4.5 169 9.4 42.2 0 63 5 27.8 2 2 0
12 Jason Snelling ATL RB 36 9 167 4.6 41.8 0 29 9 25 1 0 0
13 Jesse Chatman NYJ RB 51 17 164 3.2 54.7 1 17 10 19.6 0 0 0
14 Rock Cartwright WAS RB 20 6.7 158 7.9 52.7 0 73 6 30 1 1 0
15 Artose Pinner DET RB 46 11.5 154 3.3 38.5 0 13 7 15.2 0 0 0
16 T.J. Duckett SEA RB 36 9 153 4.3 38.2 3 24T 13 36.1 2 0 0
16 Kregg Lumpkin GB RB 38 9.5 153 4 38.2 1 21 9 23.7 1 0 0
18 Quinton Ganther TEN RB 15 3.8 148 9.9 37 2 45T 8 53.3 2 1 0
18 Louis Rankin OAK RB 21 5.2 148 7 37 0 72 6 28.6 1 1 0
20 Ray Rice BAL RB 26 6.5 146 5.6 36.5 1 42 5 19.2 2 1 0

Known Quantities

Let’s quickly summarize the players on this list most fantasy owners will tout as potential fantasy surprises. I’ll separate them into two groups: veterans and rookies.

There are four known, veterans on this list – DeAngelo Williams, Michael Turner, T.J. Duckett, and Michael Bennett. Their production is a good sign for fantasy owners and their respective teams. All three are running extremely well in the preseason. Turner and Williams made good arguments for waiting until round three to draft your first back in 2008. Duckett should provide a solid change of pace to Julius Jones and if Jones has difficulty staying healthy, Duckett could be a premium waiver wire selection. If Earnest Graham doesn’t finish the year healthy, Bennett has played well enough to warrant consideration. All four of these backs are well-known quantities and if Duckett and Bennett are on the waiver wire, your competition is most likely to target them if they have available space on their roster.

The known rookie draft picks are Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Steve Slaton, Darren McFadden, Ray Rice, and Jacob Hester. The only real surprise to me is Slaton who played well enough for the Texans to cut Darius Walker and Marcel Shipp. Slaton has run with decent leverage and more power than I saw on film during his career at West Virginia. I’m not the only one who noticed the difference. Troy Aikman mentioned this during the Cowboys-Texans preseason match up.

Johnson, Mendenhall, and McFadden should at least begin 2008 as contributors. Johnson has the best chance to make an early impact as a 50/50, 60/40 contributor, but he will have to prove he can remain patient against first-team defenders and continue to keep his pad level low. Mendenhall looks like a future starter if he can hold onto the football. The Steelers tend to acquire players who have this issue: Plaxico Burress, Willie Parker, and Santonio Holmes all had issues with putting the ball on the carpet. If it takes Mendenhall as long as it took these teammates, Parker could remain a bargain. McFadden appears to be a part of a three-headed committee. He clearly has the most potential to earn more of the carries, but Coach Kiffin will need to see McFadden handle less vanilla defensive looks, first. Hester will see situational time, but as I mentioned to begin the summer, Darren Sproles is the better option to back up LT because he’s more explosive and has better vision. If LT goes down, look for a committee approach, at best, for Hester.

The best back of the rookies I mentioned above is Rice. You have to be certifiable not to grab Rice if you have McGahee on your squad. This is a borderline-special runner that understands all facets of the game and plays with heart. I’ve talked about him enough this summer and he has shown his skills both in practices and the preseason with a 5.6 ypc average.

Lesser Known, But More Intriguing Talents

At this point of the year, the most intriguing players are the backs on this list that, like Selvin Young or Earnest Graham, won’t be drafted in fantasy leagues, but are available on the waiver wire. I will rank each player according to my perception of his opportunity and talent.

Least Likely

Thomas Clayton – The KSU alum has been impressive in the second half of 49er preseason games, but he’s well behind Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster. His likelihood of seeing playing time is very small at this point, especially after landing on the practice squad. Jessie Chatman, Artose Pinner, and Louis Rankin were also cut and not worth discussing at this point.

Marcus Mason – Baltimore found room for Mason on their practice squad. Before this move, there were a lot of fantasy owners hyping Mason. A key sign that you shouldn’t get too excited about Mason’s stats is Cartwright’s. Some of them thought he would beat out Rock Cartwright, but the KSU alum (yes, another one) averaged 7.9 yards per carry, can play fullback, and is a good special teams player. Think of Cartwright in the same way the Bears have valued Adrian Peterson, because…

Rock Cartwright – He’s the type of player that could be productive with an excellent team around him. He’s a better all around football player than he is a runner. Not that he’s a bad runner, but he lacks the top-shelf athleticism to pose match up problems with linebackers and defensive backs. He’s also stuck behind Portis and Betts.

Quinton Ganther – The Fresno State runner is a straight-ahead power runner with decent burst and receiving skills. As with Mason, Ware, and Hester, Ganther’s preseason is also a reflection of the offensive line he was teamed with. He’s not a player the Titans want to see in their starting lineup, but he could be a passable complement to Chris Johnson if Lendale White gets hurt.

Jason Snelling – Snelling was originally slated to be a fullback. The Virgina alum is a powerful downhill runner along the lines of Quinton Ganther, but with greater power. In Mike Smith’s offense in Atlanta, Snellling could succeed in the short term if Turner and Norwood get hurt. Think of him as a more versatile Samkon Gado.

Talent Is There, More Development Needed, But Could Produce If Put In The Game

Danny Ware – The second year back out of Georgia was originally signed by the Titans in 2007 and then bounced to the Jets and Giants. Ware has the size, speed, and acceleration to be a starting runner. What he has lacked is vision and patience. His 5.5 yards per carry has been impressive, even in the second half of preseason games, but won’t see significant time unless Jacobs, Ward, and Bradshaw get hurt. It’s possible, but not likely. A source of mine affiliated with the Georgia Bulldogs who I cannot name due to the fact he is not normally accessible to the media told me a couple of years ago, told me that Danny Ware was the most talented athlete on a Georgia depth chart that also had Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown. He also said Ware lacked the skills and work ethic of his teammates. He made some poor decisions in college, such as opting to work out on his own at a training complex the summer before his junior year and coming back in worse shape than he was before he left. It appears Ware has matured since he was bounced from two NFL teams and his effort was good enough to keep him on the very deep Giants roster that includes Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw on the bench. It is a sign of Ware’s raw talent and productivity this summer. Still, I wouldn’t count on him buried this far back on the depth chart.

Justin Forsett – The former Cal Bear has impressed the Seahawks with some strong preseason efforts. While he’ll never be a powerful back, he could turn into a poor man’s Brian Westbrook because of his balance, receiving skills, and vision. He runs with good determination, which was evident this summer. With Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett having repeated issues with nagging injuries throughout their careers, Forsett could wind up spelling Maurice Morris from time to time and with a four-year deal signed this summer, the Seahawks appear optimistic he could develop into a future contributor. I don’t believe he’ll ever develop into a focal point of the offense, but a Kevin Faulk-like role is not out of the question. If needed, Forsett could be productive short term in the same way Dominic Rhodes was for the Colts.

Kregg Lumpkin – My anonymous source working for the Georgia Bulldogs football team, said that Lumpkin was the best back of the three I mentioned in the Danny Ware section. What he said stood out about Lumpkin was his decisiveness in the hole, his ability to gain yards after contact, and his concentration as a blocker and receiver. When I scouted him for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio was highly impressed with his skills. In the past two years I have mentioned before that Lumpkin was a Parade All-American in high school and of the class of backs coming out of high school that year only Reggie Bush was more heralded. The problem has been repeated injuries.

Heading into the Titans game, Lumpkin has rushed 28 times for 126 yards and according to the Marshfield News Herald, two of Lumpkin’s carries were goal line rushes. He led the Packers in rushing this summer and was good enough for Green Bay to choose this undrafted free agent over the likes of DeShawn Wynn, Vernand Morency, and Noah Herron. Lumpkin is a player I am adding to my rosters when I can because as good as Ryan Grant was, it’s a great example that backs rise and fall quickly in pro football. The Packer coaching staff has said Lumpkin has improved each week and shows quick feet and a good burst in an NFL body.

When you piece together his injury issues and a crowded Georgia backfield, you’re looking at a player who still has time to develop into something much greater than his current value. I saw enough of Lumpkin to know that if he didn’t get hurt as a sophomore, he would have been the main starter for at least two seasons and a likely first day pick. He just needs the reps, extra coaching, and good health.

This leads me to my first of four bold predictions for 2008:

Kregg Lumpkin Will Be The Surprise Fantasy Producer Down The Stretch Of 2008.
I’m not convinced Ryan Grant isn’t a one-year wonder and I think it will be a very telling year in Green Bay with Brett Favre no longer on the team. I’m buying the doom and gloom approach. I think those who say Favre was never as good as people say will see that Favre had an impact on the offense around him in ways they never comprehended. One of those will be the ability to run the football. I wouldn’t be surprised if Green Bay’s running game gets beat up this year in an effort to force Aaron Rodgers to show he’s legit. I wouldn’t normally predict injury, but this is a bold prediction piece, I can make this kind of call here.

Bold Prediction Two: Dustin Keller Will Be A Top-Seven Fantasy TE.
Chris Baker may be the starter, but Keller has a great opportunity to be the finisher when the Jets get into the redzone. This isn’t a case of being in love with a rookie’s ability. There’s actually history behind my prediction. Brett Favre has utilized two-tight end sets productively in the past. In 1996, Green Bay had two, top-20 fantasy tight ends: Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson. Chmura was the starter for 13 games in ’96, but he was ranked 18th among tight ends. On the other hand, Jackson only started five games but amassed over 500 yards and ten scores, ranking him 4th overall at his position. It’s worth noting that Chmura was the second-ranked fantasy TE in 1995.

This brings us to Favre and the Jets. New York has a trio of Bubba Franks, Chris Baker, and Keller at the position. Franks is a decent run blocker and understands how to work with Favre in the redzone. Baker is a better athlete than Franks at this stage of his career and versatile on the line. This will allow the Jets to use three tight ends in a jumbo set at the goal line where they can confuse linebackers and safeties. They can also utilize Keller as an H-back of sorts and this will create mismatches for Keller to exploit with is athleticism.

I expect the Jets to be an excellent redzone team and Dustin Keller will be a beneficiary even if he’s technically #2 on the depth chart. Five hundred yards and ten scores is a lofty projection for the rookie, but I think it’s possible given the circumstances.

Bold Prediction Three: Jay Cutler Will Make The Leap To A Top-Five Fantasy Season Among Quarterbacks.
Four years ago I wrote about Drew Brees, who was entering his third season with the Chargers and there were major questions about his ability to be an NFL starter. I defended Brees and used a telling stat history to prove my point: More often than not, second-year starters with at least a 59% completion percentage and more scores than interceptions go on to have good NFL careers.

 Second Year Starters As A Future Predictor Of Success
Last First Rookie Year Tm G Comp Att Pct P Yd P TD INT R Yd R Att R TD
Staubach Roger 1969 1971 Dal 13 126 211 59.72% 1882 15 4 343 41 2
Montana Joe 1979 1980 sfo 15 176 273 64.47% 1795 15 9 77 32 2
Simms Phil 1979 1990 nyg 14 184 311 59.16% 2284 15 4 61 21 1
Eason Tony 1983 1984 ne 16 259 431 60.09% 3228 23 8 154 40 5
Marino Dan 1983 1984 mia 16 362 564 64.18% 5084 48 17 -7 28 0
O’Brien Ken 1984 1985 nyj 16 297 488 60.86% 3888 25 8 58 25 0
Kelly Jim 1986 1987 buf 12 250 419 59.67% 2798 19 11 133 29 0
Favre Brett 1991 1992 gnb 15 302 471 64.12% 3227 18 13 198 47 1
Johnson Brad 1994 1996 min 12 195 311 62.70% 2258 17 10 90 34 1
Manning Peyton 1998 1999 clt 16 331 533 62.10% 4135 26 15 73 35 2
Warner Kurt 1998 1999 ram 16 325 499 65.13% 4353 41 13 92 23 1
Culpepper Daunte 1999 2000 min 16 297 474 62.66% 3937 33 16 470 90 7
Garcia Jeff 1999 2000 sfo 16 355 561 63.28% 4278 31 10 415 71 4
Brady Tom 2000 2001 ne 15 264 413 63.92% 2843 18 12 43 36 0
Pennington Chad 2000 2002 nyj 15 276 400 69.00% 3128 22 6 49 30 2
Brees Drew 2001 2002 sdg 16 320 526 60.84% 3284 17 16 130 38 1
Bulger Marc 2002 2003 ram 15 336 532 63.16% 3845 22 22 75 29 4
Volek Billy 2003 2004 ten 10 218 357 61.06% 2486 18 10 50 11 1
Palmer Carson 2003 2004 cin 14 263 432 60.88% 2897 18 18 47 18 1
Leftwich Byron 2003 2004 jax 14 267 441 60.54% 2941 15 10 148 39 2
Simms Chris 2004 2005 tam 11 191 313 61.02% 2035 10 7 31 19 0
Roethlisberger Ben 2004 2005 pit 13 168 268 62.69% 2385 17 9 69 31 3
Cutler Jay 2006 2007 den 16 297 467 63.60% 3,497 20 14 44 205 1

On the whole, it’s a pretty impressive list, although after Brees it’s been more of a mixed bag. Billy Volek, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Simms all showed promise, but have yet to fulfill it for various reasons. But you can be pretty happy with Bulger, Palmer, and Roethlisberger. Big Ben became the ninth quarterback on this list that won a Super Bowl and the twelfth to appear in the big game. Not bad for a list of 23 signal callers.

Cutler’s 2007 was all the more impressive considering he unknowingly struggled with diabetes and lost a significant amount of weight down the stretch. He may not have great weapons around him after Brandon Marshall, but Cutler has the skills to make the most of his talent. He did this at Vanderbilt and I won’t be surprised when he does it this year.

Bold Prediction Four: Calvin Johnson Will Out-Produce Randy Moss.
Yes, I have officially funneled the Kool-Aid. It’s not that I think Calvin Johnson is better than Randy Moss (although it has potential to become a worthwhile debate), but I like the Lions offense this year. Although Johnson’s rookie year was considered a disappointment to some, his output was actually 17th overall in the history of rookie receivers and their fantasy performances. Now that Johnson had his initial taste of NFL defenses, I think we’re going to see more of the same from his impressive preseason performances. Even the casual football fan recognizes that the presence of Roy Williams opposite Johnson will help him.

Randy Moss has Wes Welker, but there’s a difference between having a long ball and short ball duo (Pats) and two receivers that can both get deep and win most single coverage match ups due to their size-strength-leaping skills (Lions). I believe opposing defenses will do what they can to shut down Moss and force other options to beat them.

 Moss’ 2007 Season
Week Opp Result Target Rec Yard Avg TD FFPts
1 at NYJ W 38-14 9 9 183 20.3 1 24.3
2 SD W 38-14 9 8 105 13.1 2 22.5
3 BUF W 38-7 7 5 115 23 2 23.5
4 at CIN W 34-13 9 9 102 11.3 2 22.2
5 CLE W 34-17 8 3 46 15.3 0 4.6
6 at DAL W 48-27 13 6 59 9.8 1 11.9
7 at MIA W 49-28 5 4 122 30.5 2 24.2
8 WAS W 52-7 5 3 47 15.7 1 10.7
9 at IND W 24-20 14 9 145 16.1 1 20.5
11 at BUF W 56-10 13 10 128 12.8 4 36.8
12 PHI W 31-28 12 5 43 8.6 0 4.3
13 at BAL W 27-24 8 4 34 8.5 1 9.4
14 PIT W 34-13 11 7 135 19.3 2 25.5
15 NYJ W 20-10 13 5 79 15.8 0 7.9
16 MIA W 28-7 11 5 50 10 2 17
17 at NYG W 38-35 12 6 100 16.7 2 22
DP JAC W 31-20 1 1 14 14 0 1.4
CF SD W 21-12 0 1 18 18 0 3.2
SB at NYG L 14-17 12 5 62 12.4 1 12.2
              First Ten 20.1
              Last Ten 11.4

Look at the difference between the first 10 games and last 10 games for Moss. Although 11.4 points per game would have made him the ninth-best fantasy receiver in 2007, it’s a far cry from dominance.

I believe Calvin Johnson has a very good chance of averaging 11.5-12.5 fantasy points per contest because of the change of offensive philosophies. If you read Chris Eakin’s Don’t Get Martzed piece, you learned that receivers didn’t benefit significantly from the downfield approach.

I believe the combo of Kevin Smith and Rudi Johnson that will provide some legitimacy to the play action game. These two backs will force opposing safeties to creep into the box in run situations that will allow Detroit to exploit better match ups.

Meanwhile, I find it hard to believe that teams facing the Patriots won’t try to employ strategies that the Eagles, Ravens, Jaguars, Chargers, and Giants used to successfully contain Moss. Not that all opposing defenses facing Moss will succeed with their approach in 2008, but I think Moss and Brady will come down to earth and Moss’s numbers will be more like his second half of the 2007 season than his torrid start.

Moss is still the best fantasy receiver around, but when one can get Calvin Johnson in rounds four to six is an attractive proposition and I believe CJ has a shot at overtaking the Pats’ deep threat.