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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 4
RB Lee Suggs, CLE

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!

The Gut Check likes guys that play with chips on their shoulders. For a fantasy football owner, a player with talent and something to prove is a great intangible. Travis Henry, Steve Smith, and Priest Holmes responded to challenges from their own teams with excellent years. Henry carried the disappointing Bills’ offense on bad ribs and a fractured leg in response to Buffalo’s selection of an injured Willis McGahee in the first round—a pick made despite Henry’s 1,438 yards and 13 TDs the year before. Steve Smith’s team made it known during the first half of the season that their WR wasn’t worth playmaker money. Smith responded with enough big plays for the Panthers to come within minutes of the Lombardi Trophy. And all Priest Holmes did in response to Carl Peterson’s attempt to play hardball was to mount a record-breaking campaign.

Although these three players had an entire season to prove their point, the subject of this week’s Gut Check only had two games—and he was fortunate to get those. But this player responded by playing with a chip on his shoulder the size of a two by four. The player giving notice in the season finale that he’ll be walking tall in 2004 is Browns’ RB Lee Suggs. Once projected as the top back in the 2003 draft, Suggs dropped to round four despite the fact that Willis McGahee was a first round pick with a serious knee injury. Furthermore, McGahee had a more serious form of the same injury that Suggs experienced nearly two years ago, but sufficiently proved he had recovered with an impressive senior campaign.

When the Browns made it known that Suggs would get increased playing time against the Ravens and Bengals, The Gut Check took notice. On the surface it didn’t appear to be a big deal. Considering William Green the Browns’1st round pick from 2002, really came on at the end his rookie year, the announcement didn’t seem like anything more than a rookie getting some experience as a losing season comes to a close. But The Gut Check believes the Browns knew what they were getting in Lee Suggs. In hindsight, it’s clear the Browns saw enough from Green week in and week out to reconsider their options. After Suggs’ performance against the Bengals and Green’s private life going publicly astray, the Browns made the starting RB spot open for competition in 2004 and Suggs enters the season atop the depth chart. The Gut Check says Lee Suggs is a 4th round steal and a top 15 RB in 2004.

It’s clear the Browns feel they have to look at other possibilities in case William Green doesn’t turn his life around. William Green is purported to be a nice guy that experienced a childhood too difficult and thoroughly documented to re-explain here. Unfortunately, Green’s had enough public problems for the Browns to realize Green could let them down as a player in the same way he’s let himself down as a person. Nonetheless, this is not the reason why the Brown’s opened the door for Suggs.

Truth be known, Lee Suggs was always a better back than William Green. Although the Gut Check believes Green still has a shot at a bright NFL future if he continues his personal recovery, Suggs will be the complete package. If you aren’t an avid follower of the NFL draft, Mel Kiper among others, rated Suggs as his top RB on the board leading up to the 2003 draft. Suggs’ stock dropped slightly his senior season because he was coming off an ACL tear from the year before and Kevin Jones ate into his carries. So why did Suggs drop all the way to the fourth round when he beat out a 2004 first round pick for the starting job at Va. Tech less than a year after tearing his ACL? Doctors discovered a torn rotator cuff during pre-draft examinations and projected Suggs to be out for an entire season.

But as we can see with the ancient Rich Gannon, a rotator cuff heals a lot quicker than an ACL and even so, the Bills didn’t hesitate to grab McGahee fresh off his torn ligament. With that said, Suggs’ dive in the draft was as stupefying to the Gut Check as it must have been to Lee Suggs himself. This is clearly a running back with first round ability in mid-round clothing. Leading up to his junior year, Suggs was known as an elusive back with blazing speed—he ran in the 4.3-4.4, 40’s prior to tearing his ACL (4.29 if you believe the SI people at Va. Tech—although I wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid on that one). Yet Suggs greatest asset has been his ability to run between the tackles. Scouts touted Suggs as one of the best goal line options in college football. You just don’t see a between the tackles runner with good outside speed and goal line instincts every day, especially not belonging to a high-character guy.

There shouldn’t have been too many questions about his ACL. Although Suggs spent last season at Virginia Tech sharing some of the load with Kevin Jones, he still put up terrific stats. Gaining 1300 yards on the ground against equal or lesser competition than Suggs was enough for other backs to be drafted ahead of him. Sharing time with a top prospect shouldn’t be a negative, either. It just means there won’t be as much wear and tear to his body. In a sense, Suggs may have added another year or two to his NFL career, which should make him even more valuable.

The timetable for recovery from an ACL injury is usually two years. All we have to do is look at Jamal Lewis’s career to project what could happen with Lee Suggs. Both exploded onto the scene, lost a year to injury, and albeit a step slower, returned to produce at a high level prior to the draft. Lewis eventually regained his speed and suddenness two years after his first injury—as with this year, two years after his second ACL tear! It stands to reason that Suggs will regain more his breakaway speed that he put on display at the end of 2003.

Based on what Suggs showed his senior year just a year removed from his ACL tear, the Gut Check to believes the Brown’s front office knew they were getting a steal. They had to know, because the front office negotiated with Suggs as if he were a top pick. Think about it: When was the last time a 4th round pick, one year removed from a torn ACL and fresh off rotator cuff surgery, demanded an incentive laden contract or threatened to hold out and re-enter next year’s draft? Even so, can you think of a player that actually got the deal he wanted? Why would a team accept these demands from a 4th round pick when their 1st round pick just finished a seven game tear of 726 yards and 5 TDs?

Probably a team that has seen enough from Green to hedge its bets: Green struggled for over half the season with his pass blocking, receiving, and knowledge of the playbook. When Green did explode, five of the last seven defenses he faced were ranked 19th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, and 25th against the run. Maybe the Browns noticed early symptoms of behavior that foretold what came to be. In Green’s defense, he certainly had impressive moments. It’s logical to say the drafting of Suggs was just a matter of adding depth to a backfield that didn’t have a player with three down potential. But the contract speaks volumes about what Cleveland sees in Suggs. Ultimately, Green’s personal life has made too much news for the Browns to not at least look elsewhere as a precaution.

Although Suggs missed camp due to his torn rotator cuff, it was less serious than expected. He would actually be available for the 2003 season. Once Suggs joined the team, he did a good enough job learning his assignments to impress Butch Davis immediately. From just the standpoint of preparation, Suggs had a more promising start than Green did as a rookie. And with two games left, Lee Suggs answered the Brown’s questions about his potential. Although a 20 carry, 68-yard performance isn’t that impressive—the Baltimore Ravens were one of the more physical run defenses in 2003 and Suggs showed glimpses in his first start behind a weak offensive line.

But it was Suggs 26 carry, 186 yards, and 2 TDs against the Bengals that thrust him into the spotlight. Suggs 78-yard touchdown run was a display of vision, burst, moves in the open field, and breakaway speed. Even if you take this one run away from his final stats, Suggs still managed over 100 yards and 4 yards per carry. Suggs’ second touchdown run, a 25 yarder in the fourth quarter, was equally impressive—demonstrating the rookie possessed the stamina to carry the load for the Browns and maintain a dangerous burst after pounding the ball into an NFL defensive front.

Although the Bengals weren’t a top echelon unit, Suggs displayed a high level of skill on both touchdowns. In contrast, plays that fans typically saw from William Green were runs or screens bounced outside with a foot race to the end zone with an unsuspecting defense caught stacking the line. These are the same runs fans typically saw from Ahman Green and Jamal Lewis for that matter. The Gut Check isn’t taking anything away from these superstars or claiming they aren’t physical players. He’s just pointing out that the Brown’s rookie had to weave his way through a secondary to hit pay dirt on both occasions and this was particularly impressive with an offensive line far below the abilities of Green Bay and Baltimore.

Don’t think the Gut Check is anointing Suggs as the next superstar RB based on one game. But he is telling you that Suggs answered many of the doubts that dragged him down to round four when prior to the rotator cuff tear, he was considered at least a high second round pick. Think of it this way: Kevin Jones was a first round pick. He’s on team with a young QB and inexperienced (albeit very talented receivers). If you are banking on Kevin Jones to have a decent rookie year, then it stands to reason Suggs should have a much better season ahead of him.

In fact, Cleveland’s running game should get better regardless of the back. The line has gained another year of experience and added guard Kelvin Garmon from San Diego. Averaging 324 lbs, this is a big line with enough depth to improve from last year’s effort. Three-time pro bowl QB Jeff Garcia is a scrambler that can keep plays alive when the line breaks down. This gives the Browns the opportunity to be more unpredictable with their offensive schemes. The addition of Kellen Winslow will keep linebackers and safeties honest in the middle of the field and this will give the Browns a lot more room to run.

Nothing here guarantees the sole benefactor will be Suggs. But the changes to the Browns organization lend some credence to recent speculation that this was done so Butch Davis will have fewer chefs in the kitchen when making personnel decisions. The Gut Check believes the Browns waffled on their skill positions over the last couple of years and the management changes are in some way an admission that Butch Davis should have had more say with the talent. Coaches can deny this occurs all they want, but how else can one explain why Butch Davis passed up Clinton Portis for William Green?

The Gut Check knows Green was rated higher than Portis in media scouting circles, but if NFL GMs like to scoff at the media’s shallow knowledge of what’s scouted on a player then isn’t it safe to assume that Davis could have had a higher grade on Portis? Why wouldn’t he? Why would the Browns draft a player with a history of personal issues and pass up on a more explosive player their head coach recruited out of high school? Portis had no serious red flags so why would Davis choose Green ahead of him? It’s true Davis faced Green as a Big East coach and got a chance to study him, but you’ll never convince The Gut Check that Davis arrived at this decision alone—especially with the fallout that just occurred in the Browns’ organization. Especially when it’s known Portis made it know on draft day that he was going to make Davis regret the decision.

Regardless of the conspiracy theories, the answer will emerge in this summer in training camp. Although William Green will have something to prove, it’s mainly to himself. As admirable as that may be, it doesn’t generate the same type of motivation as being slighted. William Green had it handed to him and he didn’t appreciate it.That’s why the Gut Check is betting on Lee Suggs to take the job and not let go.