The Gut Check No. 251: Strange Sanctuaries Series: WR Randy Moss
By Matt Waldman
July 5th, 2012

There's no such thing as a "safe play" in fantasy football. There are only degrees of perceived safety. Tom Brady was perhaps the safest play in fantasy football four years ago at least before Bernard Pollard made quick work of the Pats quarterback's ACL in Week One of the 2008 season. Adrian Peterson has been regarded as the safest play of the elite fantasy running backs as far back as 2008. One could argue this past label has earned him credit among fantasy owners that the collateral might not support.

Footballguys Subscription with FanDuel

This is all semantics we all want to know whom are the safer plays heading into a football season. It's easy to name the top three to five players at each position and call it a wrap. But who are the guys that might be safer than most fantasy owners expect? Individuals that seem like counterintuitive choices at first, but with a deeper look might offer a sanctuary from risk in what many will see as the strangest of places.

He Plays When He Wants to Play

Randy Moss is the greatest vertical receiver in the history of the game. If you don't like it, get over it. I don't care about those that complain about his publicized lack of effort during parts of his career. While I don't like it either, I'm not going to write off Moss for as long as he still has his elite physical and receiving skills.

Let's turn the tables on the work ethic angle for a moment. I'm sure if I had a camera installed in your office while you are reading this article, David Dodds' Perfect Draft, or listening to Sigmund and Cecil on The Audible (the stats reveal most of you are reading or listening to our content at work), and then we give that camera access and a television gig or column to a couple of your co-workers to critique your performance (although you know that they can't hold your keyboard, clipboard, or hammer when it comes to your job), you might feel a little more sympathetic to Moss not finishing a route.

There's no question that the 14-year veteran's past history makes fantasy owners leery for good reason. But as strange as it seems, I think Moss is among the safest plays at his position after Round 6 in 2012 fantasy drafts. I believe Moss will answer three questions most fantasy owners have about him: Can he and (more importantly) will he perform to his potential in 2012, and how on earth can I consider Randy Moss a "safe play?"

"Can He?"

Moss averaged 15.4 yards per catch and scored three touchdowns in his first four games with the Patriots before traded to the Vikings. In Minnesota, he averaged 13.4 yards per catch despite no training camp with Brett Favre or the coaching staff, and he had two scores on 13 receptions before wearing out his welcome with Brad Childress, whom just about every player with a positive track record with the Vikings couldn't stand.

Moss is 36 years old, which is a venerable age for an NFL wide receiver. But it wasn't hard to find receivers that approach (and only a few that exceeded) Moss' skill level and still achieved quality production at Moss' current age (or older). These were the first 10 players I found on the side margin of the wide receiver page at Pro Football Reference that fit the bill:

Player
Year
Age
G
Rec
Yards
Y/R
TDs
Cris Carter
2001
36
16
73
871
11.9
6
Tim Brown
2002
36
16
81
950
11.5
2
Isaac Bruce
2008
36
16
61
835
13.7
7
Joey Galloway
2007
36
15
57
1,014
17.8
6
Charlie Joiner
1983
36
16
65
960
14.8
3
Charlie Joiner
1984
37
16
61
793
13.0
6
Charlie Joiner
1985
38
16
59
932
15.8
7
James Lofton
1992
36
16
41
786
15.4
6
Derrick Mason
2010
36
16
61
802
13.1
7
Jerry Rice
1998
36
16
82
1,157
14.1
9
Jerry Rice
1999
37
16
67
830
12.4
5
Jerry Rice
2000
38
16
75
805
10.7
7
Jerry Rice
2001
39
16
83
1,139
13.7
9
Jerry Rice
2002
40
16
92
1,211
13.2
7
Jerry Rice
2003
41
16
63
869
13.8
2
Jimmy Smith
2005
36
16
70
1,023
14.6
6

These recent examples demonstrate that a 36 year-old receiver can produce at a fantasy-friendly level in the NFL. Based on what we're hearing from Vernon Davis and other players at the 49ers complex, Moss looks like the vintage version of the receiver that when he wants - can set the league on fire. If you think about the quarterbacks that were throwing the ball to Isaac Bruce, Joey Galloway, Derrick Mason, and Jimmy Smith when they were 36, as long as Moss is in shape and ready to play, the production these four receivers attained should be within reach for Moss.

What's comforting is that with an ADP of 8.07, I'm not counting on 1,100-1,200 yards and 7-9 touchdowns from Moss the totals that we saw from the likes of Jerry Rice in his late thirties and early forties. Rice is the only player I'd say that had a higher skill ceiling than Moss in the history of the game. Although you have to admit, if there is a player with the freakish athleticism to match that level of physical skill at an older age, Moss is the only receiver I can think of with a real shot.

That's why he frustrates so many people he makes some of the most difficult plays in football appear effortless, but let other things get in the way of reaching his full potential. But don't let that poison your perspective on Randy Moss at 8.07 like it might if he were a prospect going off draft boards before the fifth round.

"Will He?"

This is the most compelling question about Randy Moss. As Bleacher Report writer and former NFL player Ryan Riddle said about Moss, he's a great teammate when things are going well but he doesn't know how to handle losing. If the 49ers struggle or the offense struggles, will Moss continue to perform at the level he's capable?

I'm betting on it for reasons more than the lower risk of his 8.07 ADP. I believe the year away from football helped Moss gain some perspective about the game, his potential, and how he wants to end his career. He has to know that his perception among fans and writers is that he should have been the greatest receiver of all time but he didn't work like it. He might not be able to erase that tag, but he can end his career on a high note.

It doesn't take a psychologist or someone close to Moss to know these things about him. It's a matter of motivation and the veteran athlete. This is a dynamic we've observed several times over the course of the history of sports.

Moss wants to end his career with a Super Bowl ring. He was dealt to a Vikings squad coming off a heart-breaking NFC Championship loss and there was still hope that Brett Favre could stay healthy and get the team back to that level. When the Vikings shipped Moss to Tennessee, the Titans had the best record in the league before the bottom fell out. Moss had a chance to dictate where he wanted to go and his choice of the 49ers solidifies that his criteria was to land with a serious contender.

Coach Jim Harbaugh's final two years as a player were during Moss' first two years in the league. They are closer to contemporaries than most player-coach relationships. I think there will be a strange level of respect that Moss will give to Harbaugh because there isn't a generational gap that will get in the way. I think Moss has authority issues and the greater the generation gap, the more likely those issues come into play. Harbaugh is a good communicator and understands the modern player a little better than a guy like Brad Childress.

Jeff Fisher is known as a player's coach, but I believe that either Fisher wasn't completely on board with getting Moss two years ago (think Bud Adams coveting Vince Young years before when Fisher wanted Jay Cutler). Or, Moss was already emotionally worn down after blowing it with two organizations that had a better quarterback situation and he was now stuck with Kerry Collins a player whose arm strength is frequently mistaken for throwing a good deep ball. Moss got to choose the 49ers completely on his own terms rather than just have some level of influence to steer a team in a direction with his trade.

Each time Moss started (and finished) a season with a new NFL team, he had at least 60 catches, 1,005 yards and 8 touchdowns. Two of those three years, he averaged 76 catches, 1,288 yards, and 20 touchdowns. However, I'm not supplying these stats to argue that Moss will be this good. Cris Carter, Robert Smith, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Dante Culpepper in their prime are not in San Francisco. Yet this information does indicate that Moss does well his first year in a new situation.

The motivation and the organizational fit are there. The biggest questions within this line of thinking are whether quarterback Alex Smith is good enough to get the job done with Randy Moss and are there enough weapons to support a passing game where Moss can become a productive fantasy starter? I think so.

Alex Smith's yards per attempt, attempts, and passing yards were career-bests in 2011 and this was with Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, and Ted Ginn as receivers. Smith was sacked more than any player in the NFL last year. While some of that has to do with pass protection and decision-making on Smith's part, his receivers' skill at getting open is another significant factor.

Despite the highest sack total in the NFL, Smith had the lowest percentage of interceptions to attempts in the league (1.1%). Although he had 157 fewer attempts than Aaron Rodgers, the next best with the ball in the air, Smith's care of the football was still impressive. What I see is a quarterback that is maturing and getting a huge upgrade in weaponry at the same time. That should spell good things in 2012.

Mario Manningham, Moss, Vernon Davis, and Crabtree should break a lot of defensive game plans compared to last year's crew in San Francisco. Although there is a chance the worst in Manningham, Crabtree, and Moss could emerge and this unit implodes, I believe that this organization has finally acquired a coach and leadership in the locker room to prevent it.

Why Moss is a Safe Play

The first factor is one I already mentioned: ADP. Moss is going off the board at 8.07 in most 12-team leagues. Like New England and Minnesota a couple of years ago, Moss has enough offensive weapons around him that teams have to pick its poison in coverage. And as I mentioned, he's in great shape, motivated to win a Super Bowl, and end his career better than he did two years ago.

Accompanying that reason is the caliber of players available in Moss' range. Which would you rather have?

  • An unproven player on a bad team in a starring role?
  • A proven player on the decline on a mediocre team in a supporting role?
  • Moss?
  • Here are specific players going within a round above and below Moss.

  • 7.07 - Robert Meachem - Meachem has never been a full-time starter, he's in a new system, and he'll likely be the third option to Antonio Gates, and Malcom Floyd in a run-first offense.
  • 8.01 - Pierre Garcon - Garcon, like Meachem has been inconsistent as a pass catcher and he's paired with a rookie quarterback in a new system with a fickle coach when it comes to skill talent.
  • 8.02 - Denarius Moore - Moore has Moss-like talent and might be one of only two players I consider over Moss on this list, because of the caliber of quarterback play but he's yet to prove he can be the man in the NFL.
  • 8.05 - Malcom Floyd - Floyd is at best the No. 2 option in this run-first offense. Better quarterback, but bigger injury history, too. Lacks Moss' red zone and deep ball skill.
  • 8.06 - Titus Young - Young is the other talent I might consider. He's tearing up OTAs and with Calvin Johnson commanding coverage he could be in for a big year. Still hasn't proven it though.
  • 8.07 - Randy Moss - Proven All-Pro who is in shape and motivated.
  • 9.01 - Anquan Boldin - Older, slower, and at best the second option in a run heavy offense.
  • 9.05 - Sidney Rice - Is he healthy? Will he have rapport with his quarterback and which quarterback will it be?
  • 9.05 - Santonio Holmes - Sanchez or Tebow? Big difference. Ask Eric Decker.
  • Excluding Moss, two of the players (Garcon and Meachem) on this list are in new offenses with new quarterbacks. Two more are second-year players with less than a full season of work with their quarterbacks (Moore and Young). And two more aren't even sure which quarterback will start and finish the season (Rice and Holmes). Only Denarius Moore has the physical upside of Randy Moss and only Titus Young has the luxury of an elite receiver opposite him if he earns the starting role in Detroit.

    Unlike the players on this list, I believe Moss is at worst an 800-yard, 6-touchdown player in 2012. These totals may place him within the range of these players, but I believe most people project receivers using a best-case scenario. If that's true, then Moss' projected worst (in my eyes) is better than the best case of these players' performing to expectation. That's a worthy fantasy sanctuary from a player typically regarded as among the most volatile in the NFL.

    Strange. But true.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to waldman@footballguys.com.

    © 2012 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved