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The Gut Check No.265: Prove It - The Backs Edition

Regardless of the league format, we've all been fooled by that player who flashes promise but doesn't deliver. It's time for these players to put up or shut up.  

I was born in 1970, the dawn of arguably the weirdest decade of style in the brief history of our country. The clothes, the hair, the television shows, and definitely the cars. The quintessential `70s automobile manufacturer was American Motors Company (AMC).

Most people who survived the `70s remember AMC for the Pacer, the car my mother called 'the pregnant roller skate'. Even the commercial for it has a womb-like subtext.

It may seem like I'm feeling some `70s nostalgia, but you couldn't be more off base. I might have felt that way if mom bought the pregnant roller skate. Instead, she put good money on another AMC car - one she claims had the best review from Consumer Reports for a compact: the Gremlin.

To this day, I have always wondered how anyone in their right mind could name a machine after a mythical creature known for destroying machinery. It's like moving to Pittsburgh and naming your first-born "Cleveland."

Within two months of her purchase, the Gremlin broke down at least six times. I learned enough about wreckers before the age of seven that I was two breakdowns away from learning how to operate a wheel lift.

But don't feel sorry for my mom. She had a temper that made Steve Smith (prior to anger counseling) seem playful. After a half-dozen rides in a tow truck, the local AMC dealership got a dose of my mother's ire the next time they called her at her office.

AMC Dealer: Ms. Waldman, your Gremlin is ready for you to pick up.

Ms. Waldman: You can keep it.

AMC Dealer: I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you correctly?

Ms. Waldman: You heard me just fine.

AMC Dealer: Um, ma'am I don't think you understand . . .

Ms. Waldman: No. You're the one who doesn't seem to understand. You sold me a lemon. That car spends more time on the side of the road than a hitchhiker in a prison jump suit and an eye patch! I've spent hundreds of dollars on fixing this car and every time you tell me it's fixed, I'm returning to your shop in a wrecker the next week!!!

AMC Dealder: I understand what you're saying, but . . .

Ms. Waldman: Oh no you don't. I am through. I'm keeping this loaner - it runs great. Hell, I should know: I've driven it more than I've driven the lemon. Be my guest and sell that piece of fruit to another sucker. Better yet, do the right thing and junk it before the Better Business Bureau camps out at your dealership.

AMC Dealer: We can't do that.

Ms. Waldman: Well, I can and I will. Just watch me. Better yet, just keep waiting for me at the shop and see what happens. I hope you have a comfortable chair - Click.

They didn't watch or wait.

An hour later, a wrecker pulls into the parking lot of my mom's office with her Gremlin in tow. The driver walks into the building, makes a beeline for her office, and without saying a word, places the keys to the Gremlin on her desk and holds out his empty hand. I don't know what happened next, but she came home in the Gremlin that day.

We had that car in our family for another three years until she sold it to a Michigan State student for a few hundred dollars. He had his girlfriend take a picture of him with the car. While leaning against the vehicle, the Gremlin's new owner put his hand through the rusted hood.

My mom made sure to remind him that the money already changed hands.

You may have never owned a car that was a lemon, but everyone reading this has owned the fantasy player version of my mom's AMC Gremlin. Whether it's chronic breakdowns, defective parts, or rough road, we've all gotten stuck with a player who doesn't play to his promise. Worse still, we continue to hang onto some of these players with a deluded shred of hope until his value turns to rust.

This week, I'm listing three runners and a passer whose time has come to put up or shut up. I'm covering them as if I had a chance to have a one-on-one sit-down with each.

With the possible exception of the quarterback, it's probably never going to happen for these guys if don't make good in 2013. Although most of us are going to take some amount of risk in a fantasy draft, I think you've gone too far if you cross check your cheat sheet with this article and get an inkling that "Prove It" might be the motto of your future squad.

Jonathan Stewart

You're one of the two best running backs I've evaluated at the college level since I started authoring the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Size. Speed. Agility. Ricky Williams had nothng on you.

At 235 pounds, you made cuts at Oregon that made Emmitt Smith jealous. You've had enough jaw-dropping moments as a Panther to become the most eagerly anticipated coming attraction since the movie industry discovered the sequel.

You've been a fantasy starter in 12-team leagues twice in your five-year career and an RB1 once - both during your first two seasons. But the closest you've come since is a No.25 ranking in 2011. But your career yards per carry average of 4.7 keeps us coming back to the well.

We blame the presence of Deangelo Williams, a runner who could do a mean imitation of Tony Dorsett if central casting needed a runner for a movie about the Tom Landry-era Cowboys. Cam Newton - aka the Tar Heel Blue-Feathered, Giant Red Zone Vulture - compounds the excuse factor we give you for failing to make good on your immense promise.

But I'm beginning to think you're defective parts. You're always dealing with a foot-ankle-or Achilles' related injury. Jene Bramel says you have wheels of a back the age and mileage of Michael Turner. Too bad you and Ray Rice are the same age and you only have 56 percent of the Raven runner's career touches.

You, Williams, and the Panthers also seem content to stick around Carolina and maintain the same arrangement as if everything is cool. It ain't cool. Ask any fantasy owner or former Panthers season ticket holder.

I'm beginning to think you know that you can't maintain a starter workload. Perhaps you're fine with collecting a decent paycheck and maintaining an aura of "what could have been" among fans. It's good business. Everyone has seen your massive talent that has at least been good enough to generate a mass delusion about you someday earning 300 carries.

I'm telling them to take the cup of tainted Kool-Aid away from their lips and set it on the table and remind them that the odds are against them of winning the lottery this next weekend, dating the super model, or seeing the day that you become a fantasy RB1.

As skilled as you are, you have to prove you can handle least a 250-carry workload and not miss multiple games. As good as Williams can be, you have to prove that you don't want to be your buddy's nursemaid. And as impossible as it seems that anyone will pry goal line carries away from Cam Newton, you have to prove you're ready to make the Panthers coaching staff think twice about vaulting its young quarterback over the line of scrimmage time and time again.

Don't even get me started on Carolina adding Mike Tolbert.

I like that Mike Shula is veering away from the steady diet of zone read. I'd like him to bring a little more of his daddy's Csonka-Kiick-Morris dynamic to the running game. Heck, I'll settle for his ill-fated days at Alabama if it means you get to run from an I formation and you're given a true chance to get into a rhythm before they put Williams back in the game.

Even so, you have to prove that you're still worth taking between rounds 5-7 of re-drafts. In dynasty leagues, you're like some meal you got from the local grocery store deli that's sitting in someone's refrigerator in a plastic container with a due date that has recently expired. Some toss it out, the more adventurous take a sniff before consuming.

I've been telling dynasty owners to cut their losses with you this year and seek a deal with the guy sporting the iron stomach. Trade for that promising first-round receiver still transitioning to the NFL. Take that pick combo of a 2nd and 4th in exchange for you. It doesn't seem like much for a back with your talent, but considering you don't practice due to flareups of a body part that has remained a problem since your college days, I don't the "future RB1" talk has curdled.

The desperate owners among us may take a spoon and remove the top layer of mold growing on your long-term viability and still take a chance on you in re-draft leagues. I get it. I may even do it. But you'll have to prove me wrong in dynasty, because if I don't sell you now I might be junking you sooner than later.

DARREN MCFADDEN

In terms of skills, I was dead-wrong about you, McFadden. I didn't think you had the handling of a street motorcycle to go with that blazing speed. I thought if you couldn't plant and cut, you couldn't amount to anything more than a faster version of LeShon Johnson.

You're not familiar with Johnson? Picture a straight-line runner who seemingly closed his eyes, hit the hole as hard as he could, and kept moving his arms and legs until he was on the ground or hit the back wall of the stadium. I heard that defensive tackles often had to tell Johnson to open his eyes and stop moving because he was down.

However, you proved me right when you couldn't demonstrate the patience and decision-making to become a productive full-time zone scheme runner last year. For the record, I don't want to be proven right at your expense. I like seeing players succeed - especially someone with your breath-taking talent.

Still, you've never played an NFL season wire-to-wire.

I think it's because you're too upright as a runner. The pads only come down when you're anticipating a collision. You hammer into opponents like they're a nail. The problem is you're not hitting nails a fraction of the weight of your hammer.

I'd rather see you use your pads like an ax chopping down a tree; striking from an angle where you can control the direction of the impact and your opponents don't have access to your innards.

With a late-June ADP of RB18 in 2013, would I rather have you or second-year runner David Wilson at RB19? Wilson is a player whom Tom Coughlin now laments punishing as harshly as he did in 2012 for a couple of early-season fumbles. Can you really blame me for bypassing you for Reggie Bush at RB20? He's started at least 14 games in 3 of the past 4 years and only missed 1 game in 2 seasons.

Even the unproven Lamar Miller has more appeal to me as RB22. I know he runs with his eyes open and his pads down. He might be more efficient breakaway threat, too.

I like that you're returning to a gap scheme blocking system, but you still hit holes like you're on a kamikaze mission. Until you prove that you can protect your body, you may never finish a season. And until you prove that you can finish a season, fantasy owners may write you off as a massively talented, fragile, and fundamentally flawed player who had a fluke year as a fantasy starter.

I can't count on you in re-draft leagues unless you arrive on my doorstep as an RB3, but at an RB2 investment you're looking more and more like a Gremlin with a 5-liter V-8.

RYAN MATHEWS

Someone I know - I don't remember who it was - compared you to Ryan Grant. I think Grant was a good running back, but an overachiever. Personally, I think you are to Ryan Grant in football what Mickey Rourke is to Nick Cage as an actor.

In terms of talent, you and Rourke wipe the floor with Grant and Cage even if I can appreciate what all four individuals have done at various points of their careers. However, you're heading down a similar path that cost Rourke a chance to become one of the great leading actors of his generation.

Some say you're temperamental - an insecure mix of arrogance and rock-bottom self-esteem that has made it difficult for you to capitalize on a golden opportunity to succeed Ladainian Tomlinson in a Norv Turner, run-friendly offense that would have fed you 300-320 times a season for the past three years if you only had your act together.

I get it, you're a slow learner. It didn't help that the movie Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha' Hood gave the Chargers offensive line a run for its money as a better supporting cast. Still, I'm glad you're taking responsibility for yourself this year and working harder in the off season, because you have a lot to prove.

They didn't draft you in the first round to be average. Undrafted free agents are expected to be average. You have stardom running through those legs.

You possess the balance to bounce off hits from linemen and linebackers from awkward angles that end most runs at the line of scrimmage. When it comes to speed and agility you can cut through the second wave of defenders like a surfer emerging from a barrel of water that appeared a split-second from pulling him under.

You have to show that you have the resiliency not to turn one bad play into several. You have to stay healthy. And you have to demonstrate effort and consistency when the ball isn't coming your way.

Danny Woodhead's arrival in San Diego is like casting you with a dog act. It will be very easy for the little fella to upstage you and become the fan and media favorite - just ask my Audible brethren who are about to fall under Woodhead's spell. It will be important that you don't dwell on what he does, but maximize what you can do.

Otherwise, they'll be right - and honestly, hating on you is probably the easiest way to be right in fantasy fotball.

As the RB24 in 2013 re-drafts, you still could be a bargain. I can even see you as a buy-low in dynasty leagues. Maybe it's because you've assessed your NFL performance as 'average'. I like self-realization. The fact that you're aware that you've been cheating yourself and you're only 25, it's conceivable that you have 3-5 years of strong production ahead of you.

Ask Marshawn Lynch. Of course, Lynch also had new life in a new home. You don't have the luxury right now.

SAM BRADFORD

Some of my readers suggested Andy Dalton as a quarterback who belongs on the 'Prove It' list. I disagree, but I understand why it's the Bengals' quarterback who gets the fan vote of disdain.

Sam Bradford, you throw a gorgeous deep ball. Analysts talk highly of you. Without a receiver like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, or Steve Smith, fans make excuses for you.

In contrast, many of your fans imagine Dalton grunting like Monica Seles when he goes vertical and it makes their teeth itch. They grow frustrated with deep passes that force Green to put his body in harm's way. They never expected Dalton to be a franchise quarterback, but they are still holding vigil for you to cross that threshold.

They see your arm, your height, evidence of poise, your college production, your lack of surrounding talent at the skill positions, and poor offensive line play, and they're ready to cite every excuse in the book.

Wait, is there any excuse left that I didn't already mention? But for now, I think some your backers need a reality check.

Dalton is the quarterback who has helped lead his team to the playoffs. He has 47 touchdowns in 2 seasons. It has taken you 3 years to compile 45. You've never been better than the No.20 fantasy starter. Dalton has been no worse than a top-15 quarterback.

Your backers say you were a top-12 quarterback during the second half of the season in 2012. Somehow the last eight games of a season is in their minds a good statistical indicator of projecting future success. I've fallen into this hole before.

Carson Palmer, Eli Manning (twice), Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, Jason Campbell (twice), Kerry Collins, David Garrard (three times), Chad Henne, Kyle Orton (twice), and Tyler Thigpen, were all high performers during the stretch run of at least one season between 2008 and 2011. This second-half run was not a precursor to future success.

It's a pretty bauble of an argument, but there are too many moving parts to justify it as a good one.

But hey, at least you throw a gorgeous ball. I guess you win the football beauty contest over the red-headed, Cincinnati step-child.

Forget Dalton. He's not your real competition. Last year, Jeff Fisher could have kept the No.2 pick and taken Robert Griffin. You're four years into your tenure in St. Louis. While many see 25 as young, football years are a different animal. They don't realize it, but in in their world you're more like a guy in his mid-thirties in the corporate world who hasn't done anything consistent enough to help a team become successful.

The Rams' coach and front office understand that they better do everything they can to erase the specter of passing on Robert Griffin if they don't want to lose their jobs. I'm sure you feel the same way. You don't want yet another new head coach and offensive system, because it will likely be your last as a starter.

To use the words of the immortal Charles Christopher Parker: Now's The Time.

The Rams are putting some Oklahoma in their offense with the hope that they play to your strengths and build the team in your image. Speedy receivers with skill after the catch. Up-tempo pacing. Spreading the field. Hybrid options at running back and tight end.

Hell, they're two seconds away from constructing a Sooner Schooner in St. Louis with the West Virginia Mountaineer holding the reins!

However, there isn't a single skill player on this team who can be described in NFL or fantasy terms as proven:

If half of these players develop into a quality contributors, this offense can surprise. But I think you know that's a high success rate for any NFL team's skill-player draft picks. It would be considered a major success if a third of this group develops into quality starters.

I think it's safer to pick two and when you do, don't expect that development to come this year. But Jeff Fisher knows what he's doing, right?

Let's look at the Titans during the Fisher era:

From a talent and performance standpoint, I think the Titans offense had more capable talent and their offense is still on the runway. Remember, the Titans offensive line was considered one of the best in the league until last year. The Rams unit should be better than it was, but don't expect miracles.

What I think matters most is something none of us know - not even you, Sam Bradford. Are the Rams are giving you a mulligan for the past two years? Is 2013 your unofficial re-boot.

For your sake I hope so. Because as much as I like the promise of Stacy, Austin, Bailey, and Cook, I think only one of them performs to expectation as a reliable starter. Maybe another provides a half a season of quality games.

Sorry if I'm a downer, Sam, but I'm just being realistic. If NFL teams hit on one skill player every other year, they're doing pretty well. If they hit on one a year, they're likely a playoff team.

So excuse me if I don't believe this is the year that you're morphing into the top-12 quarterback everyone wants to believe you are. Most fantasy owners and analysts I knew turned their nose up at Eli Manning for years and he was at least been hanging around the top-12 before he jumped to the top-six a couple of years ago. I'd argue that until Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks came along, the Giants receiving corps wasn't on par with the Rams.

What it means is that I'd much prefer taking a chance on you as a buy-low reserve in a dynasty league. I hope you guys get off to a slow start and improve during the second half of the season then I can maximize the bargain of this acquisition. In re-draft leagues, think there are more experienced quarterbacks with better and/or more experienced skill players helping them.

Late-June ADP has you as QB21. Carson Palmer, last year's QB16 on a Raiders' squad that was arguably worse than yours, is QB22. However, some analysts are using your lack of skill talent and poor offensive line as an excuse. They haven't given that kind of pass to Palmer.

If you were inheriting Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts, two receivers who have out-performed every receiver that has passed through St. Louis until this year, I'd feel different about you. The only pass-catching weapon Arizona needs to make a successful NFL transition to elevate this offense is Michael Floyd. I think it's a strong bet that he'll overtake Roberts this year - and I still think Roberts can provide quality production as the No.3 in Arizona.

Further, I think there's a bias against Palmer and the Cardinals in the same way everyone wrote off Giants' flop Kurt Warner when he moved to the desert. Palmer only played 10 games in 2011 - same as you, Bradford - and he was more productive. You had training camp. You had an off season to learn an offense. Palmer was learning the playbook while he was starting.

Apples and oranges, you say? One is a grizzled veteran while the other is just a fourth-year guy. Perhaps, but in NFL terms both are ripe fruits.

Fantasy owners see the Cardinals as the ugly duckling of the NFL. I see a young swan. As for you Sam Bradford, if you don't prove that all you needed was an offense suitable to your talents then all Rams fans will see is a scapegoat. Personally, I don't know how anyone justifies drafting you before Palmer.

As promising as your offensive system is supposed to be on paper, Matt Schaub and his run-based Texans squad might be a better bet this year.

If I own your rights for my fantasy team in a re-draft league, I'm thinking about dealing you to the highest bidder. If I'm fortunate, you get off to a good start against Arizona and Atlanta, and I leave you with your new fantasy owner at the side of the road.

Don't let the burnt rubber peeling off my tires hit you in the face.

Part II profiles receivers and tight ends who need to step up or step off.


More from Matt Waldman:

Gut Check No.321: Boobie and Bryce - October 21
Gut Check No.320: Fantasy Mid-Season Review - October 14
Gut Check No.319: Emergent(cies) - October 7
Gut Check No.318: ADP vs. End of Season - September 30
Gut Check No.317: Week 3 Is No Time to Panic - September 23
Gut Check No.316: Week 2 - Sifting Through The Wreckage - September 16
Gut Check No.315: Week 1 - Straight, No Chaser - September 9
Under The Microscope: Ravens RB Lorenzo Taliaferro - September 8
Gut Check No.314: 2014 Fantasy If . . . Then - September 1
Gut Check No.313: Waiver Wire Prep - August 25