Fantasy owners are a fickle bunch. To hear most fantasy pundits tell it, Philip Rivers is a washed up has been who almost never was. I'm continuously baffled at the willingness to dismiss Rivers as a bounce back candidate this year. But such viewpoints create opportunity, because if I'm right in thinking Rivers is a strong bounce back candidate, his low ADP makes him a perfect buy low as your QB2 toward the end of drafts.
A Little Context...
Last year Philip Rivers 'struggled' and finished as the 21st ranked fantasy QB. Given his preseason ADP, it stands to reason that anyone who rostered Rivers found his play disappointing and ultimately moved on from him as their season wore on. While we can't ignore last year, the numbers weren't awful.
- 338 completions
- 527 attempts
- 64.1% completion rate
- 3,606 yards passing
- 26 TDs
- 15 INTs
- 88.6 passer rating
The first thing that stands out is the 64.1% completion rate. Rivers remains a hyper accurate quarterback (his career mark is 63.6%) in spite of playing in a system that advocates throwing downfield. In my view, had Rivers really lost his way, his accuracy would've taken a dive, not been near a career-best.
The next thing that screams out is the low yards per attempt (6.8) which flies in the face of Rivers historic rate. Did you know Rivers led the league in yards per attempt for three straight seasons?
- 2008 -- 8.4 yards per attempt
- 2009 -- 8.8 yards per attempt
- 2010 -- 8.7 yards per attempt
He also threw for 4,000+ yards and averaged 32 touchdown passes per season over that span. In fact, for as much as Rivers 2012 was a disappointment, we don't have to look very far back to find fantasy value.
- 2008 -- QB2
- 2009 -- QB7
- 2010 -- QB5
- 2011 -- QB9
- 2012 -- QB21
Some would have you believe Rivers was a fringe fantasy producer at his best, and has been on a steady decline. Yet, he was a top 10 fantasy passer JUST TWO SEASONS AGO. One bad season and we're ready to treat Rivers like he's persona non grata? Really?
Getting back to the low yards per attempt...
Rivers was a victim of his supporting cast last year, not his own skills erosion. Consider that Malcom Floyd led the team with 56 receptions. Ronnie Brown ranked second on the team with 49 receptions and Antonio Gates tied that mark, but averaged just 11 yards per catch. Ryan Mathews was fourth on the team with 39 grabs. Robert Meachem -- the big free agent signing -- was a complete bust. Danario Alexander was a find, but he wasn't added until the latter part of the season. Net-net, Rivers had next to no one to throw to that was a legitimate threat to either a) get yards after the catch or b) beat defenders deep.
New Coaches, Proven Philosophy...
Norv Turner's time at the helm had run its course, no one will argue that. Enter new head coach Mike McCoy and veteran OC Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt will call the plays and that means great things for Rivers and the Chargers offense. Remember, Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers in their prime, and then took the lowly Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl leveraging the aging but talented arm of Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt understands offensive balance and resurrecting quarterbacks.
The new system will focus on play-action passing and getting the ball out of Rivers' hands quickly. Although Rivers flourished at times under Norv Turner, the system called for Rivers to hold onto the ball and wait for plays to develop downfield. That worked when the offensive line was a plus, but once the line became a liability, Rivers' needed to get rid of the ball quicker. Whisenhunt and McCoy understand that, and also recognized that Rivers has one of the league's fastest releases.
Receiving Options Galore...
What was a negative for most of the 2012 season is assuredly a strength this year. Sure, Antonio Gates remains past his prime and yes, Danario Alexander tore his ACL in training camp. But, the cupboards are hardly bare:
- Vincent Brown -- Brown was the best receiver in camp as a rookie but broke his leg, ending his season. This year he's been -- once again -- the best player on the roster and has the hands, route running and discipline to be an immediate impact starter. His addition will be essential to helping Rivers get rid of the ball quickly as Brown can work short and intermediate routes and then make plays with the ball in his hands.
- Keenan Allen -- The explosive rookie out of Cal won't be asked to start immediately, but his skill set profiles as a future NFL starter. If he can get healthy, it's quite possible Allen could factor into the game plan by mid-season at the latest.
- Malcom Floyd -- Floyd is Rivers' longest tenured wide receiver and the two have unquestioned chemistry. Floyd was miscast as a #1 last year but has always been valuable in a complementary role.
- RB Danny Woodhead -- Woodhead may not be a big name, but he is an exceptional receiver, averaging 10.7 yards per catch in four NFL seasons.
Is the Offensive Line Fixable?
The fly in the ointment is the offensive line, which has plenty of question marks. If we are to pinpoint one reason why Rivers' play fell off in 2012, it's the state of the offensive line.
- 49 sacks (2nd worst in NFL)
- 8.5% sack rate
The Charges understandably made the offensive line a priority this offseason, but we can't say for sure they've done enough. Here is the projected opening day offensive line:
- LT King Dunlap -- Michael Harris (an undrafted college free agent) was starting at the end of last season. While Dunlap is no All Pro, he's an improvement over Harris. Meanwhile Max Starks (the Steelers only 16-game OL starter last year) is there to provide veteran depth
- LG Chad Rinehart -- Replaces Tyronne Green. Rinehart is an experience tough guy. Much like Dunlap he's never going to be confused for a future Hall of Famer, but he's much better than Green
- C Nick Hardwick -- A reliable long-time fixture on the line
- RG Jeromey Clary -- Didn't have the lateral movement to handle tackle (he started at RT last year) but projects as an impact guard. The only problem is he's replacing Louis Vasquez, by far the Chargers top lineman in 2012
- RT D.J. Fluker -- Replaces Clary. The rookie first rounder is a road grader but a work in progress as a pass blocker.
Let's be honest, this doesn't project as an elite unit. BUT...and here is where fantasy owners need to take note, it's also CLEARLY a better unit than the Chargers fielded in 2012. Rivers has a quick release and excellent pocket awareness. As long as the line gives him just a little bit of time in the pocket, his numbers should normalize back to prior levels.
- For all the talk of Rivers losing a step, his peripheral stats point to no skills degradation. He just had no time to throw last year coupled with a depleted receiving corps
- The new McCoy/Whisenhunt system is a better fit for the Chargers personnel
- The receiving options are deeper than last season, even with the loss of Danario Alexander
- The offensive line is better on paper, but the projected starters are still at or below NFL average in most cases
- If Ryan Mathews can't emerge the running game may not be productive enough to keep defenses honest
- Danario Alexander was the team's explosive "over the top" option and is lost for the season with a torn ACL
Philip Rivers is being drafted QB20 (142nd overall), meaning that fantasy owners expect Rivers to duplicate last year's numbers. It's that kind of overreaction to one difficult season that presents opportunity. Am I suggesting Rivers is going to bounce back into Top 10 contention? Probably not. But you don't need him to finish as a Top 10 passer to justify the draft choice. You can roster Rivers a round or two earlier than his ADP and I believe you'll end up with a serviceable fantasy QB2. Meanwhile while everyone else is clamoring for the likes of Jay Cutler and Eli Manning several rounds before, you can continue to build depth at the other skill positions. Rivers has question marks, most notably the state of the offensive line and the new coaching staff, but his resume is too impressive and last year's situation too much the anomaly to not take a flier on the Chargers franchise passer this year. Draft accordingly.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB
Rivers looks a lot worse now than he did two years ago, but it’s always difficult to separate the quarterback from the offense. He’s playing for a team that’s tried to build an offensive line in the cheapest way possible, and it’s starting to show. He’s lost two great running backs and watched his team replace them with a guy who can’t stay on the field and a guy who shouldn’t be on the field. His star tight end is showing the effects of age and numerous injuries over the last five years. And the receiver group is probably the least talented bunch he’s ever played with. I won’t rule out a Ken Anderson-like career rebound for Rivers in a couple of seasons, but from where I stand, San Diego needs upgrades on the offensive line, at wide receiver, and if Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews can’t stay healthy, just about everywhere else.
Of course, despite being a Rivers supporter, I’m not blind the other side of the coin. He was an extremely fortunate quarterback to play with Tomlinson, Sproles, Gates, and Jackson, along with a solid offensive line. But when he had that, he was a dominant quarterback, which is exactly what a great quarterback should be when surrounded with good weapons.
Chad Langager of Sporting Charts asks if Rivers can return to form?
From a player standpoint, the biggest positive would be a revamped offensive line including LT Max Starks and RT D.J. Fluker, which should better protect Rivers and improve the running game. If this goes to plan, it will be a big benefit to the team and hopefully see Rivers rebound.
These changes fill in a lot of necessary holes for the team but when looking at the team overall, they are far off from their dominant days in the AFC West with an ageing core and few elite offensive tools, which would be required to compete with the likes of the Denver Broncos.
But it wouldn’t be shocking to see Rivers bounce back to form with better protection, I’d guess that we see him fall back into the mid 6 range for ANY/A for the 2013 season. So for fantasy football players, he might be a great pickup in the later rounds.
While Rivers will likely never lift the Lombardi trophy and enter the territory of elite QBs, when the dust settles on Rivers career, it will likely be one in which he is remembered as being an underrated but excellent quarterback just not elite.