Faceoff: The Impact Of the Lockout
Clayton Gray: Assuming the lockout ends in the next few days, what will its impact be? Will free agents have a tough time assimilating into their new surroundings? Should we lower expectations for rookies? Will the impact be positionally dependent? Will it be team dependent?
Jason Wood: Your caveat that we'll be back to business in a few days is a HUGE factor in how we should approach this debate. Conceptually I was very much in the camp that this lockout was going to have a potentially massive impact league wide, both in terms of the quality of play, the tendency for players to get injured, and ultimately the competitiveness. But if we're back to business as usual right about the time training camps were supposed to start anyway? Then I think it won't be as big a deal as it might have been.
Let's be clear though, the lack of a normal offseason is going to make the teams undergoing major changes struggle, at least in the early going. There is no way you can convince me a team like the Carolina Panthers, who were going to struggle anyway, are going to be able to field a competitive team at the start. You've got a first time head coach with new coordinators trying to implement new schemes on both sides of the ball. You've also got a rookie QB that, at best, is a work in progress. On top of that the Panthers will have to be players in free agency to fill a few major holes.
Other teams that are going to be behind the 8-ball because of major changes include:
- Cincinnati Bengals -- The Bengals have changed offensive coordinators, and are likely grooming Andy Dalton to take over. Trying to acclimate a new QB, star rookie WR and offensive coordinator in a matter of weeks is a recipe for early struggles
- Cleveland Browns -- New head coach, new OC, new DC, and new offensive and defensive systems. That's a LOT to bite off in a shortened offseason
- Denver Broncos -- New head coach, new defensive system, an unsettled QB situation, major personnel questions up and down the depth chart
- San Francisco 49ers -- New head coach, new OC, new DC, unsettled QB situation, new offensive system (a return to the WCO)
- Tennessee Titans -- New head coach, new OC, new DC, undetermined QB situation
Jene Bramel: I don't think there's any question that there will the learning curve will get extended for the teams with major coaching and personnel changes. As Jason noted, those teams with a new playbook on either side of the ball usually have a period of adjustment. And that's with a full offseason of access to coaches and OTA reps. If you're installing a new system this year, offense or defense, you better have a group of very smart coaches and veteran players to pull it off quickly and successfully.
Since that's not likely to happen, you can expect slimmed down playbooks, more targeted game planning and probably some lopsided results early in the season. I think we'll see teams err on the side of veteran players and their own free agents over rookies, still developing young players and outside free agent signings in many cases.
I agree with Jason that there are clear areas that you'll want to be wary of when setting your draft boards. But there are also some situations that are going to create some nice buy low - sell high chances.
Teams with new passing offenses and/or new quarterbacks are likely to struggle. Cincinnati and San Francisco's new WCOs need reps to get the timing on those short pass routes right. I'd stay away from those passing offenses (with the possible exception of the tight ends) and think about moving Cedric Benson (assuming he re-signs) and Frank Gore up on your board a half tier. Both of those backs may be more heavily relied on early in the season.
Realize that it won't be just the rookies who struggle. Be careful targeting second and third year breakout players in the passing game that are missing valuable developmental time, especially those who didn't get many practice reps last year. This probably isn't the year to bet on Jerome Simpson or DHB. Even personal favorites like Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Crabtree are even riskier than they seem.
Be on the lookout for early season matchups that face defenses with new schemes or lots of new faces in the huddle. Though the 2009 Packers came out of the gates quickly under Dom Capers, there's nearly always a major learning curve for those teams adoption new schemes. The Browns, Texans, Broncos, Cowboys and Panthers may all get off to a slow start on defense. FBGs always cautions against relying too heavily on last year's numbers for SOS decisions, but it's especially true this year.
Matt Waldman: If you want to play it safe I'd follow which free agent veterans go to veteran teams with veteran quarterbacks and a reasonably strong supporting cast. If vets like Steve Smith, Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Mike Sims-Walker, Steve Breaston, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Willis McGahee land with teams such as Chicago, New England, or either New York team, then I would be optimistic about their ability to assimilate quickly. The reason is quarterback play and supporting talent. However, some of these players will end up with the Redksins, Broncos, Titans and Panthers - teams trying to build a new offense with likely QB transitions. I wouldn't invest heavily in these guys. A flier or two is ok, but consider who else you can choose when these players fall to a round where they might otherwise appear as a value play.
Jeff Pasquino: Rookies are going to struggle more than ever to acclimate to their first year in the NFL - at first. That will be the common mantra that you will here, and I will agree that rookie wideouts will struggle to get on the same page with the rest of their teammates. The only two first year wide receivers I would trust to be Top 36 fantasy producers this year are AJ Green and Julio Jones (Jones more than Green). Those guys have such a high level of talent as well as opportunity that they will be worth rostering. After those two I would stay away from all rookie receivers.
Running backs are a different breed, however, and while some rookies may be slow to get out of the 2011 gates, by season's end I expect at least five rookies to be big contributors to their offenses - if not more. We know that Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas will be big parts of the Saints and Dolphins offensive plans, but with injuries and the general trend towards two-back systems I would hardly be surprised to see eight or more rookies as startable RBs in the fantasy playoff season. Keep that in mind in the later part of your draft when you are looking for guys to draft with upside - and also when you have to make tough roster decisions mid-year for waiver wire pickups.
I will also be wary of free agents that get added to new systems unless they show that they "get it" quickly, or if they have a great match with their skills and the new offense and opportunities with that team. For example, Mike Sims-Walker going to Miami would not excite me as the Dolphins have QB issues with Chad Henne and Sims-Walker is a castoff from Jacksonville, a team hardly with strong WR depth. Veterans going from one team to another with similar systems will not scare me too much, however.
Simplified playbooks will be installed for many new coaching schemes, which will hurt them as they do not get many chances to add plays during the year. Most game plans in the NFL call upon plays learned in Training Camps. Slimming down the play call options will give defenses an edge as they will have a better shot at guessing what is coming from particular formations, which will severely hurt teams that cannot install their full offense.
Jeff Haseley: Some great comments so far. I agree with Jason that certain teams with new regimes will have a slower start than other teams that will be able to pick up where they left off. We could see more college-like scores where dominant teams consistently win by 20+ points. I also think we may see more injuries due to lack of conditioning or poor off season workouts. Such injuries include pulled hamstrings, calves and abdominal strains, etc. If there is any year to be more selective in choosing WRs, it's this year. WRs who have had very few injuries in their career (if any) should be targeted more so than a younger WR with high potential.
I have always said to choose WRs on teams with strong QBs, even if lower on the depth chart. Guys like Austin Collie, Miles Austin and Deion Branch were far from high round picks in fantasy drafts in the years they arrived on the scene, but they all have one thing in common - an elite QB on a strong offense. Building on what Matt (Waldman) said, if a potent offense with a highly productive QB receives a middle of the road veteran WR, take a chance on him being someone who could surprise. It happens all too often to ignore.
Mark Wimer: Jeff P. had great points about the likely fantasy production of rookie wide receivers. Outside of Julio Jones, I'm avoiding drafting any rookie wide receivers in redraft leagues this year.
I'm not very enamored of rookie running backs, either, due to the loss of OTAs and mini-camps this year, and due to their position on my draft board, guys like Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas aren't likely to be on my rosters this year, as other fantasy owners are more excited about their prospects than I am. My instinct is that though these touted rookie running backs may be strong in the second half of the season if their situation is right, I don't want to suffer through four-to-six regular season weeks with sub-par performances while the youngsters acclimate to the NFL in order to get that second-half production. The premium on guys like Ingram and Thomas is such that you have to pay an early, "need-them-productive-all-16-weeks" pick for their services. 0-4 or 1-5 is a big hole to climb out of, folks.
I disagree with Jene, though, about being conservative in targeting second- and third-year players who may be in a position to break out. With simplified playbooks most likely the norm on a lot of NFL offenses (the longer the work stoppage goes, the more likely teams will trim their playbooks), I think young guys who have had a year or two in any given system will have a much bigger edge over most "hot" rookies prospects that in a "normal" NFL calendar year. The second- and third-year guys have the advantage of knowing the bulk of a playbook (except on teams installing new systems - see Jason's commentary on that front) and the team's nomenclature. The young-but-not-rookie guys may actually benefit from having a streamlined offense to work through in camp.
At the end of my drafts this year, where in a "normal" year I might have rolled the dice on an enticing rookie prospect, this year I'll be targeting second- and third-year guys who have the talent and opportunity to move up the depth chart. Golden Tate is one of the guys in this situation that I like and who I am targeting in my drafts this season. To be clear, I'm not advocating spending early- or mid-round picks on unproven but talented second- and third-year prospects, but I am advocating tailoring your "flyer" picks to possible breakout players during 2011.
Regarding free agents, that analysis is going to be much more dependent on where any given player lands once free agency opens. DeAngelo Williams to Denver, for example, is a much more enticing landing spot for Williams than, for example, Williams-to-Washington. In Denver, there is head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (who was retained by Fox and who served as passing game coordinator (2007-08), quarterbacks coach (2002-08) and offensive assistant (2002) in Carolina under Fox before joining the Broncos). Williams' transition to Denver and the run-oriented Fox regime would seem to be a great fit, while a possible landing in the unsettled offensive landscape of Washington would be less exciting in fantasy terms - I expect the Washington offense to struggle in many games this season.
Cecil Lammey: Let's not go overboard here. Rookie minicamps and OTAs are about installation of the offense, not a forecast of what young players will do. Training camp is the 3rd, biggest, and most important part of the offseason. Years ago there was no such thing as OTAs or rookie minicamp and players did just fine.
It's football, not rocket science. Top rookies like Mark Ingram, Mikel LeShoure, Ryan Williams, A.J. Green, and Julio Jones will have no trouble adapting to the pro game because of missed time. Most of these guys have been working out with (and impressing) their veteran teammates in players only workouts. Those workouts also contain playbooks which were handed out when the lockout was briefly lifted during the first day of the draft.
Rookies will "get it" by the end of the season which is (drumroll please) the fantasy playoffs. As officer Barbrady says on South Park "nothing to see here people!"