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Faceoff: Discussing Surrounding Talent

August 28th

Clayton Gray: Assuming a player is on the same team as last year, how important is a change in surrounding player talent when determining the player's 2012 prospects?

Matt Waldman: It can be a significant factor. The key is to understand how players fit into a team's scheme. If the scheme changes or a new group of players arrive in town, they can have skills that force opponents to account for what they do rather than force said player into a weak situation. For instance, an athletic linebacker without a big, bad War Daddy defensive tackle and good run defending defensive ends might not be able to roam sideline to sideline because he's too busy shedding linemen at the second level. Give that linebacker Haloti Ngata and a solid run defender like Brian Robison and he's in a better situation to roam sideline-to-sideline.

Give Tom Brady a field-stretching, glue-fingered, Matrix-contorting wide receiver like Brandon Lloyd and an offensive coordinator that helped the Patriots set passing records with a killer vertical passing game, and suddenly the tight end position or slot receiver position might not perform as a dominant, game-changing component of a fantasy team. Perhaps the running game also improves because teams might have to cheat its coverage to Brandon Lloyd and create a vulnerability to running plays that it didn't the year before.

There are countless examples of how this works to help or hurt players - especially along the offensive and defensive lines.

Andy Hicks: I have done studies on coaching changes, especially an offensive co-ordinator change for a player who performed well the previous year and that has a significant effect. Changes in surrounding talent have to have an impact as well, although change can come from many angles. The draft, free agency, a developing young player, a player that's lost a step etc. That's only at the same position, when this applies to an entire offense or even including defensive talent, all can impact that individual player.

Looking at last year's stats and plugging them into 2012 is a lazy way to prognosticate. I understand there needs to be a baseline, but no NFL roster carries the same roster and coaching staff from one season to the next. Everything has to be factored in when determing prospects for 2012.

Jeff Pasquino: This can mean quite a bit, especially for a wide receiver. Steve Smith in Carolina had a terrible season in 2010 and everyone thought he was done - but the issue was that his supporting cast was just terrible. He had chump change at quarterback (yes, you Jimmy Clausen) and the other wide receivers could not catch a cold, so defenses doubled him on every play and minimized him all season. Fast forward just 12 months and Cam Newton makes Steve Smith a Top 20 wide receiver once again. What happened? Well, Smith was always a good wide receiver - he was a Top 20 WR every year for the past seven seasons except for 2010 - it was the supporting cast.

Running backs matter less, but it still helps to have a legitimate offensive line and a passing game to keep defenses honest. Playing with Peyton Manning and his passing game probably gave Joseph Addai most of his career. Debates raged for years if Emmitt Smith was better than Barry Sanders - most could see Sanders as a better talent but Dallas had a much better supporting cast. Production is the outcome of both talent and opportunity - they combine in different ways, but neither one is the full measure of a fantasy player.

Mark Wimer: The surrounding talent is a big part of determining the fantasy value and potential upside for any given player. I'll throw out my favorite example of a 2012 player whose surrounding talent has changed significantly (to his detriment) - Matt Forte.

During 2011, Forte scored a mere three rushing TDs (compared to Marion Barber III's six rushing scores) and managed just one receiving TD (203/997/3 rushing with 52/490/1 receiving for Forte over 12 games played). Despite the down year, Forte started a contract renegotiation, through which he ultimately secured a new deal. Given his new deal, Forte should experience a resurgence this year, right?

Not so fast. During free agency (the period of uncertainty around Forte's 2012 status) the Bears brought in free agent Michael Bush from San Diego. Bush is a MUCH better receiver than Marion Barber (114/422/6 rushing with 5/50/0 receiving for Barber last year; 256/977/7 rushing with 37/418/1 receiving for Bush in Oakland last year) and equally capable as Barber in the goal-line back role.

SO what do we have going on in Chicago now? A situation where Forte's backup is at least as capable as a receiver out of the backfield, and Bush is a more proficient goal-line back. This is a running-back-by-committee waiting to happen, friends, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Bush end up with more fantasy points than Forte by the end of the year if Forte gets dinged up again during 2012. Bush could seize the starting job here and never look back. At the minimum, Bush will cannibalize most of the TD runs from Forte and probably also soak up most of the garbage-time carries when Chicago is blowing out their opponents.

I am avoiding Matt Forte in all my drafts this year due to the significant upgrade at backup running back up there in Chicago.