The Weekly Gut Check No. 203 - Floating in Limbo: No Clarity for These Players
By Matt Waldman
August 27th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Floating in Limbo: No Clarity for These Players

Note: Before I get started, I want to thank Bob Henry for pointing out a few weeks ago that I should have credited Colin Dowling for his excellent Titans takes for the Footballguys Training Camp Reports that Bob spearheads. Colin, like a lot of folks around Footballguys, does great work that is sometimes unsung but vital beyond description.

Last Thursday as a guest on The Audible, Sigmund Bloom broached the topic of Jamaal Charles' draft value and he used Charles as an example to discuss the importance of clarity. As he went into more detail, I realized I had absolutely no clarity on Charles this year. When Bloom finished his take and asked me about the Kansas City runner, they only way I could respond was, "I have so little clarity on Charles that he's one of those players I hope I isn't an option I have to decide upon."

One of Bloom's followers on Twitter said he liked my response on the Charles question and it got me thinking about players and/or situations that just confuse me outright. Since most of you who read this column know that I generally have a pretty strong stance on most players, I thought it would make an interesting piece to examine those players where my takes are floating in limbo.

Last year, I vacillated about Cedric Benson and Vernon Davis - two players I cited as late-round values, but also as potential fantasy teases - and they were enormously successful fantasy performers. So I figure there's some value to doing a column on players I'm not sure about.

This column has always been the fantasy football equivalent of a workshop, laboratory, and therapist couch. I often work out my stuff on paper so you can see if anything I discuss resonates within you. I figure whether you agree or disagree, you'll at least have some sense of clarity once you finish reading.

Clarity...good concept Bloom!

Here are the players I have absolutely no clarity with regard to drafting them and I'm hoping either I gain some soon (as I write this) or I don't see them coming my way.

Quarterbacks

Joe Flacco

If you're extremely observant, you know I've lacked clarity on Flacco because this is probably the first time I've broached the topic of the Ravens starting quarterback all preseason. He had 3600 yards and nearly a 2-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio in his second year despite the fact that his one real threat at wide out was the crafty veteran Derrick Mason, whose ability to get deep is like a tightly guarded magic trick that astounds me every time I see him do it.

Flacco only had six games with at least 250 yards passing and most were against teams with strong passing offenses: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New England and Minnesota (weaklings Cleveland and Kansas City were the other two - 'nuff said).

Add Anquan Boldin to the mix and it seems like a no-brainer that Flacco is going to take another step toward fantasy prominence. When you watch some of the preseason action and see how the Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is using Mason and Boldin on the same side of the field to manipulate the secondary, there's a lot of promise for production.

I remember one particular play where Boldin was used to draw the defensive backs deep enough for Mason to cut underneath for a 20-yard gain and I thought, this one-two combo outside is going to give Flacco some easy 15-25 yard completions at least 3-4 times per game.

My concern is that Flacco's numbers will remain capped due to the strength of the running game. Neither Boldin nor Mason are great deep threats that command double coverage like Randy Moss or DeSean Jackson so I have concerns that we're looking at a passing game that will be good, but not great.

Flacco was the 17th-ranked fantasy QB last year without a Boldin-like presence opposite Mason, so I have to be optimistic about his chances of breaking into the top-12 at his position. Yet, I can't help but think that there are quarterbacks I have ranked around Flacco with more situational upside.

I'm beginning to think Flacco is the safest pick at his position from the remaining quarterbacks on the board if you have waited on the first two waves of quarterbacks to go, but I still can't shake the feeling that the ground game will still have too much prominence to make the Ravens quarterback no more than one or two spots better than where you picked him.

Phillip Rivers

I'm beginning to experience doubts about my stance that Rivers will have a down season with the loss of Vincent Jackson. Legedu Naanee and Malcolm Floyd have the physical talent and Rivers has always reminded me of a slightly more nimble Bernie Kosar; smart, accurate, and tough as nails. Kosar never had great receivers - although Webster Slaughter was underrated - but he had a Hall of Famer at tight end. Kosar posted some fantasy starter worthy seasons when healthy enough to go.

Watching Rivers carve up defensive backfields two weeks in a row during the preseason has given me some pause to think I've underestimated Rivers ability to make average talents of receiver produce at a high level. But what keeps me from reversing my stance on Rivers is the fact that we're talking about preseason games; there is no defensive game planning to scout what the offense is doing. When there is, I'm not sure Naanee or Floyd has what it takes to make up for what they lost in Jackson. It's possible, because Rivers has the kind of anticipating and accuracy to give these robust-sized targets the ability to get premium looks at the ball in tight coverage. But can these two receivers consistently make the right route adjustments and make the catch? Even if they do, I don't think that's the intended direction of this offense.

I believe Rivers has the ability to win tough games with second-half heroics, but I think Norv Turner got Ryan Mathews to provide the Chargers the ground game that will allow its quarterback to be more Troy Aikman than Steve Young when it comes to managing an offense.

Rivers had 10 games over 250 yards last year - only two of them came against teams with weak defenses against the run (Kansas City and Cleveland), the remaining majority where formidable opponents on the ground: Ravens, Jets, Cowboys, Dolphins, Bengals and Titans. If Mathews plays as well as I expect, Rivers won't be counted on for more than 200-220 yards through the air for most weeks - which gives him 3500-yard upside rather than 4200-yard upside (265 yards per game).

I don't think it's unrealistic for Mathews to account for at least 30-40 more yards per game on the ground than what San Diego was doing last year. LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 52 rushing yards per game last year. While I think the Jets new back is still a capable NFL starter behind a great offensive line, which the Jets might have, I don't think he was a fit for the Chargers line.

But Mathews has that kind of explosiveness to get through smaller holes or a grasp of a defender and consistently break a run 40-50 yards that Tomlinson recently lacks. If Mathews averages 90 yards per game, that's a 1400-yard season and that is not out of the realm of possibility if he earns 300 carries at a 4.6 yard-per-attempt clip. Based on Norv Turner's stated goals, it's more likelihood than possibility, which means Rivers will just need to be consistently efficient rather prolific.

It might be a good argument against Rivers but if he somehow slips to a spot where I normally wouldn't see him, then I might still have a quandary because his ability to read defenses and play aggressive but controlled football makes it difficult for me to ignore him altogether.

Running Backs

Jamaal Charles

Charles has dropped significantly in my rankings because of Todd Haley's reluctance to name him the starter. Charles reminds me of a Ferrari 458 Italia that I read about in the New York Times today. It's a car so impressive that the reviewer Lawrence Ulrich said, "the car's sensory experience is nearly unfathomable; barreling Woody Allen's Orgasmatron over Niagara Falls might get you close."

Charles skill to corner and accelerate might rival the 458 Italia, but I think there's a fear shared among Italian sports car owners and Charles' coach alike that both are high-end toys that might not be the most reliable options. It's beginning to look like Todd Haley and Tom Coughlin (who has had a similar quandary with Ahmad Bradshaw, but seems to be over it) are coaches that seem hesitant to use the sports cars over their respective pickup trucks.

What worries me is that Haley could be that guy with this great-looking, high-performing car that he likes to show off in the garage but he gets on edge when he takes it for a spin and then he makes every excuse in the book to keep it under wraps. If he truly doesn't give Charles 15-20 touches per game, we might discover that Haley is the most neurotic head coach in the NFL.

I think Charles' talent will eventually force Haley's hand, but if the head coach succeeds with his agenda of excuses to give Thomas Jones more initial opportunities then fantasy owners could be looking at an early-round pick who disappoints at the start of the season and puts them in a hole. It's the reason why I'm in limbo with the runner. I'd rather trade for him than draft him.

Pierre Thomas

I can never seem to pull the trigger on Thomas in my drafts on the rare occasions where it's a reasonable time to draft him. I love his yards per carry average and his tough running style. But I worry that he doesn't have upside.

Thomas never carried the ball more than 147 times in a season and he's never reached 40 receptions. On the other hand, Reggie Bush has never had a season with fewer than 40 receptions and he's had two seasons with more than 150 carries.

Like Reggie Bush, Thomas has yet to stay healthy and start a full season of games, and I think the reason Bush hasn't seen more carries has been due to his health and hesitance to take small creases in lieu of a potential big-play opportunity.

Thomas seems like a worker bee-cog in the Saints offense that the team is unwilling to recognize as a vital player from the standpoint of rewarding the fourth-year runner with more desirable contract. I think the Saints are waiting one more year to see if Bush turns the corner and becomes a Marshall Faulk-like weapon and I think Bush is finally a player worth taking again.

This situations looks like the makings of a 50/50-carry split for Thomas and Bush in 2010 and Bush gets the edge due to his prowess as a receiver to catch 60-70 balls. But without a viable third runner - don't get fooled with Ladell Betts; he's no Chester Taylor, at least no longer - if Bush succumbs to injury, Thomas could be in for a career year.

The problem I have drafting Thomas is that he always seems to fall to a spot where I'm relying upon him as a starter if I take him, but his upside depends on too many factors I want to take into account. I'd rather take a receiver, tight end, or quarterback that I can expect to deliver without ifs, ands, or buts.

What keeps me in limbo is the "but if Bush gets hurt," could be a compelling factor this year...

Wide Receivers

Hines Ward

The Pittsburgh offense provides a lot of reasons why Ward remains a strong fantasy pick in 2010. Opposing defenses are not going to respect Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon on remotely the same level as Ben Roethlisberger. Expect them to stack the box and dare the Steelers to move the ball through the air. When this happens, I also believe we'll see opposing defensive coordinators call blitzes to test the passing game's ability to adjust.

Leftwich might have the experience to make good line calls and Dixon has the legs to buy time and break the pocket, but unless Dr. Frankenstein's notes are in the basement of Three Rivers I don't think we're going to see one quarterback with the capability to consistently burn the blitz with the intermediate and deep passing game. What we should see is a lot of short passes to Ward, Rashard Mendenhall, and the tight ends (think the Ravens without Derrick Mason's magic tricks).

But will we really see Ward accumulate 10-12 catches for 100-120 yards in losing efforts every week for the first month of the season? It's possible with Atlanta, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Baltimore as the first four defenses the Steelers face. At least three of these teams can get pressure to the quarterback - enough pressure that Ward might be the quick dump off option.

Even if this happens, I don't see Pittsburgh being efficient in the red zone without the likes of Roethlisberger under center. The reason my takes on Ward swing like a pendulum is the fact that I think Ward is the type of player that a defense can take away if they know the quarterback lacks the maneuverability and accuracy to make them pay for it.

Blitz Leftwich up the middle and he'll take the hits to get the pass off, but he's already been bent every which way in his career; I don't think he has much more left to give. I also recall the Titans anticipating his snap count in the red zone during his brief stint with the Falcons. The Steelers interim QB is slow, plodding and predictable. Teams have exposed him before with quick blitzes and I think they will do it again.

Dixon has more of a fighting chance, but I worry his youth makes him less risk-averse. Will he try to make throws across his body to deep receivers that might look great in the preseason but won't work more than once or twice during the regular season? These are drive-ending throws that won't be made to Ward underneath, but to Wallace deep.

Even if Ward does see a lot of catches, I'm concerned they will go for gains of 6-8 yards on 2nd or 3rd and long situations that result in drives ending prematurely. Is Ward a PPR steal but a non-PPR liability? Will he be a safety blanket that gets your team off to a great start? Is the whole Ward's performance changing for the better or worse sans Roethlisberger over analysis?

Personally, I'm as confused about Ward now as I was before writing this column.

Lee Evans

I'm beginning to come to grips that my ranking of Evans as the 51st receiver heading into the fantasy season is partially due to my desire not to be faced with the prospect of counting on him in any capacity and it might not be a completely fair assessment.

If you go to his player page and check out the receivers he's grouped with according to ADP, I don't think there's any argument that he's the most talented combination of receiver and athlete in a group of Devin Aromashodu, Devin Hester, Jerricho Cotchery and Derrick Mason. The only player I would take over Evans hands-down is Mason, and that's only in a re-draft league.

The fact he has never missed a game is also encouraging. However, with the Bills offense as of late, his stats look more like he's missed half the season every other year. If the offense can buy Edwards enough time for Bills starter to gain confidence in his deep game, Evans could be in for a good year. But can you count on it? That 70-yard score in the preseason was a pretty pitch and catch, but it was a busted coverage.

What does encourage me is the big-play ability of C.J. Spiller. Although I'm not convinced Spiller is going to make a complete transition to the NFL as an every down back this year, if he can provide enough big plays from the backfield - and more importantly as a receiver - Evans might have a fighting chance.

My indecision is that I don't like betting against talent, which Evans has in abundance, but wide receivers aren't islands unto themselves.

What I need to remember, and why he's going to move up my board, is that two years ago with Edwards under center and without Terrell Owens, he was averaging 16 yards per catch and surpassed 60 receptions and 1000 yards. I still think Evans is more likely to be an up and down producer that I'd hate to count on as more than a bye-week starter on draft day, but I have to admit that I've been giving him short shrift.

Dallas Clark

He has a career-year in 2009 and as good as he is, I don't know if he would have attained 100 receptions, 1100 yards, and 10 scores if Anthony Gonzalez remained healthy. As good as Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie played, they were still facing a learning curve as starters. Although I'm not a believer that Gonzalez will even win one of the first three spots on the depth chart, I think Garcon and Collie progressed enough to even out the distribution of passes in 2010.

Clark had six regular season games with at least 70 yards receiving, but only one contest in the post season with that kind of production. As good as Clark is I don't think he's going to maintain the same level of productivity as last year without an injury to Reggie Wayne, Collie or Garcon.

I also think Jacob Tamme, the third-year player from Kentucky (who you should know by name if Clark gets hurt), has shown enough in the preseason to be a contributor in two-tight end sets when the season rolls around. We won't see a ton of those two-TE sets in this offense, but my point is that Tamme is good enough to be a top-12 fantasy performer at this position in this offense if he has to sub for Clark due to injury.

This leaves me with this conundrum: Do I take Clark as one of the top-three tight ends off the board because his downside is probably 60 catches, 700 yards, and 6 scores, which is still possibility top-five production, or do I bypass him for upside tight ends like Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis who are likely to maintain top billing in their offenses? Then there's Jermichael Finley and Jason Witten who, like Clark, are two studs in highly productive offenses.

There's no one I'd rather have throwing my receiver the football than Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. And until Jimmy Graham learns the position, we're not going to see the same kind of production from a tight end in New Orleans as we have from Indianapolis. What leaves me in limbo is Clark's upside to repeat last year's feat.

Hopefully my confusion gave you more clarity.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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