The Gut Check No.297: Make or Break Questions

Waldman poses nine questions that could make or break your summer drafts.

Asking The Right Questions

Sometimes we're so busy trying to find the right answers that we miss the right questions. I'm reminded of this statement whenever I prepare to interview someone for a story.

It's natural to develop preconceived ideas of how a story will unfold based on the initial research before sitting down with the key people that will be involved in its telling. And there's nothing wrong with exploring these ideas. Where I see writers miss opportunities for richer information is when they ask a question based on these preconceived ideas and the interview subject doesn't answer the question the way the interviewer expected.

The reporter will display a lack of mental discipline, patience, and listening skills when he or she interrupts the subject to press the original line of questioning. In the process, the writer dictates the pace of the interview so much that it disrupts the subject's natural line of thought.

When this happens the writer can stifle the richness and detail of the answer as it would naturally unfold. The interview subject could have a tangential way of telling a story. Perhaps the subject is nervous and needs a little time to talk his or her way into the core of the answer. Maybe the person is beginning with important details that the interviewer will need but doesn't recognize until he asks a question later and the interviewee says, "I was beginning to explain this earlier . . . (when you cut me off with a different question)." 

Sometimes the person thinks of something else as he or she is attempting to answer the question and provides information that's even better than what the interviewer hoped to get from the original question. I love developing good questions, but sometimes it's more important to project stillness and patience in an interview so the subject can reveal himself. 

A good example is a player that I met at the Senior Bowl Media Night. Media Night is a cattle call; not a place where you're going to earn more than 10-15 minutes with a player in a one-on-one situation.

The man I'm referring to was playing jokester as I began my interview with Coastal Carolina's Lorenzo Taliaferro:

"Excuse me, I'd like to interview him first."

I didn't recognize the player. he had closed cropped hair and he sported a thin mustache and some chin fuzz, His skin was the shade of mocha. 

The player leaned across teh table towards Taliaferro holding his phone like a tape recorder. 

"Uh, hold on a second . . . this is, uh . . . my first time interviewing anyone. I can't seem to get this recorder to work, can you hep me? 

I take a seat next to Taliaferro and watch this player fumble around with his phone. I can appreciate football players making fun of the media . . . This mock malfunction of the recorder didn't dissuade this player-turned-intrepid-beat-reporter to furrow his brow and fire off a facetious, nonsenical question. 

"My first question is . . . How is it going to feel when you get on the field this Saturday, get the ball, square your opponent, and blast his ass?"

The combination of the tone, the facial expression, and words were perfect. I couldn't help laughing and his teammates were doubled over. 

"And what does 'blast his ass mean' anyway?," says the jokester with his followup. At this point, he leaned back in his chair and indicated that I had the next set of questions. 

As I prepped Taliaferro with the subject matter I'd be asking about for the next few minutes, this other player overheard me say the phrase, "deep, dark questions."

"You're going to ask him deep, dark questions," says this player whose identity was unknown to me. 

"No. I said, 'I'm not here to ask you any deep, dark questions."

"Oh, I was about to say you're trying to do that Oprah thing."

My first thought after he responded this way was to hit him up for an interview after I spoke with Taliaferro. The response going through my head was, "Hey, I can't do that Oprah voice thing she does when she's giving away free swag to her audience, but if you feel like talking like you're on Oprah, I'll be glad to ask the questions."  

It's clear this guy was intelligent, funny, and had something to say. However, I had a list of interviews to complete based on some story ideas that I had for my blog and this wasn't the time for me to go with the flow. 

I told Jene Bramel and Cecil Lammey about my interaction of the player. They asked me who it was, but I could only describe him as a bigger player that looked more like a small lineman or larger linebacker. A couple of weeks later, I saw him again telling the world that he is gay.

If Michael Sam's teammates knew for a year that he is gay and didn't break the story to the media then I doubt Sam would have decided to break this story to me in an airplane hanger in a room filled with reporters and players at the Senior Bowl. However, my instinct as a features writer was to speak more with this player. While I doubt he comes out to me, it was possible what I could have learned from a conversation with him would have been valuable later when he did make his announcement to the national media. 

Nine Questions That Could Make Or Break Your Drafts

Today I'm asking questions that may require the patience to wait at least the summer for an answer. However, it's the question that may help you decide whether it's worth investing a draft pick in these players or observe the answer unfold from afar. Depending on your choice to invest or to observe from afar, how you approach these questions could make or break your drafts. 

1. How will Steve Smith be used in Baltimore? The question derived from a preconceived notion is the agenda-setting query: "How much have Steve Smith's skills declined?" As a 35-year-old receiver heading into the season with a new team after his original team let him walk, it's easy to presume that Smith has lost something as a player. 

But making this presumption could be the wrong place to begin. It automatically devalues Smith's fantasy potential without fully examining the possibilities where Smith could be as valuable in 2014 as he was in 2012 (No.19 among WRs) or even 2013 (No.6).

The way the Ravens use Smith could make all the difference. If he's primarily a perimeter option then it could be reasonable that he'll earn similar stats as his 2013 season that made him the No.43 receiver in fantasy leagues. However, if he plays in the slot it could be a different story. 

Anquan Boldin was a no better than a fantasy WR3 during his three years in Baltimore, but last year in San Francisco the 33-year-old slot man was the No.15 WR in fantasy leagues--his best season in 5 years. 

Smith isn't a big slot receiver and maybe he's no longer fast enough to beat top cornerbacks on vertical routes. However, he's still fast enough to do work against lesser defensive backs.

He'll also have a lot more help. Remember, Smith hasn't had a quality receiver opposite him since Mushin Muhammad. Torrey Smith can take the top off any defense and the supporting cast of Marlon Brown, Owen Daniels, and Dennis Pitta is better than the Panthers' corps of skill players.

Give Smith room to roam or lesser defenders to face and it might not matter to his fantasy owners if he's not the same world-beater athlete he once was. The right answer to this question could make him a worthwhile investment regardless of that fact that he's no longer Mr. Everything in an offense.

I'll leave you with this question. Is Steve Smith's athleticism still on par with Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin, or even Jerricho Cotchery over the past 2-3 years? If so, usage in the offense will matter greatly. 

2. What does Russell Wilson's production look like last year with a 100 percent healthy deep threat? In 2012, Sidney Rice played 16 games, caught 50 passes for 748 yards, and scored 7 touchdowns. It was Rice's best year (No.29 among fantasy receivers) since his 1300-yard, 8-touchdown campaign in 2009 (No.8 among WRs) and it's no coincidence that it was Rice's first 16-game season since 2009. 

Percy Harvin's last 16-game season was 2011 when he had 138 total touches from scrimmage for 1309 yards and 8 scores. Harvin was the No.7 fantasy receiver that year. 

Rookie receiver Paul Richardson Jr dropped three passes out of 84 targets last year according to Seahawks GM John Schneider. I'm not sure that's correct, considering that the junior from Colorado caught 83 passes for 1343 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games, but it is a good indication why Schneider says Richwardso was as the offense for the Buffaloes. 

Russell Wilson was the No.9 fantasy quarterback last year without a big-play threat with remotely the size-speed-YAC combination of these three receivers. When Rice was healthy two years ago, Wilson was the No.2 fantasy quarterback down the stretch when Pete Carroll opened the offense for his rookie quarterback. 

The Seahawks still ran the ball, but they also torched teams early during this stretch and Wilson threw for 18 of his 26 touchdowns during his final 9 games. Marshawn Lynch was a top-five fantasy back. 

Peyton Manning has often had a top-10 fantasy running back despite lighting up fantasy leagues with his production. Michael Turner was a top-10 fantasy back for two of his final three years in Atlanta and Matt Ryan was a top-10 fantasy QB for all three of those years. 

The point: Let's not presume that Seattle is going to run to the detriment of the passing game. Perhaps, Seattle was limited by its weaponry last year. It did draft two notable receivers this year. Considering that Wilson was still a top-10 fantasy quarterback with limited weaponry and without his starting left tackle for half the year, it might be better to ask what could happen if his supporting cast of receivers and blndside protector are healthy?

3. What if Carson Palmer has a viable early-down ground game in Arizona? I've heard commentary about the Cardinals quarterback that he's "not like he used to be," but if he had a play-action game he could be an effective passer. When I look at Palmer's career, I notice that the only times that he was an effective fantasy passer were during years when he had a quality ground game. 

From 2005-2007, Palmer was a top-10 fantasy quarterback and Rudi Johnson was the starting runner during the QB's top-5 years (2005-2006). Kenny Watson was a top-20 fantasy runner in 2007. The next time Palmer was a fantasy QB1 was 2010 when Cedric Benson arrived in Cincinnati. 

All other years, Palmer's ground game struggled. Last year Palmer played behind a struggling offensive line and a ground game that had a bit of an identity crisis because Bruce Arians wasn't sold on using Andre Ellington as the lead back. 

The Cardinals left guard Johnathan Cooper returns from injury and Arians says he'll give Ellington a lot more touches. Guard play is a big part of a good ground game. If Arizona can create a believable run threat on first and second downs rather than relying solely on the running during passing situations with draws and delays, Palmer has two excellent receivers capable of generating big plays.  

Ellington had a healthy average per carry in every down and distance scenario, but 3rd/4th down and short. If he can maintain a high level of productivity with at least twice teh carries he earned last year, Palmer could have a lot more time to generate big plays and also make Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd good draft-day values.

4. Can you trust C.J. Spiller to stay healthy? I'm not normally one to raise the specter of health with a player unless the injury history is strong enough to question the player's ability to last a season (Darren McFadden). Spiller, who has only missed one game in three years, has a much better track record than McFadden. But there are enough indications that the Bills don't trust him as its offensive centerpiece. 

Spiller has never earned more than 250 touches in his NFL career, the Bills added Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon to the roster, and the Bills are in "wait-and-see" mode about a potential contract extension.

Spiller has had two effective seasons, but only one good season (2012) during his four-year career. It was the only year where he didn't have a leg or foot injury.

Although Spiller only missed one game at Clemson, Jon Gruden had concerns about Spiller's rate of injuries (cue to 0:55) that temporarily knocked the back from games. 

Spiller is a bright and shiny toy. When road conditions are perfect and the vehicle is in tip-top shape, Spiller is like a Formula One race car. However, the NFL is more like the Baja 1000. If Spiller can prove he's more than a temperamental race car the Bills and fantasy owners could have a running back about to hit his prime. 

5. Will the Carolina Panthers force-feed the ball to rookie WR Kelvin BenjaminSometimes I lean on the wrong questions when it comes to evaluating the immediate fantasy prospects of a rookie. My initial questions about rookies have to do with how complete their skills are when they enter the NFL.

In Benjamin's case, he's a raw player. He's slow off the line. The Seminoles protected him from defenses by aligning him in twin or trips sets and 3-5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He's not consistent at winning position and getting into optimal spots to catch the ball cleanly.

If the Panthers relied on its scouts then it already realizes these things about Benjamin, which means the team picked the rookie in the first round because they believe that he's good enough to help immediately and will continue to grow into the position. The question then becomes, "Will they force-feed Benjamin the ball?"

If Benjamin's mistakes don't discourage the Panthers from targeted him at least 8-12 times a game, he could earn production within the realm of 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. The NFL has a history of volume runners with low averages per carry, but the fantasy production was good enough to covet them. It's possible Benjamin could be the same for the receiver position. 

6. Can Peyton Manning distribute the ball well enough to support four top-20 players at receiver/tight end? Manning did it last year with Demaryius Thomas (No.2), Eric Decker (No.8), Wes Welker (No.20), and Julius Thomas (No.3). But it was Manning's best statistical season as a pro. 

In 2012, Manning supported Thomas (No.5), Decker (No.7), and Welker (12). In 2004, he had Marvin Harrison (No.5), Reggie Wayne (No.8), Brandon Stokley (No.11), Dallas Clark (No.11), and Marcus Pollard (No.15).

If he can't, then fantasy owners will likely win/lose with the Emmanuel Sanders/Wes Welker choice. The encouraging thing is that Manning has had three years--two in a row--where he has supported at least three quality fantasy starters.

If you take one of Sanders/Welker, understand that it's a risk-reward pick regardless of the ADP. Too many of these can leaving you holding on too long to under performing players in promising situations so choose wisely.

7. Is a Lumbar Discectomy the beginning of the end for Arian FosterOne abstract of a cohort study suggests it is not. Foster has played with injuries in the past, but from 2010-2012 he played in all but three games and he was a top-five runner each season. The question is whether the surgery to Foster's back will help him avoid some of his past hamstring issues or will it begin a cascade of pulls that keep Foster on the sidelines?

The Texans may lack the same passing game that it did with Matt Schaub in his prime, but Ryan Fitzpatrick has supported quality ground games in Buffalo. Foster is slated for a heavy workload in Bill O'Brien's offense and doctors cleared the runner to play in March

Before the injury, Foster was on his way to another 1000-yard season, but he only had 1 touchdown in 8 starts. Predicting touchdowns is dicey though. 

Unlike C.J. Spiller, Foster has played well with minor-to-moderate injuries. Like Spiller the ADP is high enough for Foster that it's a big loss for fantasy owners if he fails to stay healthy--especially when handcuff Andre Brown has a career filled with injury. 

8. Can Mike Munchak shape up this young, talented, but frequently banged-up, and underacheiving Steelers' offensive line?  Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams are talented players. Munchak is a proponent of the zone-blocking scheme and he loves to drill the hell out of his players to the point of perfection. 

If Munchak and his acolytes achieve their goal, Le'Veon Bell could become a top-five fantasy runner. Bell had to do a lot of work at the line of scrimmage to help create holes last year. If his teammates help him hit holes and then create at the second level of a defense, he'll perform to the Eddie George reference than Munchak dropped on Bell durring the offseason. 

Don't question Bell; he answered concerns about his short area quickness and agility. Monitor the offensive line--especially its health. If all's well, Bell and LaGarrette Blount could be one of the best--and few--starter-handcuff duos to acquire.

9. Is Robert Griffin about to experience a "second" rookie season? This question implies two divergent points: 1) Griffin rebounds to production similar to his rookie year and 2) The Washington quarterback has to adjust to the league all over again. New coach Jay Gruden has stated that he doesn't see the read-option as a bread-and-butter play for his offense; it's more of a constraint play to keep defenses off balance

Griffin will have to win more from the pocket. Last year the combination of the coaches, the offensive line, and Griffin's injury limited this passing offense. Depending on the play, you could blame any combination of these three components. 

Washington often used max protection schemes and still couldn't keep pressure away from Griffin. However, Griffin also missed receivers and played a reckless brand of football. 

Griffin has always had a tendency to stand in the pocket and take big hits once he made up his mind to deliver the ball. We're going to see more players where he's likely to get blasted. What will make the difference is how fast Griffin can read the field compared to last year--especially with more receivers working downfield in schemes that aren't max-protect. 

It's a legitimate concern to see a young quarterback go through multiple offensive changes early in his career. However, Griffin is a smart player and Mike Shanahan's system was simpler than many and he likely gave his quarterback less control to make decisions that other pros have. 

Griffin is the seventh passer leaving draft boards. Although Desean Jackson upgrades the receiving corps, is the line capable of protecting Girffin better than last year? Can Griffin make quick reads from the pocket? If the answers are "yes," and Griffin pays like a third-year starter, the quarterback's ADP will be worthwhile. 

However, if Griffin is limited as a runner in this offense it means he'll have to become a top-notch pocket passer to out-perform his value. The potential is there, but can he transition this fast? 

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