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Will Jason Campbell thrive in his first season with the Oakland Raiders?
I know some Washington Redskins fans who are currently living by the First Law of Sports Fandom: Defend guys when they wear your laundry, and trash 'em once they wear someone else's.
Jason Campbell, eternal fantasy tease, was a near-perpetual bone of contention during his three seasons as the starting quarterback in D.C. It seemed I was forever defending my relatively low ranking of Campbell at the beginnings of seasons, and fending off e-mail after e-mail on occasions when Campbell got off to strong fantasy starts. Remember 2008, when he went the first eight games without throwing an interception, and tossing eight touchdowns while he was as it? Oh, did I hear it then.
Of course, when he was with the Redskins, a bad turn was never far away for Campbell. He could look steady and trustworthy for long stretches, but it always seemed when the big moment came, he was sure to cough up the football. Campbell's always been a guy with tons of physical tools, and I don't think we can use the whole, "Look how many systems he's played in!" argument anymore. After his relatively big start in 2008, Campbell tossed five touchdowns and six interceptions the rest of the way. He had the best yardage total and highest completion percentage of his pro career in 2009, yet it still wasn't nearly enough, and he managed just a 20-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He finished the season as fantasy's No. 16 quarterback.
Now that Campbell plays for the Oakland Raiders, I've heard from many Skins fans: good riddance, he was always terrible, he's not a winner, he's stupid, he's inaccurate, and on and on. Maybe this opinion came because '09 was the last straw. Maybe. It's likelier, though, that Washington fans are simply happy to see Donovan McNabb -- clearly a better player than Campbell -- walk through that door, and want to divorce themselves from the past. But while I've never been a Campbell apologist, I feel it's time to come to his defense here in 2010. I actually kind of like him from a fantasy perspective this year. I think his stock has sunk too low.
Listen, the '09 Redskins offensive line was one of the worst in football. Chris Samuels got injured right away, Randy Thomas wasn't far behind, and the remaining guys couldn't run block or pass protect at all. That's not an excuse for Campbell, because I'm not sure the '10 Raiders O-line will be significantly better. But the fact is Campbell produced 20 touchdowns and 3,618 passing yards (and 236 rushing yards) behind that terrible line last year. He can give you some decent numbers even in life-threatening situations. And, to me, an even more important factor is the receiving corps he worked with last year. Santana Moss is on the back nine, but he's fine. Yet there wasn't another Redskins wideout who did anything for Campbell last season, and Chris Cooley got hurt. The 15 interceptions are nettlesome, yes, but under the circumstances, I'd argue 2009 represented pretty decent work for Campbell.
And here's where I think he and the Raiders are a better fit: There's no more Jim Zorn West Coast stuff for Campbell, and he'll be encouraged to throw the ball down the field, Raiders-style. Now, I'll admit that wasn't always a recipe for glory in D.C. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in '09 Campbell had the league's 16th-best passer rating on passes thrown between 21 and 30 yards (he was 12-for-28). But the fact is, his better statistical output in '09 can be traced to throwing the ball farther down the field. Take a look at the number of passes of varying lengths he attempted during the past two seasons (under Zorn):
On throws longer than 20 yards (in the air) last season, Campbell was 14-of-46 for 558 yards and two touchdowns. Compare that to 2008 (7-of-31 for 278 yards, 2 TDs) and you'll find the reason Campbell improved overall. Now look at the pass selection given to the Raiders' motley crew of quarterbacks last season:
And then compare the percentage of throws:
Maybe you can convince yourself that the reason Campbell threw it shorter so often is that he's a tentative player who checks down to secondary receivers too frequently (something I hear a lot from Skins fans circa '09). To that, I respond: JaMarcus Russell wasn't a tentative player? The simple fact is this season Campbell walks into an offense that will let him air it out more.
And this one last thing: I like Campbell's new receiving corps much more than I like the one he left behind. Moss is probably the best wideout on either team, but I think you can make a compelling case that the next three wide receivers you'd rather have are Raiders: Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Yes, DHB was a mess last year, but what are Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly if not messes, and at least DHB is only entering Year 2. In Schilens, Murphy and DHB, the Raiders have three freakish size/speed combo guys who won't make every catch, but will pull down several bomb touchdowns this season. Zach Miller is as good as Cooley. Darren McFadden is a better receiving back than anyone on the Redskins' roster. The aerial weapons in Oakland are, I think, way better.
So let's see same injury chances, better downfield scheme and better receiving weapons. To me, that means a healthy Campbell's floor is last year: roughly 3,800 total yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. And he can be better than that. No, I don't think the Raiders will be a playoff team, and no, I don't think Campbell suddenly reinvents himself as a Unitas-esque leader of men. But this is a very good situation for him. I have him ranked No. 18 among fantasy quarterbacks for the 2010 season, so I'm not trying to sell him as a star. But of the players outside the top 15 at his position, I give Campbell perhaps the best chance of shocking us all and winding up inside the top 10 by season's end. I think he makes for a fantasy backup with some surprising upside.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.