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Friday, September 28, 2012
Signal-caller situations

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast, Field Yates and I discussed film on Mikel Leshoure, Michael Turner, Dez Bryant, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Tashard Choice, Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell. So while I just have so much to say about those dudes, you'll have to listen to the podcast to find out what I think. As promised, I'm not double-dipping on topics here in the Hard Count. So let's dig into some other stuff:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. I am worried about Robert Griffin III's spine. Discussing RG3 with Keith Lipscomb, Pierre Becquey and James Quintong this week, I mentioned that the rookie QB took so many shots in Week 3 that I feared for his well-being. I believe I also may have reenacted some of the hits, complete with sound effects, which inspired Keith to remind us of the old "NFL Blitz" video game. Remember that? Seven-on-seven, with defenders who could pick up ball carriers and perform flying suplexes and whirling elbow drops on them? And that (not quite literally) is what the Cincinnati Bengals did to RG3 last Sunday.

The first big shot he took came on Washington's third series (after two completely ineffective ones), when Michael Johnson thumped him on a fairly traditional drop-back pass, and Washington Redskins fans may proclaim that the theme behind all the punishment RG3 took in Week 3 was left tackle Trent Williams getting hurt and replacement Jordan Black getting dominated for most of the day. And indeed, on the very next two plays, Johnson sacked Griffin on regular old drop-backs, the second of which was clearly Black's fault. The real chaos didn't begin until there were four minutes left in the first half, and RG3 tried to run an option play, was met by Carlos Dunlap in the backfield and was pounded into the turf, losing a fumble in the process. It was a play where Griffin could easily have broken his collarbone, but it was just the beginning.

Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III may be the top player in fantasy so far this year, but he took a lot of shots against the Bengals.

Starting with the Redskins' first drive of the second half, you could see Kyle Shanahan falling in love with the option, little by little. RG3 had a red zone keeper where he got thrown out of bounds violently, but stood right back up. By the next series, it was basically the pistol offense, with Brandon Banks sometimes lining up as the option RB. And here's where the pounding began. Reggie Nelson got him on a keeper. Manny Lawson got him on an option pitch. Dunlap basically punched him in the chops on an option inside handoff. He took a play-action sack from Johnson and a big hit from Dunlap on a traditional drop-back. Then came the type of hit that can end a player's career, on a QB draw, where RG3 tried to get a first down and Rey Maualuga "NFL Blitzed" him into the turf. Oh, my. On a fourth-quarter pitchout to Banks, he got pummeled by Vontaze Burfict, and stayed down for a while. At this point, Cincinnati went up 14 points and for the rest of the game RG3 was in hurry-up mode, meaning the pistol stuff was out and he took regular drops. He took some pocket hits, and one massive (and illegal) shot on a scramble out of bounds. Overall, I counted 26 hits, and I was probably being charitable.

Listen, we're talking about a terrific player. He's brave. He's got a gun. He's probably the most elusive QB rusher in the NFL right now. He's fantasy's No. 1 player at the moment, and if he stays lucky, he could easily wind up being the fantasy MVP of 2012. But it's disconcerting that the Redskins seemingly can't move the ball when they run a "regular" offense, and only go on long drives when RG3 is putting his life on the line. And heck, the Bengals were probably a bit surprised at how "option-heavy" the Skins went in Week 3. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will not be surprised. I admit I'd find it very difficult to trade fantasy's top player right now. I might just be satisfied with what I get out of him, and damn the torpedoes. But from what I saw Sunday, the gutsiest, savviest fantasy owners among us might do well to see if they can get a king's ransom for RG3 right now.

2. What's up with the New Orleans Saints' offense? Drew Brees throws three TDs. The Saints build a 24-6 lead midway through the third quarter. And then, even better for fantasy, the game has the feel of an overtime shootout. Why, you'd expect the Saints' usual-suspect skill players to have berserk stats in Week 3's upset loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, right?

The most troubling thing going on in New Orleans from a fantasy perspective is that Sean Payton's absence appears to have created some kind of institutional amnesia. I know the Saints only had the ball for 26:01 (including overtime) and the Chiefs ran 92 offensive plays compared with 59 for the Saints. But I don't see any reason on the tape why Darren Sproles had only three targets, but was given seven carries (after having one in the Saints' first two games). Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas carried it six times and had six targets (in my opinion he should've had a TD reception, but it was overturned on what I thought was shaky replay evidence), while Mark Ingram barely played (12 total snaps, with five rushing attempts). Granted, Sproles took his first carry 47 yards -- a third-and-2 pitch left that the Saints blocked beautifully -- but weirdly it seemed that the team was trying to recapture the magic of that early play throughout the game, force-feeding Sproles more times than was healthy.

Marques Colston
Marques Colston probably deserves more looks than he's been getting so far this season.

The wideout weirdness is perhaps more explicable, but only perhaps. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Marques Colston played 34 snaps compared with 51 for Devery Henderson (Lance Moore had 49). Brees' pick -- which got the snowball rolling downhill toward the hellaciously blown lead -- came as a result of trying to force a pass into a double-covered Henderson. I know Colston has a foot injury, and perhaps that's what limited his participation Sunday. But why are the Saints not able to look at Henderson with objective eyeballs? Why is he the recipient of seven targets to Colston's four? I don't buy the argument that this is because Colston is the slot receiver, and teams are clamping down on him. That has been the case for years, and Colston has gotten his. Yes, the injury could be a factor. But why is Henderson -- a fast player with shaky hands and average route-running skills -- Colston's preferred fill-in?

Brees is sitting on a 54.7 percent completion rate after exceeding 70 percent in two of the past three years. Payton not being there hurts, and the offensive line isn't going like gangbusters. But Jimmy Graham is still around (four catches for 18 yards on eight targets last week, though fortunately one of those grabs went for a short TD), Colston is still around, Moore is a terrific little player, and Sproles is the most dangerous receiving back in the NFL. Devery Freakin' Henderson? Gah. Obviously I'm overreacting here. I rated Brees No. 1 among all fantasy QBs because you know he's going to sling it a ton, and you also assume that the game tape will wake up someone in the Big Easy, and they'll realize Sproles had three targets. Someone? Please?

3. Stick with Vick. In my Thursday chat, I got asked by dozens of folks whether they should bench Michael Vick and instead use insert mediocre QB name here. If you follow me at all, you know that I'm quite stubborn when it comes to benching stars who are off to slow starts, so you won't be surprised to discover that no, in fact, I don't think you should bench Vick. But let me try and quantify why.

No doubt, last week's result against the Arizona Cardinals was brutal. Vick took a few huge blind-side shots, lost two fumbles, went 17-of-37 for 217 yards with no picks or TDs while suffering through five sacks, and only ran it five times for 25 yards without getting in the end zone. But I think it's fair to say that in his time as the Philadelphia Eagles' starting QB, this kind of result is the exception, not the rule. Only five times in the 27 regular-season games since the beginning of the '10 season has Vick failed to record a rushing or passing TD. In that span, he has scored a rushing TD in 10 games (granted, eight of those came in his banner '10 campaign). He also has reached at least 50 yards rushing in 11 of those contests (and six of those came last season). In 17 of those 27 games, he has either thrown for 300 yards or rushed for 50, and that includes both Week 1 and Week 2 of '12. Do I think Vick is an elite thrower? I most certainly do not. But from a fantasy perspective, he makes up for that either with volume (witness 56 attempts Week 1 versus the Cleveland Browns) and/or big plays (witness seven pass plays of 20 yards or more in Week 2).

Let me break it down further, fantasy-wise. I'll remove the stats themselves, and give you, game-by-game, the fantasy points Vick produced with his arm and with his feet over the past two-plus seasons.

(Note that I'm attributing Vick's lost fumbles as demerits to his "rushing points," though obviously they often come as a result of passing.) That works out to about a 70/30 split, passing points to rushing points. And while that stat is obviously skewed because of nine rushing TDs in '10, if we look only at the past two seasons, it's still a 77/23 split. With Vick only having rushed for two TDs in the past two seasons combined, he has still averaged 3.7 fantasy points per game with his legs, fumbles included.

On average, even with what I consider an abnormally low number of rushing TDs over the past two years, Vick is putting nearly four points a game extra into your bottom line, points that Brees and Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford don't give you. Throw in the strong possibility of a rushing TD here and there, and Vick is actually safer in a bad start than your typical pocket passer. He's my No. 5 QB this week, and I doubt he's leaving my top 10 for as long as he's upright. Against a still-vulnerable New York Giants secondary, I'm starting him Sunday night.

4. A messy Giants backfield. When Andre Brown tallied 113 yards and two TDs on 20 carries last Thursday, he validated what many scouts saw in him coming out of North Carolina State, before he tore an Achilles. But he also potentially threw the Giants' backfield into a state of disarray. "After all," goes the logic, "Ahmad Bradshaw didn't do nearly so well in the season's first two games, so why shouldn't Brown get a continued chance to stake his claim to the starting gig?"

Andre Brown
Andre Brown appears to have played himself into his share of carries after putting up big numbers in place of Ahmad Bradshaw last week.

Truthfully, that might be what happens. It sounds as if the Giants enter Sunday night's contest in Philly with an open mind, ready to let Bradshaw and Brown duke it out with their effectiveness, to see if the job should be a 50/50 split, or if either man should take the lead. That seems a little unfair to Bradshaw, given how hard he has worked to overcome myriad injuries over the years, and because he did power in a TD in the opener against the Dallas Cowboys. But anyway, I think there's an assumption out there that the younger, fresher Brown is going to run away with this job. And I'm not so sure.

Listen, the dude did everything anyone could've asked of him as a replacement in Week 2 and a starter in Week 3, and he has made rookie David Wilson an afterthought at this point. But I don't want to make more of last Thursday's outing than it is. The Carolina Panthers' defense should be humiliated by its performance. Yes, Brown's stats look fine. But the stats don't do the situation justice. The number of times a Panthers defender was in position to tackle Brown and then simply … didn't? It boggles the mind. At 227 pounds, Brown is an upright, north-south, powerful back, but he's not Adrian Peterson. He's not Brandon Jacobs. This isn't a player who should be schooling tacklers like he did in that game. Did I see more wiggle from Brown last Thursday than the previous Sunday? I think I did. But trying to track the number of times he went almost untouched at the first level, I lost count. In the first quarter alone, he had three carries of 16 yards or longer where all he really had to do was run straight and let defenders fall off of him.

I'm not taking anything away from this kid, whom I put on my Super-Deep Sleeper list two years ago. I root for him like crazy, and I think he can be a somewhat above-average NFL running back. But when he's healthy, Bradshaw is the more talented player. He's the one who combines power, speed and quickness. Now, it's possible the Giants have noticed something we don't know yet, namely that Bradshaw isn't the same player this year, that his foot and ankle problems have caught up to him, and that he's no longer the explosive guy we remember. I'm open to that possibility. Plus, this week against a good Eagles run defense, I'm not jazzed about using either guy. But if I'm casting a vote for a favorite in this competition, continue to put me in Bradshaw's camp. I'm willing to have my mind changed by game tape, though.

5. VBD … The story so far. As I wrote this summer, Value-Based Drafting is best used as a retrospective tool. It's a way to evaluate different positions to discuss their relative worth, and I don't think it's particularly predictive, since you have to input likely-to-be-hellaciously-incorrect statistic projections before you can get forecasts out of it. Nevertheless, it's fun. Mostly I find it fun to find trends, or breaks from trends. Remember, after all, this was supposed to be the season that changed everything, that made it acceptable to draft quarterbacks in the first round. We're coming off a year where an unprecedented five QBs finished in the VBD top 10. And three games is a ludicrously small sample size, but I figured I'd take a look at VBD before the byes begin, while everyone is on a (relatively) level playing field. So here's the VBD top 20 through three weeks:

What do you know? There are eight RBs in the top 10, and only three QBs in the top 20. Not only that, but those three top QBs? None of them are the ones we suspected back in August. We've got no Aaron Rodgers, no Drew Brees, no Tom Brady, no Matthew Stafford and no Cam Newton! Now, this will change. I feel sure of it. Injuries will come (perhaps first and foremost to Mr. Griffin!), and fantasy point totals will spread further apart. But to me, the two most interesting facts here are:

1. The QBs may not spread as much as they did last year. Injuries robbed the position of some of its best second-tier talent, which meant the leaders outdid the "baseline" QB by an extraordinary amount. If that doesn't happen this year, the top five QBs won't all be inside the top 20 VBD, let alone the top 10.

2. Where are the tight ends? Remember how Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were mandatory picks in the top 20 this summer? Not so far. Graham is currently 45th in VBD and Gronk is 85th. Vernon Davis at 24th and Tony Gonzalez at 29th are the best so far.

Again: Ludicrously small sample size. Let's see how this progresses.

Five In Brief

6. Your weekly Chris Johnson update. The Tennessee Titans began their Week 3 overtime win by failing to give CJ0K a single carry on their first possession. When CJ finally did get looks toward the end of the first quarter, bam-bam-bam, three strong, aggressive, dare-I-say-vintage runs resulted in gains of four, four and 11 yards. (He broke tackles and everything!) If only the game could've ended there. On Johnson's first carry of the second quarter, the Titans pitched it left and promptly decided not to block DeAndre Levy. Minus-7. CJ got a couple targets but no more carries the rest of the half. He flashed again on an essentially unblocked, do-it-yourself 11-yard scamper early in the third quarter and then a tremendously agile cut through a small window for a 13-yarder late in that stanza. But after that, the Titans kept scoring defensive, special teams or bomb TDs, and they barely had the ball through the rest of regulation. And Johnson got two OT carries and unbelievably they each went for minus-8 yards, as the O-line once again decided not to block anyone. The net totals were 14 carries for 24 yards, but you're really looking at 11 for 47 with a few ludicrously bad line plays thrown in. What I mean to say is: Johnson actually played pretty well. But the line has been so bad, and the matchup this week against the Houston Texans figures to be so tough, you're forgiven for benching Johnson. Do not cut him.

7. Goofy Patriots game plans. In last week's Hard Count, I looked at the New England Patriots' offense and wondered about some of Josh McDaniels' strategic decisions. By way of update: Our long national Wes Welker nightmare is over, or at least on hold, as Welker played 71 snaps (the fact that Julian Edelman injured a hand helped) and produced a big game. Brandon Lloyd still didn't get much downfield work, which is frustrating. But worst of all, according to ESPN Boston, Stevan Ridley played 26 snaps, while Danny Woodhead played 51. Is that maddening, or what? Now, it's explicable. Woodhead is apparently the sole option the team trusts in its hurry-up offense. We were told by the game's broadcasters that this is because he's the team's best pass-protecting RB, and that trapped Ridley off the field. But Ridley has looked really good running the ball all year, and he was limited to 13 carries? And Woodhead had 15? Sorry, but that is a terrible mismanagement of resources. I'd be lying if I said I was sure that Ridley won't get Tom Brady sacked. But I very much hope that the Pats elect to find out this week in Buffalo. Under no circumstances should Woodhead's carries eclipse Ridley's again this year, unless Ridley is hurt.

8. My favorite defenses for fantasy rushers to face. I'll give the same caveat here as I did looking at VBD above: It's early. But I don't think it's too early to start getting a sense of what defenses can and can't do. Toward that end, I have a metric that I like quite a bit. It takes the fantasy points a defense allows to an opponent, and compares it to that opponent's average fantasy points. Essentially, what I want to see is how much better or worse a given defense is than the average defense. Is it perfect? Surely not. And the fact that we only have three data points per team makes it even more flawed. But it's a heck of a lot better than just looking at the schedule and saying, "Oh, boy, my RB is playing the Pittsburgh Steelers! I'm hosed!" By my calculations, here have been the five easiest defenses for opposing rushers to face so far this season: (1) New Orleans Saints, (2) Jacksonville Jaguars, (3) Carolina Panthers, (4) Tennessee Titans, (5) Indianapolis Colts. And from the other direction, here have been the five toughest: (1) Houston Texans, (2) San Francisco 49ers, (3) Minnesota Vikings, (4) Denver Broncos, (5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That last one is frankly stunning. The Bucs were easily the NFL's worst fantasy run defense by the end of last year, a white whale of a matchup for your playoff RB. But Greg Schiano has turned that around. So far this season, the Bucs are taking away 4.9 fantasy points from the average of the running backs they've faced.

9. My favorite defenses for fantasy passers and receivers to face. This metric of mine distinguishes between defensive friendliness to QBs and WRs. But there's clearly some overlap. The Titans, Redskins and Buffalo Bills each represent top-five matchups for both positions, while the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks have each been bottom-five matchups for both positions. Here are the full lists. The five easiest for opposing QBs: (1) Titans, (2) Oakland Raiders, (3) Redskins, (4) Bills, (5) Bengals. The five toughest for opposing QBs: (1) Bears, (2) Eagles, (3) Atlanta Falcons, (4) Cardinals, (5) Seahawks. The five easiest for opposing WRs: (1) Redskins, (2) Bills, (3) Buccaneers, (4) Colts, (5) Giants. And the five toughest for opposing WRs: (1) Cowboys, (2) Panthers, (3) Seahawks, (4) Bears, (5) St. Louis Rams.

10. This is why looking at strength of schedule before the season starts is dumb. No matter how hard I try, thousands of you still insist on spending your summer looking at NFL schedules and pretending you know what they mean. You rearrange your fantasy draft boards because you fear a RB who has to open the season facing what would've been a rough skein of defenses last season. You salivate over a QB who has what looks like a creampuff slate of opponents. And every year, you're proven wrong. This season is no exception. Look at the NFC West. Remember when you couldn't wait for your players to face the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams? Heck, it was a primary selling point for drafting 49ers players. And the fact that the AFC East was matched up against that "horrible division" was one more reason to be gaga over Patriots skill-position players. Oops. Now it's not so enticing when Reggie Bush and his wounded knee have to travel to Arizona, right? And Aaron Rodgers putting up 12 points in Seattle last Monday stung, yes? The fact is that before the season starts we don't know. We can't evaluate the toughness or ease of schedules. And making draft-day decisions based on schedules is a whopper of a mistake.