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Friday, November 2, 2012
Where are the elite QBs?

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I talked about LeSean McCoy, Philip Rivers, Jonathan Stewart, Titus Young, Cecil Shorts and the San Diego Chargers D/ST. So you won't find discussions of those players today in this column. (We also weighed in on guys whose fantasy playoff schedules we like and don't like.) Here are 10 other topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. The State of VBD. If you look at the raw fantasy point totals through Week 8, you'll see that quarterbacks represent 11 of the top 12 spots, with only Arian Foster mingling among the signal-callers. In addition, 16 of the first 19 leaders are QBs. There's a strong case to be made that ESPN's standard scoring gives too many points to quarterbacks, but that's neither here nor there. More importantly, this illustrates that raw fantasy point totals are a terrible way to evaluate different positions. Anyone who would take Carson Palmer (the No. 16 QB) over Victor Cruz (the No. 1 WR) should have his or her head examined, but Palmer leads in fantasy points 105-103.

Instead, I prefer to do some simple math and come up with interposition ranks in a system called Value-Based Drafting. (For a more rigorous definition of VBD, click here.) By comparing players at different positions to a baseline at each position, we're able to inject some sanity into the raw rankings. Here's the state of VBD through Week 8:

Note that I've done my comparisons based on fantasy points per games played to account for the fact that some of the players (Peterson, Ridley, Morris, Lynch, etc.) haven't had their bye week. Nor am I saying that the above 20 players represent the absolute optimal draft board if you could go back in time to this summer. VBD doesn't account for week-to-week variability so, for example, Doug Martin's relatively lousy first month may be offset by his explosion the past few weeks, but I'm not sure I feel comfortable saying a guy with those peaks and valleys is truly the No. 4 player in fantasy. (The same holds doubly true for Spiller at No. 6.) Over the course of a season, some of that variability gets ironed out, but VBD still isn't a particularly good metric for judging week-to-week safety.

What's most interesting is that the QB-heaviness in 2011's end-of-season VBD rolls isn't duplicated so far in 2012:

So we can officially declare last season's incredible emphasis on elite quarterbacks over, right? Not so fast, my friend.

2. Comparing Midseason VBDs. It's too simplistic to declare the polls closed. We can't conclude that 2011 was a total outlier in its VBD results. True, no season since 2002 (as far as my records go back) had seen even three quarterbacks finish in the VBD top 10, let alone five. But despite the VBD results outlined above, I'm not ready to say 2012 won't wind up with a similar QB-heaviness, even if I have my suspicions.

Why? Because of how the VBD numbers looked through Week 8 last season:

(Again, this in-progress VBD chart through Week 8 of 2011 is done on a per-team-game basis to account for players who hadn't yet had their bye.) Interesting, right? Two quarterbacks, two wide receivers and six running backs in the top 10, which makes the beginning of 2011 look a lot like the beginning of 2012 -- and like pretty much every season over the past decade. But as I've indicated, the end results for 2011 were a whole lot different:

What accounts for such big changes, changes that saw Brees and Brady leap into the elites and Stafford come from nowhere? You could argue it was late-season QB heroics, late-season defensive lapses or even running back injuries; Fred Jackson, Forte, McFadden and Bradshaw all lost major time in the second half of 2011.

Suffice it to say that heading into the NFL regular season's second half, the VBD story circa 2012 hasn't yet been written. I suspect by season's end we're not going to see the QB-heaviness that led many to believe drafting an elite quarterback was mandatory for 2012. (Deciding which elite quarterback turns out to have been problematic, considering 40 percent of last year's elites aren't sniffing the VBD top 20 at the moment. Et tu, Stafford and Newton?) My guess is that having guys like Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick hurt for some or all of 2011 cleaned out the QB middle class and made the baseline QB so mediocre that the elites really stood out. But that's not certain. If this year's elite running backs get hurt or this winter brings a flurry of 500-yard passing games from the best quarterbacks, perhaps 2012 will eventually look more like 2011 after all.

Robert Griffin
The Steelers held Robert Griffin III to his second-worst fantasy outing.

3. Is There a Blueprint to Stop Robert Griffin III? RG3 had a rough one Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as his 16-for-34 for 177 yards and one passing touchdown (to go with six carries for eight yards) translated to a mere 11 fantasy points. You've heard many commentators forgive Griffin for his inaccurate day because of wideout drops, and there were a few doozies. (Though it should be noted that the awful Leonard Hankerson drop as he walked into the end zone and the Dezmon Briscoe drop in the end zone came on the same drive and the Washington Redskins did score a touchdown on that series.) But the most alarming fantasy stat is RG3's rushing. Anyone who has been reading the Hard Count or listening to the Fantasy Underground knows I'm unimpressed with Griffin as a fantasy thrower -- not that he doesn't have a big arm or pretty good accuracy but the Shanahans simply aren't asking him to throw it down the field. Griffin is 23rd in average yards at the catch in 2012.

But the running had been so consistent. Take away his injury-shortened outing in Week 5 against the Atlanta Falcons and RG3 hadn't had fewer than eight carries or 36 yards in a game and had reached eight fantasy points with his legs only on five occasions. What I wanted to see reviewing last week's game tape was whether the Steelers did anything exotic to the Redskins offense. If they did, the concern would be that opposing defenses might then acquire a "book" on Griffin.

Fortunately for RG3's owners, that's not what I saw. The Steelers played their traditional 3-4, and I barely even noticed former sack artist James Harrison. Pittsburgh did not employ a spy linebacker or safety to keep Griffin in the pocket. In fact, the Steelers didn't blitz all that much; I counted 11 blitzes on RG3's 34 attempts. Sure, the Steelers did their thing of having a mess of guys standing around at the line of scrimmage, rushing some of them and dropping some into coverage, but extra men came about one-third of the time. Some of that is attributable to a big Pittsburgh lead, but that's the way I saw it early in the game too.

No, the two things the Steelers did better than Griffin's past opponents were 1) The defensive ends and outside linebackers stayed pretty true to their pass-rush lanes. There didn't seem to be a major effort to collapse the pocket, but rather they pushed outside upfield and stayed there. RG3 basically had one good run, in the third quarter, when he did got outside because LaMarr Woodley basically stood up instead of running forward, ceding the edge to Griffin for a seven-yard gain that could have netted more. And 2) When RG3 scrambled wide but stayed behind the line -- with the intention of keeping the pass alive -- Steelers defensive backs made orchestrated, decisive runs at him. There was no playing it halfway, trying to guard a wide receiver while containing the quarterback. These guys ran at Griffin hard and forced him to throw. Last week, RG3 didn't make them pay.

The good news is that this isn't a gimmicky formula. No spy, no major deviation from a normal Steelers game plan. Yes, opponents, including the Carolina Panthers this week, may try to prevent RG3 from roaming out wide a bit, but this was probably just one of those weeks. I'd expect Griffin to go right back to running excellence Sunday, which is why I left him at No. 3 in my QB ranks.

4. The Rise and Fall of Reggie Bush? After a Week 2 explosion against the Oakland Raiders, Bush was flying high. He had broken two long third-quarter runs for touchdowns and wound up with 197 yards from scrimmage. Since then, he has consistently found himself among the top-15-rated running backs in fantasy. But does he deserve it?

You can point to a deep leg bruise Bush suffered in Week 3 as a likely cause for this downturn, but it is a downturn. With Daniel Thomas healthy and apparently assuming the power-back role in the Miami Dolphins offense, you could argue that the only touchdowns Bush is likely to score are long-distance ones.

Dolphins observers had pointed to the bye week as a big deal for Bush, as the extra rest would do that injured leg wonders. So what did he look like in his return engagement against the New York Jets? Things were great early on. After a couple stuffs, he ripped off a 17-yarder that showed speed and nice downfield change of direction, albeit on a badly defended play. It was slim pickings for a while after that, and there were a few times where I saw Bush get near the edge and kind of pitter-patter his feet instead of cutting hard. I was ready to write that I'm concerned maybe his legs aren't at full strength, but then came his 15-yarder up 27-3 in the third quarter. He made a cut (not just a cut but a cut) to separate Antonio Cromartie from his cleats, and it became clear Bush still has his A-game available to him, at least at times.

I don't believe we can draw final conclusions from Week 8, because the Dolphins were smacking the Jets around and Bush didn't play again after losing a fumble with 5:37 left in the third. I can't say whether he might have seen a 29-touch workload like he did in Week 2 had the contest been closer, but I did see enough "vintage" running to believe he is still a fantasy starter, albeit a middling No. 2 RB. With Thomas playing the vulture role, Bush belongs about where we have been ranking him, though I'll keep an eye on the tape in the next couple of weeks to see if his production continues to belie his rank.

Eli Manning
The Giants may have a great record, but Eli Manning's fantasy numbers have been pretty disappointing.

5. Eli Manning's Fantasy Flops. Peruse your cable box some Sunday morning and you'll witness a plethora of talking heads going on about how Eli is the greatest fourth-quarter quarterback of his era, as though they've stumbled on Rosicrucian insights after poring over hours and hours of film. I don't want to take anything away from Manning's come-from-behind chops -- he's deadly when it's late and close -- but has anyone stopped to consider that part of the reason the Giants are often so close when it's late is that Eli isn't great in a game's first three quarters?

Manning has been a fantasy bust this season, a big one. He is the 14th-best quarterback in terms of fantasy points per game, one spot behind the beleaguered Michael Vick and three spots behind the embattled Cam Newton. In VBD terms, Eli is the No. 82 player in fantasy. His average draft position was 31st.

I'm sure Hakeem Nicks missing games and then not playing at full capacity has been a factor. Manning has made week-to-week stars out of guys like Domenik Hixon, Rueben Randle, Ramses Barden and Martellus Bennett, but none of those players has produced consistently and none is a sufficient deterrent for defenses that focus huge energy stopping Victor Cruz. Cruz has had a wonderful fantasy season but has fewer than 60 receiving yards in five of eight games, including three of his past four. He has just five fourth-quarter catches in his past four games. One of those was his miracle 77-yard score to beat the Redskins (one of the dumbest defensive plays of the season) and the others have gone for 20 combined yards.

Eli just hasn't played consistently well. His offensive line has done a terrific job in pass protection, as he has been sacked a league-low (among qualifiers) six times. Yet the big interception always seems like it's just around the corner -- as it's been through much of Manning's career. The dreadful, potentially game-losing pick against the Redskins. The hang-Cruz-out-to-dry pass late in the third quarter last week against the Dallas Cowboys that caused a pass to bounce into the arms of a defender. The three-INT, dig-my-own-grave mess against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 before all the heroics. Too many.

This was supposed to be the year that Eli finally exceeded his relatively pedestrian career-high 31 touchdowns, but he is on pace for 24. He has reached 16 interceptions in five of his past seven seasons and is on pace to do it again. He is still among the league leaders in passes that travel more than 10, 20 and 30 yards in the air, which creates the kind of weekly fantasy upside we like. And his defenders will point to the fact that his QB rating is fifth-best in the NFL in the fourth quarter this season. But look at that full story:

Like a lot of better quarterbacks, Manning is always one game away from another explosion. I'm not saying you drop the guy in a fantasy league. He could eviscerate what's been a pretty good Steelers D on Sunday and nobody would bat an eye. But if we're going to get all over Newton and Vick for being busts, we have to get all over Eli too.

Five In Brief

6. The New England Patriots Do Something About Their Secondary. You can accuse the Pats of being arrogant in their refusal to pay some of their proven veterans (Asante Samuel ring a bell?). You can castigate New England for firing blanks again and again on early defensive back draft picks. But at least Thursday's actions indicate it understands the depth of its secondary problems. The Pats dealt a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft for Aqib Talib and a seventh-rounder from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib has served three games of a suspension for using Adderall and will have to sit out Week 10 for the Patriots to complete his penalty. A former first-round pick, Talib has had flashes of brilliance in his five-year career, but he is a major character concern, as he has had numerous off-field incidents of fighting and a felony arrest on charges of firing a gun at his sister's boyfriend (though the charges were dropped earlier this year). As for Talib's play in 2012? The only strong memory I have of him came from Week 2, when Hakeem Nicks just dominated him. But ProFootballFocus has Talib ranked as its No. 19 CB this season. (A grain of salt: PFF has Devin McCourty ranked at No. 5, which I'm not sure how that's even possible.) This is an interesting, if desperate, move, and Talib (an impending free agent) will get a chance to rehab his image in a pennant race. Whether the Pats remain an elite opponent for your fantasy quarterback to face probably hangs in the balance.

7. Trent Richardson: Breakout Without Breakaway. As Richardson came out of the University of Alabama, his biggest boosters compared him to Adrian Peterson. He was a big fella at 230 pounds, but he could get to the outside and sprint away from people. I'm not here to disparage T-Rich's rookie year, which has been pretty good. He is on pace for 12 total touchdowns, and in Week 7, his 26-yard score on a first-quarter draw featured both a nice cut and withstanding a hit from Atari Bigby. It's not as if Richardson is playing behind an elite offensive line or with a passing game that scares many folks. I'm not saying he doesn't have breakaway speed; I just haven't seen it. His longest run of the season was a 32-yarder in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals on almost an identical play: a slow-developing draw where he made a pretty good cut, kind of just stayed away from everyone and made it to the end zone. Nothing electric, to be sure. On the season, exactly three of T-Rich's 127 runs have gone for 15 or more yards. That's BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Shonn Greene territory. Producing a career-best 122 yards rushing against the Chargers last week was strong and needed in a rain-soaked game. I like the kid. Let's just rein in the All Day comparisons, shall we? By the way, in his return from a torn ACL, Peterson has 13 runs of 15 yards or more.

8. Tony Romo Blows It For the Dallas Cowboys. I know some Cowboys fans who want Jason Garrett's head, and for many clock-management (and kicker-freezing) sins over the past couple of seasons, I can agree. But I'm not blaming the team's failure on a potential game-winning drive against the Giants last week on Garrett. Romo made back-to-back-to-back dreadful decisions on Dallas' second-to-last drive on second-, third- and fourth-and-1. First, he misses an open Jason Witten streaking to the sideline, leading him too far and causing Witten to absolutely crush a Fox sound man. Next, he doesn't see an open Miles Austin on a short crossing route that would have gotten the first down and instead throws a deep ball to Kevin Ogletree in the end zone, which Ogletree tries to grab with one hand for some reason. Finally, Romo doesn't see Austin pop open on a short stop route, instead locking on to a double-covered Witten and failing to throw the ball, instead running backward and basically tossing it away. The Cowboys almost got their miracle later as Dez Bryant made a circus catch with his fingers out of bounds, and maybe folks wanted Garrett to call running plays with only one yard to go for a first down. But there were easy plays for Romo to make to keep that drive going, and he didn't make them. I'm usually high on the pecking order of Romo apologists, but between his 9:13 TD/INT ratio and his two lost fumbles, my patience is wearing thin. If Eli has been shaky, Romo has been the Hindenburg.

9. Will Greg Olsen Pick Up the White Courtesy Phone? If you're ever getting anything out of Olsen, this would figure to be the game. By my metrics, the Redskins are the NFL's best matchup for an opposing tight end. Over the past five weeks, they've tacked 5.1 fantasy points onto the average production of the tight ends they've faced. In addition, Brandon LaFell suffered a concussion in Week 8 and is considered questionable for this matchup. While that may put Louis Murphy into the starting lineup, my supposition is that it puts Olsen deeper into the offensive game plan. If you've watched Panthers games this season, you've heard announcers grousing on multiple occasions that Olsen isn't involved enough, and indeed he is tied for 12th in TE targets. Last week against the Chicago Bears, I did like the fact that he got a fairly deep target in the game's first series on a play-action out-route, one he caught but couldn't quite drag his feet to stay in bounds. But his other four targets were shorties (caught three; one was picked on an awful throw by Newton). I bumped Olsen into my top 10 on news of LaFell's health, because I've seen him get downfield looks in other contests. His yards-at-the-catch average is 8.6, which is fourth among qualifying tight ends.

10. Carl Nicks Goes Down. I've been asked several times on Twitter (@CHarrisESPN) whether I think Doug Martin's fantasy stock will take a hit because of Nicks' season-ending toe injury. The truth is I'm not sure. Most of my readers know by now that I'm a major admirer of Martin's skill set, so it would be hypocritical to push the panic button because one of his offensive linemen is gone, even if it is a Pro Bowler who got $47.5 million as a free agent this winter. From what I've been able to get from the film, Nicks has played well even with his toe problem, but he hasn't been as flashy in his dominance as he was in his best days with the New Orleans Saints. I've read a couple of Bucs beat reporters who have said the feeling was that Nicks' effectiveness was declining even as Martin was submitting that incredible game last Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings. Ted Larsen will reportedly replace Nicks. I'd be lying if I said I knew anything about Larsen, but I'd certainly need to see Martin struggle to find holes for multiple weeks before I'd freak out. I guess that means while I'll have an eye open, I'm not considering this injury a reason to panic-sell on the rookie running back. Of course, if you can get a king's ransom for him after his 32-fantasy-point outing, I don't mind that either. As I say, I like Martin a lot, but I wouldn't have valued him as a top-10 fantasy running back before or after the Nicks injury.