How scary is drafting Donald Driver this year?
The Green Bay Packers have one of the NFL's most exciting aerial attacks. Aaron Rodgers was clearly the best quarterback in fantasy in 2009, and he threw it enough to support two top-20 fantasy wideouts: Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. But while I've got Jennings ranked No. 9 on my receiver list for '10 (way up from his 20th-place finish last season), I only have Driver at No. 26, well below his No. 19 finish of last year. For much of '09, Driver was well ahead of Jennings in fantasy points, and many declared him Green Bay's No. 1 receiver. He wound up with exactly as many targets as Jennings (111) and two more receptions (70 to 68). If Rodgers is going to throw for another 4,500 yards or so, shouldn't Driver be a fantasy starter in all leagues?
I say no. Frankly, I'm souring on him even at No. 26.
It's a dangerous business, trying to forecast where the end is for a professional football player. Guess wrong, and you can miss out on great value. Let's face it: If you draft Driver in the sixth or seventh round of a 10-team draft this season and he plays like he did last year, you'll have made out like a bandit. But for me, the evidence is mounting that this could be his last stand.
First, we have to worry about his knee surgeries. Driver had both of his knees scoped in January, in order to free a damaged nerve and to add to joint flexibility. These were not ligament repairs, so it would be a mistake to go overboard worrying that his career will suddenly end because of these operations, but it's certainly not good. Driver couldn't run during minicamps, and didn't get back to contact drills until the beginning of August. Unfortunately, he injured a calf soon thereafter and missed another couple of weeks of training camp. On the positive side, Driver says he has less pain in his knees than he has had in years. On the negative side, the red flags are up that his joints are vulnerable.
Next comes Driver's age. He turned 35 in February. This is a dangerous age for wide receivers. Yes, Jerry Rice had three 1,000-yard seasons after he turned 35, including a couple of years in which he scored nine times. But Rice was a freak of nature. And yes, in recent years, Cris Carter and Terrell Owens turned in decent seasons at Driver's age. But Marvin Harrison, Andre Reed, Isaac Bruce and Art Monk are just at the top of the list of wideouts who suffered massive downturns at 35, downturns that caught their teams by surprise.
The Packers won't be caught by surprise. Sunny-eyed optimists will point to the fact that Green Bay just re-signed Driver to a two-year extension: a $5 million guaranteed roster bonus and an average of $4.5 million per year thereafter. But that salary and subsequent roster bonuses are 100 percent not guaranteed, meaning basically that the Packers just gave Driver a $5 million gold watch (nice work if you can get it) in exchange for the option of keeping him around for as long as they want. It will cost them nothing to cut him next year. And the Pack has been preparing for this eventuality for a while, drafting James Jones with a third-round pick in '07 and Jordy Nelson with a second-rounder in '08. These are high-upside players who are ready to step into larger roles right now.
I won't be shocked if Driver turns in a few nice games to start the season, making this preseason screed look rather silly. I can already read the comments: "You jerk, never doubt the power of the Lambeau Leap!" But I think the Packers are planning on easing Jones and/or Nelson into larger roles right away, both in order to keep Driver healthy and to get them ready for prime time. And I believe there's a better-than-even chance that Driver tweaks a knee or calf in the season's first month, and winds up being "questionable" for a good long while after that. (If I'm picking a deeper-league breakout guy between Jones and Nelson, I'm sticking with Jones; it seems he's the backup flanker -- Driver's position -- while Nelson is Jennings' backup at split end.)
No, Driver won't be on any of my teams this season. Maybe that's a decision I'll wind up regretting; after all, I had similar worries about Thomas Jones after he turned 30, and look at the age-30 and age-31 seasons he put together. But in general, fantasy owners rarely go broke betting against players entering their twilight years. And unfortunately, that's where Driver is.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.